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Addressing graduate student anxieties: measuring the impact of Individual Development Plans

Goal setting helps graduate students approach studies mindfully, normalizes challenges around future goals.

BY LORNA MACEACHERN & CHANTELLE THAUVETTE | JUN 06 2022

In our work at McGill University, we have spoken to hundreds of graduate students about their post-graduation plans. We know through projects like TRaCE McGill that most PhD students go on to careers they find satisfying. However, many find the job transition to be a difficult experience due to unfamiliarity with career options, pressure from within academia to pursue an ever-diminishing pool of tenure track positions, and doubt about the value of their skillset to employers outside of academia. Students’ uncertainty about their job transition casts a shadow over their entire academic experience, not just their final months. This anxiety contributes to the serious mental health challenges that graduate students already face.

Many institutions are addressing anxieties about job transitions by implementing an Individual Development Plan (IDP). The purpose of an IDP is to help students identify, set, and plan out meaningful goals following the goal regulatory process, a cycle which asks people to: a) reflect on past experiences, b) envision a desired future, c) plan goals, and d) engage in proactive behaviour to create change. Though IDP tools and programming vary, many institutions opt to focus the “envisioning” phase of the IDP on career decision making — encouraging students to identify their desired career outcome and then establish goals based on their selected career path.

To inspire graduate students and postdocs to create an IDP, McGill graduate and postdoctoral studies developed myPath, which includes a variety of tools (workbooks, templates, handouts, and online app) and programming (workshops, group programs, annual retreat, drop-in sessions, and individual coaching). Many students are considering an evolving range of career options throughout their degree. Rather than ask students to select a specific career path, myPath was designed to decrease anxiety by normalizing career uncertainty, enhancing students’ comfort with ambiguity, and supporting their broader goal planning by encouraging them to establish a vision for their overall professional growth and wellbeing.

Our aim is to ensure that students develop the habit of regularly reflecting on their progress and intentionally setting skill development and wellness goals alongside their academic goals. We expect that when students are ready to engage more proactively in career decision making, they will have acquired the self-knowledge they need to be confident about their transferable skills and their ability to identify career options that best align with their interests and values.

Since its launch in September 2019, engagement with myPath has been high, attracting over 1,500 students per academic year. The toolkit has had over 3000 logins and downloads to date. Feedback from over 800 survey respondents demonstrates consistently high levels of satisfaction (99 per cent) and likelihood of recommending myPath (97 per cent). Ninety-three per cent indicated that the program helped them identify goals that aligned with their priorities.

In 2021, myPath was assessed by a team from the Claremont Evaluation Center on quality of implementation, outcomes, barriers to achieving outcomes, and participant reach. Ninety-one per cent of participants found that the myPath workshops were high quality, and assessors agreed that materials were high quality and research/evidence based. Students shared in evaluations that the program reduced their anxiety about the future, and that the process of proactively determining their priorities helped them approach their grad studies mindfully and intentionally.

  • “Sometimes it was overwhelming to think about possible futures and which futures were practically closed off to me at this point. It was helpful to talk about this with other students, and realize they were experiencing similar emotions.”
  • “The guided progression through small, tangible steps so we could later answer big questions that would initially have been scary/overwhelming was very helpful.”

However, students reported that the myPath IDP tools can be overwhelming without guidance and structure. When asked whether they completed their IDP, less than half of students reported that their IDP was fully complete. myPath emphasizes the iterative nature of goal setting, so we weren’t surprised that students don’t leave the process feeling like they are finished. But this finding leaves us with an important question about how we are measuring impact. Should we focus on outcome – students’ ability to create a plan – or on students’ ability to engage in the process of planning?

When we were considering implementing an IDP at McGill to decrease anxiety about the future, it was clear to us that the process is the priority. As such, we will maintain the in-depth tools that were found to be high quality while adding simplified versions such as a mini workbook, and sample completed IDPs. To facilitate the process of creating an IDP we are replacing practitioner-led workshops that advise students on how to complete an IDP with a new video series students can access on their own, in a self-paced way.

Given that the program evaluations highlighted that what students valued most about workshops was space to normalize their challenges and troubleshoot their goals with peers, we are taking advantage of the video series to offer a flipped classroom approach to the programming. This semester we launched a new Peer Pathways Program—students completing an IDP join peer-facilitated discussion groups that meet four times to provide one another with support, accountability, and connection. As we learned from the feedback students shared, the act of taking time to oneself to reflect and explore was valuable in and of itself:

  • “It’s very useful to have this designated time to plan ahead – this doesn’t happen enough on my schedule, not the big picture stuff.”
  • “I understand myself better. Also, my future got more clear for me; I figured out the future is not dark for me.”

Whether a flipped classroom approach leads more students to complete their IDPs or not, myPath’s program evaluation convinces us that the process of creating an IDP alongside fellow students facing the stress, uncertainty, and ambiguity of planning for the future in this current context provides an important measure of relief and hope.

Click here to view the references that informed the development of the myPath toolkit.

ABOUT LORNA MACEACHERN & CHANTELLE THAUVETTE
Lorna MacEachern developed the myPath program and is associate director of student engagement at graduate and postdoctoral studies at McGill University. Chantelle Thauvette is an academic projects officer at graduate and postdoctoral studies and managed the TRaCE McGill project from 2020-2021.
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