Set Goals Now to Enjoy Peace of Mind Later

 January 26, 2015



It’s the beginning of a new calendar year, and many of us have made New Year’s resolutions with the hope that these goals will guide us toward becoming the person we hope to someday be. However, in addition to helping us focus our efforts and stay on task, goals serve as useful benchmarks to remind us (even in our darkest times) of how we’re kicking butt and taking names.

As a Ph.D. candidate, I can recall many times in my graduate career when I felt like I was working really hard but was not sure that I was actually getting any closer to graduation. There were research projects I spent a lot of time on that just didn’t pan out. Then, there was the project that required (seemingly) endless iterations of piloting. Eventually, I found a promising line of research and was able to collect and analyze dissertation-quality data. But when I took a cross-section of my life before my research project succeeded, it was easy to feel as though I had nothing to show for my efforts. (Familiar, anyone?)

I began to notice a change in my outlook when I became more disciplined in setting academic, professional, and personal goals at the beginning of each semester. Typically, I begin by brainstorming what I would like to accomplish in a given academic year or semester before revising these statements into specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-based achievement (SMART) goals.



I find it useful to map out my goals for the academic year using a visual timeline. On the horizontal axis at the top of the page I construct a timeline by month, and on the vertical axis, I list my broad goal areas (i.e., research, fellowship applications, education, presentations, and teaching). Then I map my SMART goals under the appropriate broad goal area to reflect that goal’s desired timeline (see an example). At the midpoint and end of each semester, I reflect on and monitor my progress towards each goal.

Reflecting on my progress (with respect to my goals) at the end of each semester allows me to see the areas where I have made visible progress while avoiding the tendency to obsess about what is not yet working out. Although by semester’s end I may still be trying to figure my way around an unexpected obstacle in my research, I can also see that I’ve made significant strides in my professional development by conducting informational interviews, attending workshops, and applying for fellowships.

While it’s always a good idea to acknowledge your successes and not just your shortcomings, reminders of your progress are especially important post-prelim when academic milestones are few and far between. But whatever your stage, I encourage you to clearly outline your goals now, so that at the end of the semester, you too can have that sweet, sweet moment of being able to quantify how your hard work and perseverance are paying off. 


Courtnea Rainey, M.A.

Current Ph.D. Candidate

Courtnea studies the psychology of motivation and learning as a Ph.D. Candidate in the department of Psychology & Neuroscience. She applies this background to support undergraduate student learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).