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Jason McSheene is a Princeton University Molecular Biology PhD student and creator of the PhD in Progress Podcast (Twitter @PhDPodcast).


We all know how the new academic year begins: You tell yourself, “This will be my best, most productive year of grad school yet!” But now many of us are more than a month into the fall term, and it’s a good time to ask: What are you really doing differently to ensure this outcome? Has that start-of-school energy dissipated? To get it back, one key strategy is to outline your goals and pursue them intentionally. If you do not have your goals outlined already, don’t panic or, conversely, say it’s too late. Today is the perfect day to decide where your time and energy should be allocated. Measurement of graduate school success can be extremely vague at times: Gone are the days of a graded paper dictating whether or not you are a successful student. They’ve been replaced with often tedious weeks of data acquisition and primary text reading. With less straightforward and less defined work, it becomes simple to lose any sense of growth and development as a researcher, student, and person. Intentionally listing your goals and working towards them each day is one powerful way to cut through the difficult, foggy, and unstructured time of graduate school.

1. Start with the end in mind: Where am I?

Imagine the ideal Future You—whether that’s one month, one semester, or one year from Present You. What has Future You accomplished in this ideal universe? What did Future You do to get there? For example, if Future You finally published that paper that Present You wants to submit to a journal, when did you start writing it? Why did you struggle, and what inspired you to press on? Introspective questions about your life from a frame of achievement can add depth to your planning. Be honest with yourself.

2. Record your goals: What am I working toward today?
People really dislike writing down their goals, but it is simply a must. For best results, keep them visible on paper or in an online document medium like Google Drive or Evernote. You should refer to them a few times a week and record progress as it happens. Maintaining a journal will keep you on track and force you to evaluate your work.

3. Make your goals detailed, measurable, and meaningful: How do I know if I’m winning?

The best goals are specific, can be measured objectively, and are important for growth in some aspect of your life and/or work. For example, a personal one of mine for 2014:

“I will complete The Bible on a daily reading plan. This will better inform my personal interest of learning about the major world religions.”

With this personal goal in mind, I chose a daily reading application that lists a set of verses for each day automatically on my tablet. The fewer decisions you have to make “in the moment,” the better your chances of success.

4. Limit your goals to no more than 6-8: How am I focusing my time and effort?

Too many goals makes for chaos. People can remember only about a dozen things at once, so the fewer goals you have, the more likely you are to always be working towards all of them. Also, the fewer you have, the easier it is to incorporate the tasks into a routine. You will always be able to lose weight more effectively if a morning run becomes as integral to your routine as that shower and mug of coffee is. Work on the easier goals first to build momentum. Do you have an intimidatingly large goal? Break it apart into its basic elemental components, then build on momentum to get it done.

5. Take a step outside of your comfort zone: How are my goals developing my personal and professional lives?

In science, we learn that repeatedly performing the same experiments seldom changes the result. The new, exciting findings come from being creative or having the courage to try the experiment you’re not convinced will work. In case you have yet to experience experimental highs and lows, you have seen how stepping out of your comfort zone pays off in the classroom.  Good is the enemy of great. You cannot make “being comfortable” a goal if you hope for growth and development of your research, abilities, or relationships.

6. Find an accountability partner: Who can help me find success?

What have you been afraid to do but would if there were someone pushing you? You know there are a few action items you’ve been meaning to get around to, but need encouragement and someone to hold you accountable. Find someone you trust: a best friend, a partner, or a co-worker, and share some of your goals with him or her. See where your accountability partner’s strengths and weaknesses can complement your own. Have her push you to keep you committed; force him to write that networking e-mail he’s been dreading. If you stay honest with one another, you’ll both make huge strides.

Additionally, there are myriad sources of motivation: you could always look back to your victory list or listen to inspirational people when you’re running low on morale.

7. Utilize the energy of a “new beginning”: This year will be different!

Finally, hit restart. When your inbox has 5,000 unread messages, sometimes you just need to delete them all and start over. Declaring a new beginning—at the start of the academic year, on New Year’s Day, or on whatever random day is right for you—brings a new energy that can temporarily push things forward, but you must eventually find the internal drive to keep going. Don’t try to steamroll goal after goal. Instead, use the concept of evolution: build upon successes, and don’t hold on to what’s not working. If you have a “tiny goal,” work on that first to feel the dopamine release you deserve. Remember what that feels like?

The sooner you establish these goals, the better you’ll feel about working towards them. But don’t rush! You want these to be true, obtainable goals.

What is your top goal, and what might prevent you from reaching it? Let us know in the comments.

[Image by Flickr user Paxson Woelber and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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