Using Design Thinking to Create an Individual Development Plan

Published: Tues., Nov. 12, 2019

No matter where you are in your graduate career, now is the ideal time to create an Individual Development Plan. An IDP allows you to cultivate a vision for your career and set goals to capitalize on your strengths and address areas you want to further develop. With an IDP, you're taking a deliberate approach to increase the skills, knowledge, and experience you need to advance in your chosen career.

The Office of Graduate Studies encourages students to use Design Thinking when creating an IDP. This problem-solving strategy allows you to look at career development holistically and continuously. You should never feel stuck or trapped in a career decision when utilizing Design Thinking! Let’s examine the five stages of Design Thinking, and how they relate to your IDP.

Phase one: Empathy

While not a typical step in the career planning process, empathy is incredibly important. You need to think about yourself, your needs, and the factors that impact your decisions when creating your IDP. You need to connect who you are and what you believe with what you want to do in order to create a “coherent life” (Burnett & Evans, 2019, p. 32). There are few ways to achieve this:

  1. Think of the pressures you face that influence your decision. Are you pursuing a career because it’s something you want to do, or because of an external influence?
  2. Develop a personal Lifeview. What is important in your life outside of your career, and why?
  3. Develop a Workview. Think about topics like the purpose of work, how your career will impact others, and how your career can further your personal growth and development.
  4. What are you curious about? What sparks your interest in your daily life?

The answers to these questions will continuously change as you move through life and face new challenges. But it’s always important understand how you fit into your career goals and development plans.

IDP form
"2019 IDP Form created by Graduate Studies" (link will take you to a fillable form)

Phase two: Reframe the Problem

In this stage, you want to dig deeper than “I need to find a job.” Do you want a career where you are able to share your knowledge with others? Are you interested in a career that will allow you to make a great contribution to society? Will salary and benefits play an important role in your decision making? Approach your career goals holistically and think about how one decision will impact other elements of your life.

This is also a good time to take assessment of your skills, interest, and values. Understanding the skills you have—and those you need to continue to develop—will allow you set goals as you move forward. There are two websites we recommend to help in this task: for those in STEM fields and for humanities and social sciences. Both are free to use, and have well numerous resources for career exploration and goal setting.

Phase three: Ideate

In this phase, you get to think about who or what you want to grow into (Burnett & Evans, 2019, p. xxi). Pick three different careers that interest you. The first should be the career you envisioned when you started graduate school. The second is something you could successfully do with the skills you developed as a graduate student if the first option suddenly ceased to exist. The third should be a wildcard choice, what has always fascinated you (money isn’t a factor)? Once you have these three options, brainstorm different ways you can achieve each one. If you selected “lawyer” as your wildcard option, how could you use that? How would it fulfill your Lifeview and Workview?

The next step is to look at real job postings for careers in all three options. Look ahead to jobs you want to work up to and figure out what skills and experiences they require. Compare those to the skills and interests from your assessments and start thinking about how you can build a ladder to help you reach your ultimate goals.

Phase four: Prototype

The next two phase can’t just happen behind a desk, now is the time for action! The first part of prototyping is to ask questions. Find three people who are already “living your future”. Reach out to them, and ask if they would participate in an Informational Interview. Attend job fairs or networking events and learn as much as possible about your future career options.

Next, get out and try something. Here are some ways you can do that:

  • Job Shadow (ideal for those who can’t complete an internship)
  • Develop a Mentorship (try to find someone who is in your desired field)
  • Find an Internship
  • Join an Organization/Club
  • Take a course in a new subject

Phase five: Testing

This phase goes hand-in-hand with prototyping. As you continue to try new things, evaluate them. Note what works and what doesn’t. What fits with your skills, interests, and values? If you have an experience that doesn't meet your expectations, examine why. Was it something that was specific to that experience or is it going to be that way everywhere? Is it something you could change? Is it a big deal? If the answer is yes, repeat the process and try again. Testing doesn't always have to be a big, giant thing like starting a new career. It can be a simple as doing a guest lecture or job shadow.

The cycle continues…

As you set IDP goals, think of the big picture and work backward. How can you use your time at UNL to develop new skills and create a network of resources? What experiences can you use to prototype your ideas and test them out before it’s time to apply for a job? Once you graduate, how will you continue to develop new goals to propel yourself forward? None of these things can be completed in a vacuum. Use your IDP to develop your program of study or memorandum of courses. Talk with your advisor about ways to improve your skills and meet the goals you have set. Schedule a time to talk with the Graduate Studies development team about additional opportunities and how to prepare job documents. The beauty of Design Thinking is you can constantly repeat it. If you try one path and it doesn’t pan out like you thought it would, Design Thinking can help you understand why and move forward instead of getting frustrated and feeling stuck.

For additional reading:

If you are interested in learning more about Design Thinking and career development, the team at Stanford has some great resources including:

Burnett, B., & Evans, D. (2019). Designing your life: how to build a well-lived joyful life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

TED. (2017, May 19). Bill Burnett: Designing your life [Video file]. Retrieved from ch?v=SemHh0n19LA