University of Wisconsin–Madison

Professional Development Plan

A Professional Development Plan (PDP) is a valuable document that establishes both your career development goals and a strategy for meeting them. Whether you’re starting out in your professional career or reassessing your future development, a PDP serves as a useful roadmap that outlines strengths, areas of need, and available resources.

Pre-Plan Learning and Development Options To Consider


On-the-job experiences

  • Observing others
  • Undertaking special projects
  • Keeping a record of learning experiences
  • Taking on higher duties
  • Job rotations
  • Seeking feedback on specific tasks
  • Site visits
  • Stretch projects
  • Past-project reviews


Interactions with others

  • Seeking feedback from direct reports, peers or a critical friend
  • Professional groups online
  • Participate in special interest forums or meetings
  • Mentoring
  • Communities of practice
  • Team projects
  • Seek out industry contacts
  • Job Shadows
  • Attend networking events


Formal professional development

  • UW–Madison course offerings
  • External course offerings
  • Conferences
  • Reading
  • Online programs

Planning your professional development

While writing a PDP is not an especially difficult task, it does require self-awareness. Fortunately, there are a number of easy steps you can take to ensure that the plan you establish is high-impact. These steps are not necessarily linear. Information gathered or decisions made at each step could cause you to reassess previous steps. Formulating a PDP, therefore, should be considered an iterative process.

In many instances, a PDP may be put together with the assistance of a manager or an HR department. It’s important to remember that a development plan should not be treated as an administrative task that’s filed away and forgotten after completion. The PDP should be used to hold yourself accountable for your own career trajectory.

Step 1: Where are you now?

Any PDP has to begin with a thorough assessment of your current career situation.

Think about not only your current position and responsibilities, but also what you have done recently to further your professional development. Are you where you thought you would be at this stage of your career? If you are just starting out, how do you feel about your current capability and position? There are no right or wrong answers at this stage, only honest ones.

Feedback from recent assessments are a good starting point, and can often be used as the basis for an initial draft. Write down your thoughts and keep them close for easy reference throughout the rest of the process.

Step 2: Where do you want to go?

After establishing your current professional status, it’s time to identify where you want to be in the future. This is the time to think about how you define “success.” Remember that the purpose is to identify your motivations, not someone else’s expectations. This step may take time to complete, but it should be as thorough as possible. You can identify both short and long-term ambitions; this is the time to think big. Since these ambitions may change over time, you should revisit this step periodically and revise your plan if necessary.

Step 3: Gather information

Once you’ve assessed your current status and identified the path you want your career to take, it’s time to conduct research to gather information about how to get there. If you’re planning to advance to another position within an organization, this is a good time to find out what qualifications might be necessary for that position. Or if you want to pursue a career in a different field, find out what education, certifications or experience is required to make that transition.

Step 4: Set goals

After gathering information about what you want to accomplish, you can get to work establishing clear, actionable goals to help you make it happen. This could be a multi-step process, identifying several intermediary steps between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. When setting these goals, you should make sure that all of them are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) goals. This will make it possible to track your progress toward them over time. When you look at your goals, it should be very clear what your next steps should be at every stage of the journey.

Step 5: What skills and experience do you have?

Now that you’ve gathered information and established a clear set of goals to follow, you need to take stock of the skills and talents you already possess. Do you have any of the skills you will need to accomplish your goals? You may find that many skills you already possess are transferable, or can perhaps be utilized in a different way. Think about different ways your existing experiences can inform future opportunities. You may have more resources at your disposal than you realize.

Step 6: What skills and experience do you need?

After you’ve made an honest assessment of your current skills, you need to identify the remaining gaps. If you need additional skills to achieve your goals, how do you get them? Are they something you can only gain through experience or do you need additional education? In some cases, you may need to take on new tasks, such as managing a turnaround, leading a cross-functional team, or working on a committee. Once you’ve identified your existing gaps, you can begin making plans to fill them. This is a great time to compare your skill gap to the skills required to perform you current job or a job in the future.

Step 7: Identify possible resources

Just as you may possess a number of the skills and talents you already need, you may also have several resources at your disposal that can help you achieve your goals. If you need further skills training, for instance, you may be able to get it through virtual classes or micro-learning resources. Also, consider on-the-job activities like job shadows, stretch projects or leading meetings. Perhaps you have a relationship with a mentor or coach who can guide you through the process. This is the time to identify any possible resources and think about how you can leverage them to your advantage.

Step 8: Develop an action plan and timeline

With your goals and your needed skills in mind, it’s time to formulate a clear plan of action that details steps you will take and when you will take them. Here you can align any additional training or education you need with your SMART goals, mapping out how you will bridge the gaps between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. Highlight elements of the plan that align with your performance management goals.  This is a good place to identify obstacles, fears, or concerns you’ll need to address along the way. You should commit your detailed action plan to writing so you can reference it regularly. The plan should include a timeline as well, so you’ll be able to track your progress toward your goals.

Step 9: Execute your plan

With your action plan and timeline in hand, you should begin working toward your goals immediately. There’s no need to wait; focus on the first item in your plan and take proactive steps every day to reach it. Every moment you put off beginning your journey at this point is time wasted. At the same time, you also need to keep the responsibilities of your current position in mind. Spend the time to discuss with your manager on how they can support the time and space needed to accomplish your plan.  Allowing your performance to suffer in the present will not help your aspirations for future positions.

Step 10: Assess your progress and revise accordingly

Keep a regular journal or record of progress you’ve made every day toward your goals: this can help you stay motivated along the way. Since you can’t predict the future, you may have to revise or adjust your goals occasionally. Perhaps a new opportunity presents itself or you suffer an unexpected setback. This isn’t necessarily a reason to discard your action plan, but you may need to adjust your goals or timeline slightly. Working closely with a mentor or trusted advisor and getting regular feedback on your behavior and skills from colleagues, your manager will help you to assess your current situation and determine when you need to reset expectations or strategies.

With a well-developed PDP in hand, you can start working toward your long-term career goals. Formulating this plan can be a productive exercise regardless of where you find yourself in your professional life. By establishing clear targets and breaking them into manageable steps, you can take affirmative control of your future.

Adapted from

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Development generally begins with a realization of current or future need and the motivation to do something about it. This might come from feedback, a mistake, watching other people’s reactions, failing or not being up to a task – in other words, from experience. The odds are that development will be about 70% from on-the-job experiences - working on tasks and problems; about 20% from feedback and working around good and bad examples of the need; and 10% from courses and reading.

Lombardo and Eichinger, Center for Creative Leadership