Individual Development Plans for NIH-supported Trainees


We continue to make progress on implementing the recommendations proposed by the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) working group which studied the biomedical research workforce. We have just posted a Notice in the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts announcing that NIH encourages grantees to develop an institutional policy requiring an Individual Development Plan (IDP) for every graduate student and postdoc supported by any NIH grant, regardless of the type of NIH grant that is used for support. We have gone further by encouraging grantee institutions to describe the use of the IDP in the Research Performance Progress report (RPPR) for all projects reporting graduate student and/or postdoctoral researchers. Instructions for reporting IDPs in the RPPR will be available on October 18, 2013, but we understand that it will take time to develop and implement IDP policies. So, we are encouraging institutions to begin reporting IDPs in the RPPR by October 1, 2014. Institutions that have institutional IDP policies already in place are encouraged to begin reporting as soon as possible after instructions appear in the RPPR.

We do not expect to collect the actual IDPs as we are asking our grantee institutions to put in place the type of IDP that works for their students and postdocs and their internal administrative systems. While this is an expectation on our part and not a requirement, we are following the community’s lead fostering early engagement in career planning for our talented workforce.

To give you an idea of how this all came about, the ACD working group recommended establishing IDPs for postdocs receiving any form of NIH support (individual fellowships, support off an R01, etc.). We felt that graduate students also would benefit from developing IDPs with their mentors so decided to expand implementation of this recommendation to include both groups (as described in the plan I presented to the ACD in December).

In addition, we posted a Request for Information (RFI) seeking input on several of the recommendations including the one calling for IDPs. The commenters nearly unanimously agreed with the implementation plan and thought that IDPs should be used to assist in tailoring individual training as part of the overall mentoring process. Many stressed that active and engaged faculty participation is essential for IDPs to be effective.

I agree with the commenters completely. IDPs are a useful tool to help graduate students and postdocs identify their career goals and what they need to accomplish to achieve those goals. Perhaps more importantly, the IDP process can facilitate communication between faculty mentors and their trainees. However, IDPs will be meaningful only if mentors and mentees make full use of their potential as career development tools. My hope is that institutions and faculty will join NIH as full partners in the effort to better prepare graduate students and postdocs for their chosen careers, and that IDPs will be embraced by faculty as an important component of career preparation for the next generations of biomedical researchers. We plan on monitoring the outcome of this effort, so stayed tuned for more on the subject as this unfolds.


  1. Will the NIH consider any other career goal besides biomedical researcher as an acceptable career goal for an IDP? The biomedical workforce report highlighted that in 2008 a significant number of trainees (31%) are taking non-research positions (non science =13%, non-research science = 18%) not to mention that the category for “academia” in the pie chart could contain a significant number of teaching only type positions that do not involve research, which could bring the post-training non-research career tract to more than 1/3 of all the trainees. As this data was from 2008, these numbers may also be significantly different now than they were 5 years ago in 2008, potentially with even higher proportions of trainees obtaining non-research positions as industry has scaled back hiring during the recession and flat government budgets have led to less academic research positions available. If the NIH considers a wide-range of career goals as acceptable (including non-research careers), then “encouraging” IDP adoption at every institute is very worthwhile and might even help lead to an overall culture change where PIs recognize that a trainee can be successful even if they do not become a PI. Also, is the plan for “encourage” to eventually become “required”, because if not then I fear this will have very little impact.

    1. IDPs will be reviewed by the grantee institutions. NIH certainly supports the idea of career goals outside of biomedical researcher. If you have not read it, you may be interested in my post, Diversifying the Training Experiences of the Biomedical Research Workforce.

      For now we will strongly encourage the use of IDPs. There was strong concurrence across the working group about the importance of IDPs, and I am hoping other leaders in the grantee community will feel the same way.

      1. Based on current funding trends, most (90%+) biology PhDs graduating now will not hold a faculty job anywhere (in US, EU, Japan or emerging countries, funding is flat globally, that means very few positions anywhere). If this is reflected in their IDPs, they should spend time and effort to develop abilityies for non-PI destined jobs instead spending hours on bench, trying to get a good pub for a tt position. If the IDP revealed a conflict of interest between PhD students and PostDocs with PI, which side is NIH on?

