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Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at,, and on Twitter @KDShives.

Emily Curtis Walters is a PhD candidate in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydcw or at her blog, dighistorienne.

When being thrown into the open-ended project that is obtaining a PhD, it is critically important to make consistent progress in completing the major milestones of your program.  This can be more than a little overwhelming for most students, and extremely difficult for those who are not familiar with the ins and outs of modern academia (first-generation students such as Katie can attest to this!). With so little structure, it is easy to get lost in the day-to-day goings-on of graduate school, and suddenly you might find yourself a 6th-year student with no publications and no conference presentations. So how do you stay on track—or even find the right track in the first place?

No matter what discipline you are pursuing your degree in, be it STEM or the humanities, there are common themes in making consistent progress within academia. The most basic three are: How do you identify important goals? How do you then set realistic goals? How do you track your progress in order to achieve your major goals? Coming from very different disciplines, we thought it might be interesting to compare how we approach each of these three questions.

Goal-setting vs. goal-achieving from the STEM perspective (Katie):

Identifying Goals: Look to the program requirements and not to your peers, since each student will have a unique project and what works for other students may not apply to you. How many papers do you need to publish? When do they need to be published? Do you need to apply for a grant? What major exams do you need to pass in order to obtain candidacy? All of these are important questions that should be easily answered in your program handbook. If they are not expressly stated by your program, then be sure to clearly establish with your committee early on what it is that you need to do in order to obtain your degree. This will also save you some major headaches down the road, since you are much less likely to be hit with unexpected program requirements.

Setting Goals: The major trick here is working backwards once your goal is identified. What are its major components? When do they need to be achieved? Are there sub-projects that need to be completed in a specific sequence? This is very much a project management approach to setting goals and can help by allowing you to break big projects into minor components, accurately estimate the time to completion, set multiple realistic milestones, and to adjust timelines as you move forward when things don’t work as you planned.

Achieving Goals: My favorite and most effective way to track my own progress is by using a weekly goal audit. Every Monday (or Sunday night) sit down with your major to-do list with all the long-, mid-, and short-term goals and associated tasks for the week ahead (I usually do this during Monday lab meetings). Go over which short-term goals need to be be completed in the coming week (experiments, data analysis, protocol optimization, etc), and what steps need to be completed for each of those projects. Also, define steps to prepare for mid- and longer-range projects such as manuscript and dissertation writing (i.e., 2 hours writing Monday, 3 on Wednesday, have chapter 2 done by Friday). When setting up goals, details help. Write down as much as you possibly can and structure your day so that you are as productive as possible.Then, every Friday before the weekend, review what you accomplished and what did not get accomplished. Keep a log of this so that over time you can see where you succeed and where you struggle when it comes to meeting goals. I know this has helped me identify the fact that I don’t make significant writing progress unless I set aside 2+ hour chunks of time in the library quiet room; I can’t write successfully anywhere else because I am easily distracted by tangents in the lab.

On days with difficult or open-ended tasks such as writing, try to get them done early in the day while motivation is still high. Mark Twain had some great advice for graduate students:

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

Make that draft/experiment/data analysis/grading assignments your frog for the day and you will become amazed by how much you can get done when not procrastinating on a dreaded project.

Goal-setting vs. goal-achieving from the humanities perspective (Emily):

Identifying goals: I tend to approach my professional goals thematically: reading, writing, teaching, a long-term digital mapping project that I’m working on, and funding applications.  A few times a year, I sit down with my planner and identify required outcomes with built-in deadlines (course assignments, conference proposals, the dissertation prospectus, grant applications), as well as desired outcomes with self-imposed deadlines (completing one article or chapter, analyzing and annotating one collection of primary sources, reading one section of an exam list). In order to identify all of the goals necessary to maintain degree progress, and to remind myself both of what is expected and what is reasonable, I rely on the guidelines offered by my program, my advisor and other research mentors, other PhD students in my department, and my own sense of what I would like to accomplish.

Setting goals: I’m a huge proponent of breaking large tasks into smaller component parts. I work best by tackling small pieces of multiple projects every day, helping to prevent myself from burning out. This can be more or less elaborate depending on whether I’m staring down a short, medium, or long-term goal. Developing the dissertation proposal, for example, requires many more steps than writing a conference proposal. But the general process is always the same: determine the end result, and (like Katie) move backwards in steps. For example, presenting a conference paper requires some combination of the following: visiting an archive or locating a body of evidence, analyzing and synthesizing primary sources, developing a research question, sketching an outline of an argument, reading the relevant secondary literature in order to plot my intervention, writing a rough draft of the paper, consulting with mentors and colleagues for feedback, revising the paper a couple of times, writing a conference proposal, connecting with other interested participants in order to form a panel, and planning the necessary travel details. Taken together, those components constitute a huge task. But broken into smaller tasks, each with its own deadline (one piece of secondary literature per week, one page of writing per day, a draft to my advisor by four weeks from now, etc.), this undertaking becomes much more manageable. The biggest trick is determining how much is reasonable to take on during any given day or week.

Achieving goals: I have three main strategies for keeping tabs on my goal completion. First, I keep a journal on a regular basis. Some weeks, I manage to write an entry each day. Others, I write one weekly wrap-up entry only. It’s a nice way to check in with myself about progress, what’s working, and what’s not. It’s also helpful to have on hand as a nice reminder, when I’m having a rough day or feeling like I’m falling behind, that I’m actually moving forward. Second, I make a point of checking in with my advisor on a regular basis, to ensure that I’m making progress, and to keep myself on task. And third, I’m a big fan of Things, an app I use on my iPad to schedule tasks and sub-tasks. I love the app’s Project feature, which makes this simple, and there’s something very satisfying about checking off each sub-task as I finish it.

Ultimately, I think Katie and I have more in common when it comes to identifying and measuring goals than not. Both of us start with the desired outcome, develop a plan by moving backwards in component steps, and implement a weekly system for checking in with ourselves on our progress. The steps we take might look different in content (I don’t have to factor laboratory-based research into my schedule, she probably doesn’t have to spend time in the archives, etc.), but the general formula is basically the same.

How do you set and obtain goals? Do you think your process is discipline-specific? Why or why not? Is there something you have learned that boosts productivity? Share your knowledge in the comments!

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski and used under the Creative Commons License.]

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