PhD Problems: Professional Development
Getting a doctorate is a personal growth process designed in the Middle Ages to help aspiring nobles and church officials become respected authorities and teachers. We don’t often remind ourselves of this, but it’s important, because it impacts how a PhD grows your career.
Doctoral studies are based on a feudal system of patronage, where you are tied in apprenticeship to one person, and they teach you in much the same way that craftsmen used to learn their trades from some respected guild master.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this model. Personal attention, for example, you could call an advantage. As far as disadvantages, here’s a big one: it can difficult for a PhD advisor to teach you how to be something other than who they have become, and in the current economics of academia, they do not get a lot of training in such teaching.
The upshot of this is that many students exit academia without ever having worked with their advisor on personal and professional development for anything other than an academic career. This is a real shame, because everyone in academia knows it cannot sustainably employ all of the PhD graduates it trains.
Those graduates are going out looking for jobs without a great sense of how they want to grow professionally. I run into a lot of these graduates in career advice seminars that I do. When I provide career advice, people often ask me how I “got” my job or how I ended up where I am.
The answer is that I learned who I needed to become in order to reach a certain goal, and then I sought out and took jobs that trained me to be that person. Instead of focusing on the day-to-day pros and cons of my work, I evaluated each position through the lens of one question: is this job going to help me become the next person I be in order to get closer to my goal? Yes, pay and benefits and all that matter — it’s hard to chase your dreams on an empty stomach — but I’ve been willing to work for a little less if it means an environment where my employer invests in my growth.
“Growth” there doesn’t just mean growth in one’s ability to get deliverable work done. I mean all the aspects of who a person is at work. I have avoided — or left — places that I thought would turn me into a toxic manager or encourage me to cut corners with integrity. I’ve gravitated to environments that tend to hire from within, where there is a strong and constructive accountability process, and where managers are trained to take the extra minute to help and employee find their way forward. These are the kinds of things that you should be thinking about, because they indicate a place that wants to help you grow professionally.
On the other hand, you need to be sure that you are growing in the “right” direction — the direction that you want. That part is something you need to assess for yourself. Other people can help guide you to what you want, but the bottom line is that there are basic decisions about your direction that only you can make. If you don’t have a sense of who you want to become in general, it will be hard for you to identify the people and organizations that can help you take the steps along your career journey.
One way to build that sense of who you want to become is something called an Individual Development Plan, or IDP. Some organizations use different names for this, but the concept is the same; it is a worksheet that assesses where you are now, where you would like to be by the time you fill out your next IDP, and the steps that you plan to take to make the trip between those two points. These plans are meant to be filled out as you traverse professional milestones, and the most frequent schedule that I’ve personally seen for their use is once every six months. More often, I’ve seen organizations that encourage or require them annually.
For examples of an IDP and a guide to what they are, I would recommend this UC Davis site that is geared to PhD students. I’ve done some volunteering for the UC Davis career program and am impressed with their career resources.
A lot of businesses make an IDP part of an annual performance review. While that may be a helpful context in which to do the exercise, it has some drawbacks. For example, it might feel more difficult to honestly record your full career aspirations on a permanent record that is kept by your employer. Beyond that, an IDP is not just for people who have an employer who requires one. Anyone can benefit from having a plan.
Plans are great — and I’m not someone who has a lot of respect for plans. Plans don’t survive contact with reality, and respecting them is a way to fail to adapt, which I consider a cardinal sin. However, I make a lot of plans. I make them not because I expect them to reflect events as they will really happen, but because they prepare me for what can happen. Having a plan is a way to judge the unexpected. A plan helps you be ready for the things that don’t happen according to plan, and respond to them, because you don’t need to think about the things you did plan for.
An IDP helps you process what you encounter through a lens of the goals you set forth, and understand how events can be incorporated into your life in a way that brings you closer to your goals. One of the great values that I find in an IDP is the ability to compare each new iteration to past versions. I like to see what I did and didn’t accomplish, and look at how my personal goals have changed. Just because you have a plan doesn’t mean you have to be bound by it. A plan guides you, but it’s you who has the executive power — NOT the plan.
The agency that you have over your plan is of extreme importance. An IDP is a great tool, but it can’t do much unless you have the right attitude about where you want to go and who you want to become. A plan to grow is useless if you are not honest with yourself about how you actually need to grow. A plan is also useless if you drop not take it seriously and internalize the principle of dedicating your every action to the goals you set out. Be realistic, and be committed.
You’re an astute reader, so you may be wondering whether it is wise to be focused on your personal development when you also have a team of coworkers to support. The fact is, that’s another important reason to have a good attitude and a good plan. You will develop a better plan if you think of it as a tool to help you help your team, rather than as a tool to help you get ahead of them. Furthermore, the ways that you treat, lead, and follow your teammates are things that you should work to develop as part of your plan.
The way you interact with others may feel like a “soft” skill, but it is one that is of vital importance to your personal development. It is harder to gain “hard” skills if no one wants to work with or teach you, or if you are too timid to reach out for help. It is also more difficult to get opportunities to use your hard skills if you don’t develop the people skills to become a desirable team member. Just because it is an “individual” development plan does not mean that other people should not be a part of it. Who you are to others is part of who you are.
Planning your interpersonal and personal professional develop are concepts that are so important that the National Institutes of Health — the biggest life sciences funding agency in the US — has started to advocate for the use of IDPs in graduate training and even require them for NIH-supported trainees in at least some cases. If your institution requires these, you may have been exposed to them, but that does not mean they have been taken seriously or done properly in a given institution. Even if you have done one before and didn’t get much out of it, consider revisiting it and learning more about how you can maximize the benefit you can obtain.
Personal development is no easy task when you make the transition from training in academia into being an economically productive worker in the world of business. Thankfully, businesses have been working on the problem of employee development for quite some time, and have put together many tools that you can learn and use to help you, including the IDP. If you seek out these tools and use them with a realistic and committed view to improvement, you can put yourself on a course that will be fulfilling in tangible, and intangible, ways.