UCL Research


Learning to plan for long-term research success

Professor Jo Van Herwegen has created the Individual Development Plan process to help colleagues identify and prioritise their goals.


6 December 2023

Jo, who is a Professor of Developmental Psychology and Education at UCL Institute of Education – Faculty of Education and Society (IOE) has developed an Individual Development Plan (IDP) process that was first created to meet her own academic career needs and goals – but has grown to be used by over 70% of her departmental colleagues. 

Helping ECRs to prioritise

Jo created the IDP approach when she began working at UCL, as she found she had more development opportunities available to her than previously. “I had to become more disciplined, and say to myself, ‘is this really what I want to do?’ I needed to decide not only which opportunities to look out for, but more importantly, which ones I was going to say no to,” she says.

Jo methodically interrogated her own career progress to date, looking back through her publications and achievements to get a stronger sense of what goals and direction she wanted to set for herself. 

After realising the benefits of this approach and following a consultation with her colleagues about the pressures of the academic workplace, Jo introduced the IDP tool to her research colleagues. “I wanted to provide them with something to help them plan. We don’t force people to have an IDP, we just say it’s good practice.”

Reducing wasted effort

Jo’s IDP process is composed of three distinct phases (although the emphasis is on finding a format that works for the participant’s own personal development).

  • Phase one is reflective, asking the participant to summarise their own expertise, their achievements and findings. They’re encouraged to consider key papers they’ve published, other research they’ve been involved in, any impact their research may have made.
  • Phase two requires the academic to use their reflections (as well as their current motivations and relevant interests) to set career goals over a five-to-ten year period.
  • In phase three, the academic puts together a 12-24 month ‘to-do’ list, grouped around suitable subheadings, e.g. publications to write, funding applications, collaborations to develop. A popular approach among Jo’s colleagues is to create a goals/to-do spreadsheet, mapped to promotional criteria.

For example, one of the core criteria for Grade 9 promotion is “Developing reputation and profile nationally and/or internationally, including with other leading contributors to subject area.” Building up this reputation takes time and an IDP can help to reflect, focus and reach this.

Jo stresses the difference between IDPs and project management plans: IDPs encourage you to view your personal growth and activities from a holistic perspective, rather than as part of a prescriptive performance management system.

She points out how the process can help participants save time by working smarter, not harder: “One thing I’ve seen a lot working with ECRs when they’re applying for external funding – it seems like they’re writing a new grant every time, like it’s a new idea. I have to ask them, ‘why? What did you do with the one that was rejected?’ There’s lots of things people can do with the work they’ve already done.”

Another benefit of the IDP process is the way it helps academics understand their own cumulative expertise, taking responsibility for the knowledge and the lines of enquiry they themselves have created. 

Dr Panos Rentzelas, an IOE lecturer, commented that the IDP “helped me enormously to connect all the different projects I’m running – and create a common research narrative that worked as a canvas to brainstorm future research projects that all work towards a unified goal.”

Due to the popularity of the IDP process, Jo is looking at ways to measure and improve the IDP’s effectiveness.

Setting out the small steps to the big answers

Jo hopes that researchers in her department will continue to find the IDP useful as a strategic tool, to help them maintain the prolonged focus needed to make a significant contribution to any scientific field.

“The big questions of society are unlikely to be answered by one particular study but need to be broken down into multiple steps, multiple cumulative projects. “As a scientist in a world full of opportunities, you need to prioritise and protect your time. The individual development plan is just one tool. But if the big questions only get answered by cumulative projects, the individual development plan is designed to help you work out how to get there.”

The big questions only get answered by cumulative projects...the Individual Development Plan is designed to help you work out how to get there.”
- Professor Jo Van Herwegen, IOE - Faculty of Education Society

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