    2. I am at an institution that has mandated IDPs for some years. I applaud NIH on getting it about right in dealing with pressures from different directions. At an implementation level, leaving it as “encouraged” and optional, and above all keeping the matter simple – NOT collecting forms – will avoid wasting further taxpayer money and further frustrations for trainees. I hope NIH will also encourage institutions to keep the concept a much simpler form and process than what my institution has. The earlier postings express understandable concerns and frustrations, and we’d all like to believe in magic, but based on all too much direct experience I can assure you that mandatory IDPs will not help the problems significantly.

  2. Will the NIH force grantees to make IDPs? My mentor first refused to make one for me, and when he later decided it was ‘his idea’ to make one, I made one, he refuses to talk to me about it and he refuses to answer why he has given away or failed to submit papers on my IDP. Until you revoke grants for PIs who don’t treat their mentees right, this is a wasted gesture.

    1. There seems to be a misunderstanding about the nature of IDPs. IDPs are primarily the responsibility of the the individual: Your mentor/adviser doesn’t make one for you. However, it is VERY beneficial to have your mentor/adviser work with you in developing your IDP.

      Jim Austin, Editor
      Science Careers

  3. Wow, if its unanimous let me be the first to say it’s a complete waste of time. Including mine, the students and postdocs, and the admin that has to deal with it. A sample IDP:

    “The student will work hard, do good research that gets published, get a job continuing to do research if it works out, if not will work hard at whatever the next interesting thing that comes along is that pays the bills.”

    1. If that is all you come up with in terms of an IDP, then I agree its a waste of time. But if you have so little creativity you will never get an NIH grant anyhow and its a moot point. Or are you more thoughtful when the subject is your grant rather than your trainees??

  4. PIs are already very burdened and do not need another administrative requirement. This will be yet another reason to hire PostDocs or staff instead of graduate students.

    Of course we all know that the major problem for biomedical is the difficulty in getting funding. Paylines are low and budgets are cut every year. This makes the whole environment very unstable. I am afraid to hire graduate students because I can’t guarantee I can continue to pay them. I don’t have much time to spend on the ones I do have because I am so busy writing grants and complying with all the regulatory requirements from NIH and my institution. My students see what I go through and decide to go to industry or non-research jobs, and who can blame them.

    1. To allow awardee institutions to best meet the needs of their trainees, we do not endorse any one approach to the IDP. Some options are listed on the NIGMS website and other examples are readily available on the web. We encourage awardees to find the best fit for their trainees.

      1. Thought I would clarify. All the “options” listed on the NIGMS Website are essentially the same. All are based on the model devised by FASEB about a decade ago. The only real difference is the medium: Do you prefer paper forms or a Web app?

        Jim Austin

  5. We already have extensive curricular requirements for our formal Ph.D. program. This involves a 4-year set of required didactic courses, M.S. formal defense, qualifying examination, formal Dissertation proposals and defenses. On top of that we have yearly formal reviews of student progress, semester evaluations of progress by the mentor, and signed and reviewed (with the mentor) activity reports for each student. The department also has a requirement for a plan for each student. Please don’t require yet another redundant set of forms for me to fill out. I feel badly for those programs and students that don’t get adequate mentoring, but those of us who have already taken care of this don’t need another encumbrance.

  6. I believe that IDP ARE valuable, but using the criterion that knowledge = justified true belief I do not KNOW that IDP are valuable. Are there any data supporting this plausible conjecture? I prefer the concept of “Individual Career Development Plan” because it emphasizes that we should be talking about developing the career of an individual, but I also don’t know of any evidence that emphases on careers in policy or practice will make a meaningful difference.
    But I believe that they would; I believe that too often faculty have little practical incentive to promote the careers of their proteges. If we would tie the overhead of an institution to the percentage of their graduates who obtain faculty tenured faculty positions or R01s ELSEWHERE, then we would see a radical change in institutional committment to this issue. As it stands, institutions are rewarded chiefly for the ability of their faculty to get grants themselves. There is therefore little ROI (reward on investment) for turning out a fundable protege,. John Rodgers

  7. With all respect, this just sounds like more pointless paperwork . NIH already has similar sections on training grants where people are just telling NIH what they want to hear. This is going to be just one more section where grant writers promise to have mentor-student picnics, hold hands and talk about their futures.

    You can’t solve the major problems in science training with more paperwork.
    You can’t improve the careers of young scientists just by adding more rules.

