Career advice

Academic Goal Setting

4 min read · By Academic Positions

It’s important to take some time every year to look back over all that you’ve achieved and set some goals for the year ahead. Goal setting helps you keep perspective and makes it easier to track your progress throughout your degree.

Before you choose your goals, think broadly about what your program and committee expect you to accomplish in the next 12 months. Are you required to present a paper at a conference this year, pass a comprehensive exam, or secure your next year of funding? Check your program requirements or talk to your committee if you’re unsure. Next, think about what you want to accomplish beyond your program requirements. Do you want to decide on your dissertation topic, learn a new technique, or apply for a prestigious fellowship? Once you’ve established your big goals, you need to reframe them in a smart way. Smart is a common goal setting acronym and stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely.


If your goal is too broad it will be challenging to make meaningful progress towards it. You need to get specific. Let’s say one of your big goals is to pass your qualifying exams. To do that, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time studying the relevant material. But rather than just make “study for quals” your goal, make a list of the specific articles or book chapters you need to read in order to prepare. This way you have a better idea of what you actually need to do to prepare and can allocate your time accordingly.


Your goal needs to be quantifiable so you can tell when you’ve achieved it. For the above example of studying it’s pretty easy to make the goal measurable by setting a number of articles or book chapters you want to read by a certain date. Sometimes it’s a bit harder. If your goal is “learn a new microscopy technique,” you could further refine this to “perform a new microscopy technique correctly without assistance X number of times.” With the second phrasing, it is be easier for you to figure out when you’ve achieved your goal.


As mentioned before, breaking big goals down into smaller parts makes them more achievable. Not only is this more realistic, but it will also help you determine if your goal is achievable. Do you have the necessary resources and skills to get this task done in the specified time period? If not, can you acquire them in time?


It can be motivating to strive for big things, but you will continually be let down if you don’t choose goals that are realistic in both their timeframe and scope. Budget in a bit of extra time to account for setbacks so your timeline isn’t thrown off if something doesn’t go according to plan. This project management style of planning will allow you to be more flexible.


You need to set a deadline by which you want to achieve your goal, that way you actually do it. Sometimes the deadline is set for your (like a grant deadline), but often times you’ll have to set your own.

Now that you have set goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely, it’s important that you write them down. Studies have shown that people who write their goals down are 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to achieve them. Another great way to hold yourself accountable is to share your goals with your supervisor or mentor. If they know what you’re working towards they can offer advice or resources to get you to the finish line.

By Academic Positions  ·  Published 2019-10-23

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