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How to set goals in grad school

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

Is there anything more frustrating than setting goals knowing everything will change before you reach them?

Whether we are working in a lab or in a library, studying the distant cosmos or the intricacies of the world around us, we are united by the need to reach some specific point that nobody else ever has.

Picking a direction when there has never been a path to our destination is just that - we can only use our best resources to choose a direction and create the path as we go, changing our movements to overcome obstacles and keep moving forward.

How can we set goals when we don’t know where we need to end up? These tips are meant to be used both for tackling graduate school and the research questions you work on every day.

1) Determine your main motives and values - those things that will likely not change in the next few months. Why are you here and what are you trying to change? Use these answers as your guiding light when things get murky. Online tools can help you figure out your values, as can talking with a therapist or a life coach.

2) Set actionable goals and define reasonable timeframes to complete them - when some things are out of our control, it is important to find the things we can control. Instead of “Gather all data by next month” you can set a goal of “Work on this data for 50 hours this month.” Even if the experiment changes or the results lead to more questions, you can still have reached your goal.

3) Create accountability - writing down your goals and setting calendar reminders to reassess them will help you keep going. I personally like using the Bullet Journal Method! Additionally, finding an accountability buddy or a mentor to help you can provide both motivation and guidance.

4) Check-in regularly. Create events in your calendar each month (or even week) to sit down and think about whether you’re meeting your timelines. Why or why not? Were your timelines reasonable? Is there a roadblock in your way? Where can you go from here? Thinking about this will not only help you reach your current goals but will also make you better at setting timelines and reasonable expectations for the future.

5) Give yourself the same compassion you would give to a friend - you deserve credit for your efforts and your progress, even when it feels like neither is going very far. The process is frustrating, but you are getting through it, and you will look back to see the path you have created. You are always learning, and that’s pretty amazing.

Susanna Harris is a PhD Candidate at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Follow along on Instagram and Twitter at @SusannaLHarris

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