    What is the real issue here? Is it really the training? Are young scientist really in need of documented, hands-on, planned-out mentoring from year one of graduate school through year 5 of a post-doc?

    I know many PIs over 55 now, who walked out of their PhD program into a faculty position in the late 70s, early 80s. After 4 years of undergrad and 4-5 years of grad school, they were handed the keys to a lab and got to work. They didn’t have IDPs. How’d they do it?!
    Are young scientists just dumber now? Is that why we need 5,6,7 years of PhD training followed by 1-2 postdocs for additional training with all of it spelled out in a report card to NIH?

    The issue here is not training. It’s opportunity! Young scientists need stable, secure, long-term positions to flourish just like the previous generation had. Instead we are moving from place to place under 2-3 year grants/contracts, often with low pay, long hours and constantly under the giant shadows of older senior scientists. We’re asked to do this often well into our 30s and yet NIH thinks better documentation of this process will help us?

    If you really want to help young scientists do something about the lack of new faculty positions and the scourge of adjunct positions. Raise postdoc salary (a lot) so they’ll stop being the super-bargain cheap labor that senior faculty and universities use as disposable fuel for their grant machinations. Please don’t pile on more paperwork for me to fill out just so NIH can point to a document and claim that good training is happening.

    I’m happy to exchange ideas about helping young scientists anytime NIH wants input.

  8. I admit to being very skeptical about this IDP directive for reasons very different than A. postdoc. I work extensively with graduate students as I direct our graduate program and largely run my research lab with graduate student labor. As I see it, IDPs could be useful if there was any emphasis by NIH on training via the R01 mechanism. As it is, the structure of R01s, their review, and the evaluation of grant progress disincentivize PIs from participating in training (in direct contrast to the NSF whose grants explicitly make this a goal). The reason this is a big issue is that the reason that IDPs can be useful is that they will help the 70-80% of biomedical Ph.D.s who will NEVER hold faculty jobs of any sort (let alone those that write grants) figure out what skills they need to build to have the credentials for their chosen alternate career. The thing is, if a PI is allows the graduate students to spend time on those things (internships, extra classes, workshops etc), it directly will reduce the productivity of the student on the funded research project that is paying them. Until training of undergrads, graduate students and postdocs is made a review criteria of R01s, and the progress on a grant is judged in part based on the success of that training (and I agree with IDP on my mind that a Ph.D. trainee going into science writing or even deciding to take a terminal MS and working at a small biotech firm should be considered success; we can not over focus on providing new R01 investigators, there are too few of such positions, and many more in so called “alternate” fields”), I see no point in requiring this except for extra paperwork. It just sets up conflicting pressures as there is no mechanism financial or otherwise to give grad students and postdocs the release time to pursue such plans that does not endanger the ability of the PI to achieve their next competing renewal.

  9. Although I am very supportive of IDPs, I am concerned about the sheer volume of regulatory requirements that is turning annual reporting into a major task. We seem to approach compliance with a stick (instead of a carrot). As a grants coordinator, I’m requesting a time-gap between institution of new requirements. I’m still struggling with getting every last article compliant with PubMedCentral. Thanks for hearing my plea.

    1. My apologies, I misread the article and I think your requirement to describe the IDP process used by the institution is a great solution, and will encourage institutions to use IDP’s, to everyone’s benefit.

  10. I think that the discussion here and elsewhere make clear that the training “problem” is the result of too many students/postdocs and too few viable research positions (and no, I’m not just focusing on academic positions; there are not overly abundant industry research positions either). There is only one sure way to regulate the training pipeline and training practices and that is to only allow federal funding of graduate students on training grants. Institutions and PIs can still choose to fund students from their own non-federal funding, but R01s should not be used for this purpose. IDPs are a reasonable tool if used well, and my institution has put them in place, but it is completely unrealistic to think that IDPs will fix any of the major structural problems facing the scientific community at this time.

  11. Planning futures for postdocs and students should be happening anyway and not need to be formalized. It is just more administrative paperwork for overburdened grantees. My institution will overreact to the NIH “mandate” and require three times more than is necessary.

