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Academic Careers

Individual Professional Development Plans for Careers in and Outside Academia

There was, apparently, a brief moment in history when almost everyone who entered a Ph.D. program ended up in a faculty position shortly after graduation. That moment is long past: Today it takes years of postdoctoral experience before most Ph.D.s can compete for a faculty job, and those jobs are now so scarce that the majority of recently graduated scientists end up in careers off the faculty track.
This realization has spurred several national, institutional, and grassroots efforts to help young scientists develop careers, both inside and outside academia. One approach to the problem is online tools to help scientists assess their skills and career goals and develop an individual professional development plan. For example, in 2009 the U.S. National Postdoctoral Association released the NPA Postdoctoral Core Competencies Toolkit “as: (1) a basis for self-evaluation by postdoctoral scholars and (2) a basis for developing training opportunities that can be evaluated by mentors, institutions, and other advisors,” says the NPA Web site.
Then in 2011 the U.K. organization Vitae launched The Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF), which “articulates the knowledge, behaviors and attributes of successful researchers and encourages all researchers to realize their potential,” Vitae says. The organization, which receives support from Research Councils UK (RCUK), works towards promoting the personal, professional, and career development of research students and staff members at research institutions. Last week, at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference 2012 in Manchester, Vitae entered a new era by releasing a Web application called the RDF Professional Development Planner, which, Vitae announced in a press release, is aimed at helping researchers use the RDF as a basis “to identify their expertise and capabilities, plan their professional development, set personal targets, and demonstrate evidence of success.” The online planner, which replaces Vitae’s free but less user-friendly Excel RDF Planner Prototype, will also signpost training and development resources offered to researchers in U.K. institutions. The RDF planner will be available by institutional subscription; Vitae plans to offer individual subscriptions later this year. Meanwhile, Vitae is inviting everyone interested to take part in their pilot phase

Vitae’s initiative is embedded in broader, European efforts to promote researchers’ skill development and professionalize research careers. In 2005, The European Charter for Researchers was instrumental in laying out the basic responsibilities and entitlements of both researchers and their host or funding institutions, with a particular focus on researchers’ career development. Meanwhile, the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers set out guidelines for a fairer and more transparent hiring of scientists. To encourage the implementation of those core principles, the European Commission launched in 2008 a new initiative called the “Human Resources Strategy for Researchers Incorporating the Charter & Code” in which those institutions that draw up a sound action plan are granted an “HR Excellence in Research” logo and are up for regular review regarding progress. 
During the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference, the European Science Foundation released a new report looking into the feasibility of extending the use of the Vitae Researcher Development Framework to all of Europe. “The report detailed that there are big differences between countries in their overall awareness and readiness to engage and invest into the general development and career development of researchers,” the announcement states. “However, there is a real demand among researchers for a more structured approach towards researcher´s [sic] professional development and active career planning.”
Vitae’s and other initiatives to support professional development planning are targeted mainly toward research careers. Yet, many Ph.D. scientists will find careers outside academia and outside research. For those people, self-assessment and individual career plans are even more important for achieving successful and fulfilling careers, because the path to all those alternatives to the research track are less well blazed and less well known. 
Last week, Science Careers and partners contributed to plugging the gap by releasing a free Web-based career-planning tool called myIDP to help scientists consider their skills, interests, and values and to match them against the requirements of 20 different career paths, 16 of them non-traditional. The myIDP Web app was developed and built by the AAAS Information Technology department, in close consultation with partners from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (the organization that first came up with the idea of a scientific IDP), the University of California, San Francisco, and the Medical College of Wisconsin. Hosted by Science Careers, myIDP is truly a collaborative endeavor.
Whether you are committed to pursuing a career in academia or are contemplating a career in a non-traditional setting, it has become clear–and many institutions have acknowledged–that it’s no longer sufficient to wait until the day of your graduation to begin to decide what’s next.