Good mentorship is key to learning how to successfully navigate across disciplinary boundaries.
Vicki Field, Associate to the Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education
Monday, March 16, 2015

Strategic Mentoring for Interdisciplinary Students

Strategic Mentoring for Interdisciplinary Students

Maximizing Mentoring Relationships with the Individual Development Plan

Interdisciplinary collaboration and research are critical in order to address the world's most pressing challenges - yet working across disciplines can be challenging in and of itself.

At an Interdisciplinary Commons workshop in November 2014, Noro Andriamanalina (Office for Diversity in Graduate Education) and Char Voight (Graduate School) demonstrated tools and resources that help students with interdisciplinary research and scholarly interests realize their goals and create a strategic plan for the future, based on thoughtful planning and strong mentoring relationships.

One way students can maximize the benefits of mentoring relationships is by tracking their progress toward academic and career goals that they've identified, and sharing the plan with their mentors. The Individual Development Plan (IDP) is a tool that can help assess students' skills, identify research and professional goals, and develop strategies to achieve both short- and long-term career objectives.

The IDP is a chart with space for students to write down areas to develop, long-term and short-term goals, overall strategies for reaching goals, steps to goal completion, a timeline, and available resources. Areas to develop might be finishing a dissertation, publishing, research, teaching, job searching, and fellowships/grants. Available resources may include writing support, travel grants, colleagues, advisers and committee members.

The IDP benefits both graduate students and mentors

With its demonstrated success in fostering professional development for postdoctorate students, the IDP is a useful way for graduate students to plan for careers in a variety of fields and communicate academic and professional goals to mentors, principal investigators, and advisers. By pinpointing their career goals early in their academic careers, individuals can better seize opportunities for professional development, such as teaching, exposure to non-academic careers, and training in proposal writing and project management.

"The IDP is a way to thoughtfully plan for your general area of interest, so you have a sense of direction," says Noro Andriamanalina, Director of Academic & Professional Development in the Office for Diversity in Graduate Education. For example, a student might want to work for a non-profit. "The IDP serves as a guide for students, but it's not a rigid plan," says Charlotte Voight, assistant to the vice provost/dean at the Graduate School.  The chart is a flexible timeline that can easily be revised.

Andriamanalina serves as a mentor for post-doctorates with a UMN teaching fellowship. When checking in with them, she has found that the IDP helps them stay on track and balance their goals, such as publishing, teaching, research, dissertation writing, job searching, or a tenure track. The post-docs were able to plan when to get applications out and write cover letters, for example. 

A multi-campus 2005 survey by Sigma Xi suggests that postdoctorates who had a written plan may be more successful in managing their time, resource use, and focused effort. Compared to those lacking a written plan, postdoctorates who began with an IDP developed with their advisers were 23% more likely to submit papers to peer-reviewed journals, published first-authored papers at a 30% higher rate, and submitted grant proposals at a 25% higher rate.

The IDP also provides a basis for key conversations between mentors and graduate students. Students can share the IDP with their mentor and use it to discuss opportunities. Mentors can better evaluate students' progress and guide them toward goals when their progress is clearly mapped out, and students can communicate their career objectives and expectations more effectively, leading to better outcomes for both.

The IDP is required by some federal granting agencies, though not yet by the University. Graduate students are nevertheless strongly encouraged to use it. The chart is a useful way for students to track their progress in a program, prioritize goals, identify any gaps, and generate conversation with their mentors. "I would have had a better experience and more support in graduate school if I had used an IDP," Andriamanalina says.

The importance of strategic mentoring

All students should have good mentors throughout their academic careers, especially those that draw from multiple fields of study. "In order to develop their multidisciplinary competence, such students need guidance not only relative to their primary discipline, but also with respect to their secondary or even tertiary disciplines, which may involve different methodologies in addition to different subject content," says Vicki Field, associate to the vice provost/dean and director of the Graduate School's Office for Interdisciplinary Initiatives.

Mentors are usually individuals who help guide students' professional development and expand their networking opportunities within the professional community.  Potential mentors may include faculty, post-docs, individuals in the professional community, or even other graduate students.  "Good mentorship is key to learning how to successfully navigate across disciplinary boundaries," says Field. Mentors can advise students on a variety of issues, such as the values and ethics of the profession or discipline, grant writing, presenting at professional conferences, best practices for teaching, or preparing for a job search. 

"Interdisciplinary students who are using new technology, equipment and methodologies can benefit from receiving guidance from mentors," says Voight. A student might learn from a mentor how to write multidisciplinary grants, find an intellectual community that fits their interests, choose appropriate professional journals for their research topic, gain collaborative skills, and teach across disciplines and methodologies.

"Mentoring often comes from natural interactions that turn into more," says Andriamanalina.  While making connections with potential mentors can be difficult and scary to some, being straightforward often yields positive results. "Ask to meet with them, and give them a heads up about why you want to see them and what you want to learn," Voight says. Attending office hours also helps to build mentoring relationships.

Below is an example of an IDP template.

Individual Development Plan Template

Areas to develop Goals: long—term Goals: short—term Overall Strategies for Reaching Goals Steps and Timeline for completion of goals Resources available Outcomes
Assess your scholarly and professional competencies. What do you need to develop? What will you do to improve in the areas you have identified? What could you do this year? What steps will you take to accomplish your goals and by when?     Human or electronic What will you have accomplished to indicate that you have reached your goals?

 -- Lyra Fontaine