  12. The idea of IDPs strikes me as something that can be made to sound good in annual reports and committee meetings, but that will have very little, if any, positive impact on those that are supposed to be helped. Unfortunately, it impresses me as another bit of the increasing bureaucracy that students and faculty members doing research are faced with. Each of those bits in itself doesn’t take a lot of time, but unfortunately the many many bits add up to a very significant block of time that in large part would be better spent on the research rather than the continually mounting piles of paper (or gigabytes) that are produced. Some bureaucracy is necessary, but if research is to be accomplished efficiently, we all need to be working to keep it to a minimum. This approach will produce much more bang for the buck.

  13. Mentorship is important, and the current system does encourage some people to use trainees as grunts, so I’m glad to see the NIH paying attention to the problem.
    That said, I’m not at all convinced that more paperwork is the answer. Furthermore, it will probably backfire and reward those with good administrative help and silver tongues (who would submit better-sounding IDPs) rather than people who really do spend significant time mentoring.
    The only solutions I can see are to limit the number of trainees per trainer that NIH will fund, and to put some brakes on the way certain institutions hire more soft-money faculty every time the budget does expand.

  14. Our students are reviewed every year and are given extensive guidance and feedback. More paperwork will not help. The other problem is that how the research will go and what avenues may open cannot be predicted in advance. This is one of the reasons that science is so interesting! Graduate students start to experience the down side as well – experiments that don’t work, papers that get rejected and grants that are not funded. All of this prepares them for academic, as well as other, careers. Don’t make us prescribe what should happen at every step!!

  15. Is it really that much to ask that we have a formal mechanism to evaluate our career options? The paperwork should be a start to a conversation, one that is being neglected in too many institutions and labs. There are certainly PIs that take an active interest in the professional development of their trainees, but my opinion is that they are in the minority unless that professional development entails the classic academic route. If you are concerned about the mounting demands on your time because of administrative structures meant to better serve your trainees, mentor fewer students and postdocs. Less is more.

  16. This is like telling parents who do not have enough food to feed their children that before they can get their weekly ration of rice they have to write a report outlining their plans for their children’s college education.

  17. I would like the NIH to consider the real-world consequences of “encouraging” institutions to include include such things in their reporting “requirements”. There is nothing university administrations fear more than they have under-estimated what is “encouraged”. The result is that various vice associate deans start scrambling to come up with new ideas for mandated programs for increasingly stressed and harried graduate program faculty and students to implement. Worse– they often decide this may require an additional assoc dean and staff to monitor and suck more resources from actual graduate training. I find it difficult to believe that a peer-reviewed training grant has EVER been successfully funded without some sort of plan in place to prepare their students for successful careers. Is the current TG review process so completely unreliable that this simple and obvious goal needs to be recognized though more paperwork and local bureaucratic oversight??? What exactly is so broken that it needs to excite the cogs to start spinning wildly and provide even more opportunity for administrative intrusion?? Please, I beg of you: at long last…first, do no harm!!!!!

  18. As an administrator, we can share this NIH announcement, develop a standardized form and process, create workshops and “strongly encourage” faculty to share the idea with their trainees. But we will not get compliance unless it is “required” for all NIH renewals.

    However, I understand that making it required will create an administrative burden. Instead, would it be true to say that proposals that include IDPs in the RPPR will be more competitive?

    1. We ask for IDP implementation descriptions in the progress report (RPPR), not in the competing application package. Also we don’t ask grantees to include the actual IDPs – particularly since they likely contain sensitive personal information. We request IDP information in progress reports to provide a reminder to grantees to address and enhance career development of their trainees. Our hope is that by reminding grantees that they should be using IDPs, we will be able to shift attitudes about training.

      1. My department and many others at my institute have concluded that this IDP “encouragement” is toothless and have refused to implement any IDP policy at our institute. I have spoken with a few colleagues at nearby universities who are observing the same thing. My question to Sally Rockey is what will happen if my institute simply does nothing to meet this new IDP “encouragement”? Will any of our institute’s grants, training grants, or fellowships get flagged for non-compliance or not funded/renewed? I believe my institute is hedging a bet that there will be no recourse for non-compliance for this policy. It would help if the NIH stated specific actions they would take for institutes that are not in compliance with this policy, as this might actually “encourage” institutes to implement this policy as opposed to taking a wait and see approach.

  19. this is a ridiculous waste of time. if you do not have any goals, then you should not be in a program like this. and if you do have goals, then this is another layer of administrative work that only detracts from the goals you are pursuing.

  20. What if you are being abused and very much underpaid by your supervisor who has NIH funding .
    What are rules for postdoctral rights and exploitation.

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