The ‘Ike Wai Project
Since 2017, we have been piloting a small IDP program as part of ‘Ike Wai, a multidisciplinary research
project focused on water resources and sustainability at the University of Hawai‘i. Funded by the
National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, ‘Ike Wai
(Hawaiian for water knowledge) includes a capacity-building initiative to develop a diverse
local workforce in hydrology and related fields. IDPs form part of a larger professional development
program that includes holistic mentoring, research training, and broad skills development.
‘Ike Wai graduate students and postdocs develop their IDP with guidance from both their research advisor
and an external professional development (PD) mentor. The PD mentor, a faculty/staff member selected by
the trainee from outside their discipline, serves as an additional resource and perspective. All parties
work together to ensure the action plan is both useful and realistic. We emphasize that completing an
IDP is a trainee-driven process—they are ultimately responsible for defining and communicating their
future goals and aspirations and soliciting feedback on their plan.
Survey results indicate students particularly value their interactions with their PD mentor, and a
majority agreed or strongly agreed that completing the IDP helped them think about their long-term
career goals (Fig. 1). In spite of the time required to complete and update their IDP on a regular
basis, only 16% said they would not recommend an IDP to other students or postdocs, consistent with what
we hear as facilitators—most find the process useful and are ultimately glad to have done it. Similarly,
81% of ‘Ike Wai advisors and PD mentors agreed they would recommend IDPs, with 90% agreeing that
completing an IDP helped students think about their academic and long-term career goals (GSA
Supplemental Data Fig. S11).
Aggregated results from our annual, anonymous survey of graduate students (2017–2019) (n
Percentages shown correspond to the total responses for disagree or strongly disagree (left), neutral
(center), and agree or strongly agree (right). IDP—individual development plans; PD—professional
While possibly coincidental rather than causal, we note that the trainees in our IDP program have shown
exceptional leadership, taking on responsibilities beyond that of typical graduate students. Examples
include convening conference sessions and workshops, requesting representation on the project’s
leadership committee, mentoring undergraduates, and taking a leading role in drafting project reports,
planning fieldwork, and managing lab budgets.
Alumni report that they value, and continue to use, the goal-setting skills they learned from IDPs. As
recent graduate Julie U‘ilani Au wrote, “By setting personal and professional goals for myself, I have
been able to gain a clear vision of what I want to do with my time and my career. Whenever I feel
overwhelmed or confused, I think back to the IDP structure and make goals that I can hold myself
Based on our experiences with this ongoing pilot program, we outline a few key considerations for those
interested in implementing their own IDP program.
A Flexible Template
We created a simple custom form suited to the ‘Ike Wai project that includes six core competencies:
Research, Teaching and Mentoring, Leadership, Communication, Career Development, and Place and Culture
(Supplemental Data Fig. S3). The last category was added to formalize the importance and relevance of
cultural knowledge and skills. The project has an unusually diverse student cohort, including a high
proportion of Native Hawaiians, women, and others from historically underrepresented groups. Moreover, a
significant project component entails engaging with a diverse community of landowners and other
stakeholders, which requires an additional set of knowledge and skills that were not well captured by
most standard IDP templates. Although we provide forms, we also give trainees the option of using
alternative formats as long as they capture the critical elements of an effective action plan: having
specific, actionable milestones with clearly defined outputs and a realistic timeline. While many
students stick to the provided template, some have opted to use an online calendar or custom color-coded
timelines. We also provide links to online IDP platforms with extensive career exploration tools as
additional resources (e.g., myIDP).
Expanded Mentoring Network
According to our survey results, our trainees highly value PD mentors. The additional time burden on the
mentor is minimal (most report spending ~1 hr or less per term; Supplemental Data Fig. S2), and while
students could cultivate such relationships themselves, providing a formal match removes some of the
psychological barriers to asking for help. This second mentor may play a particularly important role if
the advisor-advisee relationship is strained, or their PD goals are poorly aligned with their research
project. We also note this role has been particularly useful for underrepresented students seeking the
guidance of someone from a similar background and shared cultural values. Particularly in the
geosciences, one of the least diverse STEM fields (NSF, 2019), connecting students with faculty members
outside their immediate discipline is one option for expanding and diversifying their support network.
Some of our experiences and feedback point to the importance of advisor buy-in and engagement, consistent
with other studies that find advisees are more likely to value the IDP process if their advisor also
does (e.g., Hobin et al., 2014). In other words, this process is not a fix for a disengaged advisor or
one who is dismissive of non-academic careers. However, we note the potential power of the IDP process
to open a dialogue on future career plans and perhaps dispel incorrect assumptions advisors may have
about an advisee’s goals and aspirations. Everyone benefits from starting this conversation early and
helping trainees build the skills they will need for their future, whatever their chosen path.
Funding was provided by National Science Foundation grant OIA-1557349. This is SOEST contribution #10949.
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