An online career-planning tool called myIDP , launched last fall at the Science Careers Web site, has won an award from the Association of American Medical Colleges for its innovative and increasingly vital outreach to doctoral and postdoctoral scientists and engineers.
The tool's creators say that career advice has never been more important, as economic and educational trends combine to shrink the job market for scientists and engineers. At the same time, major granting institutions such as the U.S. National Science Foundation  and the National Institutes of Health  are now recommending the use of "individual development plans" or IDPs with graduate and postgraduate students.
Some economists who study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers contend  that there is a glut of science Ph.D.s in the job market, and that the current educational system has created an underclass of poorly-compensated scientists  who work at the postdoc level for prolonged periods. At the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting , Georgia State University economist Paula Stephan said tenure-track jobs at research intensive universities, once the norm, are now "the alternative career path." She noted that fewer than 60 percent of individuals trained in the biomedical sciences, for instance, are working in jobs closely related to their training.
In recognition of myIDP's role in career planning for nearly 35,000 registered users — roughly equivalent to one-half of the U.S. postdoc population  — the AAMC will formally bestow its Award for Innovative Institutional Partnerships in Research and Research Focused Training  at its 2013 Graduate Research, Education, and Training (GREAT) Group meeting in Atlanta, Georgia on 19-21 September.
The site offers exercises and advice to scientists on how to "match up their own skills, their own interests and their own values with a variety of available career paths," said Jim Austin, Science Careers' editor. The first concept of the IDP for scientists was developed for postdoctoral researchers ten years ago by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Science Careers, which was launched in 1995 as Science's Next Wave, has been tracking the idea ever since, Austin said.
"A lot of us knew of the frustration that was out there," he said. "We knew that scientists training in academia could no longer depend on the types of jobs that they were traditionally trained for, and would need to do some serious thinking about where they were likely to end up."
Cynthia Fuhrmann (top) and Jim Austin [Courtesy of the subjects]
Cynthia Fuhrmann, now the assistant dean of career and professional development at UMass Medical School, helped create myIDP, along with the core team of Philip Clifford of the Medical College of Wisconsin, Jennifer Hobin of the American Association for Cancer Research, and Bill Lindstaedt of the University of California, San Francisco. The group approached Austin and Science Careers to build the site after using and expanding the original FASEB tool in their universities for nearly a decade.
"It quickly became clear how powerful an online version would be," Fuhrmann said. "Instead of writing goals on paper, students could type them into a database, receive automated reminders for their goals, and later log in to revise or build on their goals."
With a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, myIDP was developed by AAAS Chief Technology Officer Michael Savelli and his colleagues Zdenek Becka and Melissa Rosenthal, and launched in September 2012. The site contains exercises to help researchers assess their skills and interests, a list of 20 scientific career paths matched to particular skill and interest sets, and a special tool for setting yearly career goals.
The detailed site helps graduate students, postdocs and even mid-career scientists go beyond their focus on research projects. Those projects have been "the main thrust of their training, with good reason," Fuhrmann said. "But it is critical that they also consider what skills they need to develop for their long-term career success, and to move forward on career advancement goals such as building a professional network and seeking career mentors."
While the online nature of myIDP offers many advantages, myIDP encourages scientists to take their job search offline, Austin said. "When you're trying to build a career for yourself, you can't do that online," he noted. "It has to involve people, it has to involve experience in the real world."
The site is also notable for its deeper exploration of life goals, asking users to consider their personal and professional values as part of their career advancement. It's a feature of myIDP that may resonate with this generation of researchers. A 2012 study  in the journal PLoS ONEfound that Ph.D. students express less satisfaction with a university research career over the course of their doctoral work. And in a 2007 survey  of University of California graduates, 70 percent of the women and nearly half the men interviewed said they did not see university research jobs as "family friendly."
"Though students and postdocs have many opportunities to evaluate their skills, we rarely ask them what they truly enjoy doing, or what is important to them," Fuhrmann said. "How does one decide whether salary, work-life balance or recognition are most important? This prioritization can be difficult, but ends up making an major impact on career choices and, ultimately, happiness and career success."
Visit the myIDP  website.