Keeping Yourself Focused: The Benefits of Writing a Professional Development Plan

Keeping Yourself Focused: The Benefits of Writing a Professional Development Plan

By Brittany Schieler

One of my favorite television series of the early 2000’s was “Friday Night Lights.” On the show, a charismatic high school football coach dramatically recites the team’s motto before big moments: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” To this I day I still find myself repeating this mantra. The pithy saying has a lot of relevance beyond high school sports. For many of us, it is our passion, or “full hearts,” for the aquatic sciences that has brought us here in the first place. However, with the day-to-day stresses and demands of our graduate programs, tenure track journey, or other professional pursuits, it is easy to lose sight of our overall career goals and find ourselves feeling lost or unfocused. That is where a professional development plan (or a PDP) can help keep our eyes clear. In celebration of the new year and new decade, I decided to further explore the PDP in my newest blog post.  

At the beginning of my Science Communication Internship at ASLO, the Director of Communications and Science, Adrienne Sponberg, tasked me with writing a PDP. This would help ensure I got the most out of my experience and that both of our expectations were met. I had never written, or even heard of, a PDP before so I had no idea where to start. Enter the Google search. PDPs (or IPDPs- Individual Professional Development Plans- as they are often called) are very common in the business world and are tools used by employees and employers to help set learning goals and create roadmaps for professional training. Some of this seems obvious for academics, so why write it down? By formalizing goals in a written document you are not only making your employer or supervisor accountable to “hold up their end of the bargain,” you are also empowering yourself to take charge of your own career trajectory. The act of writing necessitates self-reflection and often will help us to confront tough choices and to prioritize. Perhaps even more practically, PDPs can be useful tools for preparing for job interviews, asking for recommendations from former supervisors, and writing cover letters and CVs. Not to mentionresearch has shown that the act of physically writing tasks down makes us more productive and effective at performing them¹. 

After writing a PDP for the internship, it occurred to me that they could also be extremely useful in all levels of the academic ladder, especially during graduate training. Ph.D. and Master’s programs require managing complex projects on strict timelines in collaboration with an advisor or even multiple advisors and committee members. This may also be the first time in a student’s education they are not following a syllabus crafted for them. Writing a PDP is quite like writing a syllabus for your own career: what skills should be acquired at the end of a given period of time, what are your learning objectives, what resources will be used to reach your goals, what finished products should you expect? A PDP is a step beyond the proposal for the research itself and forces us to make decisions about (or at least critically consider) our career goals and identify ways to achieve those goals in a timely manner. In addition, with the increasing demands on our mentors’ time, a thoughtfully prepared PDP can help make one-on-one meetings with them more productive and positive. 

After doing research on what makes a good PDP, as well as working on my own, here are some guidelines for writing yours: 

 1. Think of your PDP as your professional story. A common way to structure the PDP is to tell your story. Include your background, current strengths and weaknesses, and short-term (current) and long-term (future) goals. A recent article in Harvard Business Review calls this idea “from/to statements.” 

2. Write it down, even if it’s obvious. Think of your PDP as your professional development “lab notebook.” Just because it is obvious to you now, does not mean it will be as obvious down the line. In addition, writing down your goalsaccomplishments, and learned skills will help you visualize your career roadmap in new ways. 

3. Be specific. Try to be as specific as possible about your learning goals and desired outcomes. For example, instead of listing “Learn molecular biology techniques,” you may want to say “Learn how to perform PCR” or “Become proficient in epifluorescence microscopy.” Instead of “Learn social media platforms,” how about “Learn to use Twitter to promote my organization’s new funding opportunity.” Also include specific time frames in which you hope for goals to be completed. Many proponents of PDPs call this the SMART strategy, meaning goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound 

4. List your “deliverables.” It’s a good idea to include specific “deliverablesso that you can keep track of tangible outputs (manuscripts, datasets, conferences presented at, thesis chapters) produced and ones that are in progress. This is a good way to objectively determine whether learning and career goals are being met. 

5. Revisit and revise often. One of the most important aspects of a PDP is that it is a “living document.” This is a piece of writing intended to be routinely revisited, revised, and updated as goals are met or professional objectives change. Your career trajectory and priorities are not static, and neither should your PDP. 

6. Request Feedback. Ask your supervisor to read it and give you honest and constructive feedback often. It is also very helpful to identify and interview professionals in positions to which you aspire in order to develop your roadmap.  

7. Hold yourself accountableFinally, the benefits of a PDP are only as strong as your commitment to stick to it. 

The concept of a PDP does not have to be applied to your professional life only. At least for me personally, I know that non-professional life goals (that language I want to learn, the blank canvas I’ve been meaning to get to) often get lost in the demands of my professional pursuits (and more recently, the demands of my toddler). However, all of these other things are an important part of who we are as happy, well-rounded, and fulfilled human beings! By writing a personal  development plan you can reap all the goal-realizing benefits of a PDP for your personal life. 

Here are a few additional resources for writing a PDP and forming career goals: 

  1. L&O Bulletin  Article on PDPs by former ASLO SciComm Interns Kylla Marie Benes and Britta Voss
  2. AAAS myIDP - a wonderful resource to help you assess your science career interests and set goals 
  3. Career Development: A Plan for Action by Julie Gould in Nature 

Happy planning! 


¹Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011, June 20). Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024192 (described in The Guardian Article The psychology of the to-do list – why your brain loves ordered tasks by Louise Chunn

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