Formulate achievable goals for your PhD

Every project starts with a vision : you have a picture of what you would like to achieve at the end. Transforming the dream into a goal is challenging and indispensable. Then the goal is the driver of an action: an action with no goal has no direction. In a PhD project, setting clear goals is vital. This article shows you  how to transform dreams into achievable goals.

A goal is a dream wiht a deadline.
Napoleon Hill

Why do you need to set goals?

1. Goals give you a clear direction

Doctoral research is like an expedition into an unknown country. You need to know  your destination in order to create a road map. You need to have a clear endpoint that you want to reach.  Otherwise, you might start researching  areas that seem  exciting but are off-topic.

2. Goals help you to make decisions

When you know what you want to achieve, it is easier to identify which paths represent unnecessary detours. It is easier to leave aside what is not going to help you to reach your goal. This is in complete contrast with when you do things based on a whim, just because something sounds interesting, exciting – but is actually off-topic.

3. Goals help you to measure your progress

As a goal is an endpoint, you can measure how far you have already come.  I’d like to mention the case of Christina, a former participant of my writing workshop. She had been trying to write her thesis for more than 2 years, with a job and a family – some days she would write for 18 hours, and then nothing for weeks. This stop and  start  rhythm was continuously breaking   her train of  thoughts and was exhausting. After the workshop, she set a clear goal:  my thesis will be written by 31 July.  In order to reach her goal, she set a clear  interim goal: every working day, 90 minutes of writing. Some days she wrote one page, other days five. Her thesis was written within 6 months, without stress nor panic.

4. Goals help to curb procrastination

If you have a clear idea of what you what you want to achieve, and what you have to do, it is easier to take action than if you firstly have to decide what it is that you want to do today.

5. Goals boost motivation

The clear picture of what you want to realise provides you with the foundation for your action. By giving yourself a concrete endpoint to reach, you enhance your motivation. You know what you want to focus on, so you put all your efforts into it. You have probably had this experience: you must send your paper by a given deadline – you have 24 hours. The goal is clear, the time available also. Suddenly, you are not procrastinating any more – you focus on the essentials, you put 100% of your energy into your paper and get the task done (and get excited about it).

6. Goals help to reduce the quantity of work

If you have no clear goal, you will never  feel like you have finished your work. You need to read more, to write more, to do more. But if you have a clear goal, you know when you have reached it. When your goal is reached, then you don’t need to read more, to write more, to do more. The work is done – you can congratulate yourself and relax!


Learn to set SMART goals

Specific. Avoid vague goals. You might lose time and get lost in the details. Your goal needs to be as concrete, as specific as possible. What does it look like? Close your eyes and imagine yourself having reached your goal. How will you feel when you reach it?

Measurable. What is measurable is manageable.  Setting a  measurable goal shows you whether it is realistic. If you say : I want to write my thesis at the week end, you will probably end up doing anything but writing. If you say: I will write 10 pages, or I will write for 2 hours, the  task becomes concrete. Then you can consider if 10 pages or 2 hours are realistic or not – and  adapt the goal if necessary. What concrete criteria will you use to measure your progress towards the achievement of your goal?

Attractive. If your goal is unattractive, you will not be motivated to work on reaching it.  If your goal feels unattractive, find a way to make it attractive: what will it take to reach it ? What will change in your life once you have reached it ?

Relevant: Your goal must be relevant to your thesis. Of course, your topic is exciting and every article, conference, and experiment might seem interesting, important, indispensable. Prioritize what you need to do. Some tasks are more important than others; some might be nice to do, but secondary; and many of them are just useless. Concentrate on the essentials in order to stay focused.

Timely. Set deadlines for achieving your goal. A time frame forces you to focus your work towards the achievement of your goal. When do you want to have achieved your goal?

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  1. I would like to show my thanks to you just for rescuing me from the lack of structure I am noticing in my PhD life.
    Looking ahead seems possible. Thanks you Martha for your time very much for your expert
    and amazing blog. Jana.

  2. Thank you for great info I used to be in search of this
    information for my research.

  3. This is really interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger.
    I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more
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  4. What a motivational exercise! It comes handy now that I’m starting my 3rd year of PhD. Now I feel far less anxious about what I need to accomplish by the end of the year. Thanks, Martha. You are the best!

    1. Hi Oriana, nice to hear from you! I am happy the exercise helped you! Kind regards and good continuation! 🙂

  5. Thank you for your whole hard work on this web page. My colleague told me all relating to the lively method you produce effective tricks via your workshops and the website. And in addition you strongly encourage participation from website visitors on this matter. You have been performing a really great job. Kate

  6. I realize why my goals are always difficult do reach: the M is missing. Having measurable cirteria is vey important. Thanks a lot vor this post!

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  11. One thing I’d like to comment on is that reaching goals is affected by the quality of life. Lack of elf-esteem, melancholy, health risks, and also physical capabilities can hinder reaching goals. It is possible to do everything right whilst still having problems to reach a goal. An excessive amount of work and never relaxing are usually the culprit. Psychological conditions are crucial to reach a goal!

    1. I agree with you, Erik: relaxing is crucial for a PhD student! It is necessary to recharge batterries every day. Then you are more concentrated and more efficient. Thnaks for your remark, Yael! 🙂

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