DURHAM, N.C. – The Nicholas School has launched a new Individual Development Plan (IDP) this fall to help PhD students ensure they’re on track to succeed, both in terms of graduating on time and acquiring the advanced skills and training needed to achieve their career goals. 

“IDP will improve the doctoral experience and the quality of our PhD programs by setting clear expectations for students, establishing more uniform standards for advising, and creating more opportunities for students to benefit from mentoring by their advisors and other faculty members,” said Nicolas Cassar, senior associate dean for research and doctoral programs. 

“It essentially gives students a game plan with regular checkpoints for making sure they’re on target and taking advantage of all that the Nicholas School has to offer,” Cassar said.

  • The program, which has been implemented by all six of the doctoral programs at the Nicholas School, is based on three core components:
  • an evaluation and mentoring plan to be filled out annually by the advisor prior to meeting with each student; 
  • an IDP for incoming first-year PhD students that focuses on creating a strong mentoring relationship between the student and advisor; and 
  • an IDP for second-year through final-year PhD students that focuses on research and career goals, challenges, professional development activity plans, the identification of new skills to develop, and plans to leverage mentorship from multiple faculty mentors. 

Under the plan, students and advisors are required to meet at the start of each academic year to review the student’s previous year’s evaluation and jointly develop an action plan that sets goals for the coming year.

“This was happening before, but not in such a standardized way and specific timeframe,” said Amelia Johnson, a doctoral student in Marine Science and Conservation (MSC) who led efforts to develop the new plan this summer as a Fellow in Duke University’s Reimagining Doctoral Education (RiDE) program.

“IDP acts as a reminder to students and advisors that they need to be talking with each other and working together, proactively, to set goals, identify opportunities and address concerns. It helps ensure all students are getting equal time with their advisors and benefitting from constructive feedback and mentoring,” she said.

Johnson developed the new plan’s framework under the supervision of Jim Hench, associate professor of oceanography, and Rachel Lo Piccolo, PhD program coordinator for MSC, in consultation with the faculty directors of the Nicholas School’s six PhD program and with feedback from students and other faculty associated with those programs. 

The team will continue to seek feedback this year to identify ways to fine-tune the plan and make it even more helpful. You can email them at nsoe-PhD-idp@duke.edu

Their work, which included a review of IDP plans that have been implemented at other universities and professional organizations, was funded by the Provost’s Office. 

“Ultimately, the more an advisor understands about a student’s research plans, what they hope to get out of their dissertation, skills they hope to acquire and their career goals, the better that PhD experience is going to be. But sometimes, students aren’t good at communicating that information and advisors aren’t good at asking about it,” Johnson said. “The IDP program helps them share that information in a structured, equitable and timely way that benefits everyone.”