How to work out what you want to be when you grow up – An intro to Individual Development Plans

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What are you going to be when you grow up?

We are already adults, yet the majority of postdocs and PhD students are likely plagued with this simple question that we have been asked since we could talk.

As scientists, we have a large number of scientific, analytical and managerial skills that benefit a wide array of jobs. You possess many transferable skills (such as project and time management, risk analysis and conflict resolution) that you may not even be aware of. In the haze of all the possibility – how do you know what is the best career for you?

One strategy is to create a list of must haves and deal breakers and try to identify career paths that fit what you are looking for. Do you want to work 9-5? Perhaps consulting is not for you. Do you need financial stability? An academic career may make this more difficult (although definitely not impossible, and once you gain tenure, faculty positions are arguably one of the most stable jobs).

Another very useful tool is to use an Independent Development Plan. Science Careers has a fantastic one that is free to use upon registration. It is a three part assessment tool that analyzes your skills, interests and values to identify career paths that align with all of these areas. The hardest part of the process is being completely honest with yourself about your responses – the tool does a better job if you range your responses from 1 to 5, rather than answering everything as a 5 or “strongly agree”.

These are my top 10 results from the Science Careers IDP tool:

One thing you will notice is that my percentage skills match for all paths was between 93% and 87%, pretty high! This means I have the skills to do all of these jobs, however – would I like doing them? Thats where the Interests match comes in. It tries to align what you enjoy doing and your requirements for a content life with what jobs require of you and can also give you. My percentage match based on my interests varied much more than my skills match (I did pull out the spreadsheets and crunch the numbers!). This means you shouldn’t necessarily be looking at jobs just because your skills matches what they require. You have a much better chance being successful in a career if you are happy doing it!

Tools like an independent development plan are just the first step to your dream career. Once you have identified where you could be looking, you then need to head out into the world, network, do informational interviews and really find out what the job is about. Does it really match your interests? If not, head back and try researching a different career path. By doing these informational interviews and networking you are also expanding your own network of people, one of whom may know of a job that might be perfect fit for you.

It is definitely a long road, but as seasoned researchers, our major skill is to find information and critically evaluate all options. Why only research your lab work? Why not apply your research skills to finding the best career that aligns with your goals and interests?

Good luck!

Cover Image By Afirsichbaum (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

First published on Adage of Ania