One technique to set achievable goals when you prepare a PhD

Every project starts with a dream : 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

6 reasons why you should 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?

10 questions to prepare a successful semester

It’s your turn!

Please complete this questionnaire in writing and guard it preciously. I suggest that you imagine which SMART goal you absolutely want to have reached by 31 December.

  1. What is the specific goal you want to reach by 31 December 2019? One goal, one sentence (25 words maximum). If your goal is something like, “I want to do this and then to do that”, you actually have two goals. Please focus on the FINAL goal you want to reach.
  2. How will you know that you have reached your goal?
  3. How will you feel when you have reached it? Give as many details as possible.
  4. What concrete criteria is there for measuring your progress toward the achievement of your goal?
  5. What are the working steps (interim goals) which will lead you to the specific goal you want to reach? First brainstorm them, and then order them.
  6. What are the relevant tasks you need to do and the relevant texts you need to read in order to achieve your goal by 31 December 2018?
  7. What unnecessary tasks, reading, experiments will you decide not to do because they will not help you reach your goal by 31 December?
  8. Go back to the interim goals (question 5) and set deadlines for the first three.
  9. What working routine do you want to implement in your daily life to help yourself towards your goal? (Begin with one single practice. Once it has become a habit, you can implement another one).
  10. What bad habit, which hinders you from reaching your goal, do you want to quit this year? (Begin with one bad habit. Once you are rid of it, you can focus on the next one).

What is the SMART goal you want to have achieved at the end of the year?

Post it below!

  • 21/08/0201

Leave a Reply 26 comments