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Edward Flagg
Department of Physics and Astronomy

Setting Goals

Setting goals and determining how to achieve them is a critical skill in any demanding job. Graduate school is no different. But just setting goals is not sufficient. The larger in magnitude and the more distant a goal is, the more difficult it is to achieve it, and the less helpful simple identification of the goal is. 

For example, the ultimate goal in graduate school is to earn a Ph.D. But that goal is so distant (5+ years), and so large (many things must be accomplished to achieve it) that you need to do more than just identify it and say, "Go!" You must not only identify your ultimate goal, but also the major sub-goals that lead to achievement of that ultimate goal. Even then, your major goals themselves are likely to be too big for simple identification of them to help you much.

Recognizing the advantages of setting goals and the difficulties of accomplishing them leads to the idea of…

Setting goals of different magnitudes

Ultimate goal: Ph.D. The ultimate goal of a graduate student in school is to earn a Ph.D.

Major goals: Papers, Conference presentations. One earns a Ph.D. by publishing papers and presenting at conferences. These are the products that you produce in graduate school.

Middle goals: Experiments, Analysis, Writing. One produces a paper or conference presentation by performing experiments (or simulations, or observations), doing data analysis, and writing.

If the steps to accomplish the ultimate goal were well-known already, then you could continue identifying sub-goals in this fashion until they are small enough that you could comprehend one of them in its entirety. For example, building a house is a huge project, but it has been done enough that the steps are all well understood. In contrast, the research that you specifically must do to earn a Ph.D. is not well-understood. You can continue to identify a few more levels of smaller goals than those listed here. But you cannot anticipate all the research challenges you will face, so at some point you must start doing the actual research before you can determine what all the goals will be.

One method of setting helpful goals is to follow the guidelines summarized in the acronym SMART. If you can answer the questions below, then you will have set a SMART goal.



To accomplish the goals, a set of capabilities is necessary. As an example, consider the middle goals from the list above:

  • Experiments/simulations/observations
    • Know how to operate the equipment or code.
    • Understand the proposed experiments.
    • Know the theory behind the experiments.
  • Data analysis:
    • Know the theory behind the experiments.
    • Programming (e.g., Matlab).
    • Fitting simulations/models to data.
  • Writing:
    • Have a command of English.
    • Know how to read papers.
    • Know the anatomy of a paper.

Those capabilities do not just happen. One must develop them via specific practices, which are concrete actions that one can perform. When identifying the practices themselves, they cannot be too broad or they are not helpful. For example,

"Learn experimental techniques"

does not describe how one is going to do it. An example of a well-defined practice would be,

"Help a senior student with their measurements,"

with the addenda,

  1. Communicate with the senior student,
  2. Be present when they do measurements,
  3. Be the one to operate the equipment.

The identification of these practices outlines the steps that you will take to develop the capabilities you need. As you become more advanced, you will be able to identify more detailed practices.