Setting Goals and Objectives


Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it,and I shall move the world.


Before you even start your first set of experiments in the lab, take some time (a few days if necessary) to write down your short-term and long­term goals and objectives. Yes, we know that your ultimate objective is to write your thesis and obtain your doctorate, but that goal is years away, so a little perspective and planning is in order. By breaking down the stages of your doctoral studies into manageable steps and committing them to paper, you will avoid becoming overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of you, and you will have a set of measurable and realistic goals towards which you can work. One of the best ways to identify your goals is to start by writing down an action plan. This type of activity usually involves the following steps:

  1. Clarify your goals and objectives

First, look at the bigger picture and then break things down into shorter time segments. What do you want to have accomplished by the end of the first six months of graduate study? The first year? Sketch these goals out broadly, as they are likely to change over time. Now, write down your objectives for the next three months, and then fine tune these for over the next month. Now that you’ve written your goals down, ask yourself two things: are my goals measurable? How will I know when I’ve achieved my goal(s)?

  1. Write down a list of actions

Now it’s time to think about all the things you need to do to achieve your goals. What limitations and constraints do you have in terms of time, know-how, equipment, material, etc? Write down as many actions as you can that will help you achieve your goals.

  1. Prioritize

Take a good look at your list. Prioritize the actionable points so that you do first what is most efficient and what will most likely assist you in achieving your goals (in other words, if you need to build a piece of equipment before you can run an experiment, you will naturally have to do that step first).

  1. Organize your actions into a plan

Actions that are set into a time framework make up a plan. Make sure your plan is workable. Can you do the actions you have set up for yourself in the time frame you’ve allotted? Make sure you’ve ordered your actions into a logical sequence.

  1. Monitor and measure your progress

On a regular basis you will have to monitor your plan and make adjustments if necessary. It’s important to remain flexible and re-state your goals from time to time as necessary and as you gain more experience with your project (for more details on how to do this, see Chapter 6: Monthly Progress Monitor)

In thebusinessworld, somepeopleprefertofollowthe SMARTmethod when establishing – and achieving – their goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Time-related

In other words, there is no point in setting a goal that you can’t measure, can’t attain, or isn’t realistic. If, for example you are not physically fit, the goal of climbing mount Kilimanjaro next week is specific and measurable, but unlikely to be either attainable or realistic in the time frame you have allowed yourself.

A word to the sceptics

At this point, we can guess what you’re thinking: that planning and time management and goal setting are fine for other kinds of activities, but that science, by its very nature, resists all attempts to be neatly fitted into lists or time frames. After having logged many years in the lab, we couldn’t agree more, but that doesn’t mean that goal setting and planning have no place in the world of research. Good planning will give you a scaffold from which to work, as well as a way to monitor your progress. Faced with the daunting prospect of earning a PhD, many graduate students are overwhelmed by the magnitude of what’s between them and their final goal. To keep yourself from feeling like you’re drowning, we strongly encourage you to set reasonable goals and plan to achieve them in a reasonable amount of time – all the while recognizing and bowing to the vagaries of scientific research.

Effective time management

Once you’ve identified your short-term and long-term objectives, managing your time effectively will be key to keeping to your plan and attaining the goals you’ve identified. Most of us are familiar with that desperate feeling that time is slipping through our fingers, or that we don’t have enough hours in the day to do all the things we need to do. Often that feeling of a lack of time has more to do with poor time management skills than with an actual lack of time. We all have the same 24 hours in every day. How we make use of them differs widely among individuals and good time management is major factor in successfully completing the goals you have set for yourself.

One useful tool in effective time management is to keep a record of your activities. You will be keeping a lab notebook of your exper­iments, of course, but it is also helpful to keep a written record on a daily, or weekly basis, of all your activities. This will help you ana­lyze how you actually spend your time. The first time you start writing down all the things you do in a day, you may be shocked to discover how much time you actually waste.

You may also be unaware that your energy levels vary throughout the day and night. In fact, the majority of people function at different levels of effectiveness at different times. Most people know whether or not they are a ‘morning person’ or a ‘night owl,’ but do you know at which times of the day or evening that your energy dips or peaks? Your productivity may vary depending on the amount of glucose in your blood, the length of time since you last took a break, routine distractions, stress, discomfort, or a range of other factors. Identifying your peak energy periods will help you to use this time more wisely, doing the things that count. By identifying your energy dips, you’ll know when it’s time to switch tasks, eat something to give you energy, or take a break for some fresh air.

Record your daily activities

Keeping a record ofyour activities for several days will give you abetter understanding of how you spend your time – and when you perform at your best. Without modifying your normal routine or behaviour, write down all the things you do (as you do them) in the course of an entire day. Record your daily activities like this every day for a week. Every time you change activities, whether its reading e-mail, working in the lab, making coffee, sleeping, eating lunch, reading in the library, or attending meetings, note down when you do this and how you feel.

Learning from the record

Once you have noted the way you use your time every day for a week, go back and analyse what you have recorded. It is not unusual to discover that you spend a huge amount of time doing activities that are low down on your list of priorities! (See the 80-20 rule below). You may also discover that you have more energy during some parts of the day, and feel a bit listless and tired during others. Much of this variation in energy level depends on the breaks you take, the time and amount you eat, and the quality of your nutritional intake. Your written record will give you a basis for experimenting with these variables. Have you discovered that you have lots of energy in the morning and feel tired in mid-afternoon? Then get into the lab early and do your important thinking and/or experiments at this time. Use your low-energy time in the afternoon for more routine work such as searching the literature or writing up your notes. An even better solution to beat these periods of low-energy are to get out of the lab and go for a brisk walk in the fresh air.

Another useful tool for helping you get everything done is to draw up a to-do list. This can be done daily or weekly, whatever works best for you. A to-do list is a list of all the tasks that you need to carry out to reach the goal you have set for yourself. Once you’ve written your list, you can prioritize these tasks into order of importance.

There are people who make lists and people who don’t. Perhaps you’ve never thought of yourself as a ‘list’ person before, but to-do lists are essential when you need to carry out a number of different tasks or different sorts of task, or when you have made a number of commitments that need to be attended to simultaneously (multi­tasking). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can juggle all of this information in your head. If you find that you are caught out time and again because you have forgotten to do something, then you definitely need to keep a to-do list.

While to-do lists are a very simple tool, they are also extremely powerful, both as a method of organizing yourself and as a way of reducing stress. Often problems may seem overwhelming, especially if they’re left to rattle around in your head; or you may feel you have a huge number of demands on your time. This may leave you feeling out of control, and overburdened with work. Writing things down in a list (and crossing the things off the list that you’ve accomplished) can help to relieve these feelings.

Preparing a to-do list

The solution to feeling overwhelmed is simple: Write down the tasks you need to do, and if they are large, break them down into their component elements. If these still seem too large too handle, break them down again. Do this until you have listed everything that you have to do. Once you have done this, run through your list and allocate priorities: A (very important) to C (unimportant). If too many tasks have a high priority, run through the list again and demote the less important ones. Once you have done this, rewrite the list in order of priority. When you are finished you will have a precise plan that you can use to eliminate the problems you face, one step at a time. You will be able to tackle all of these things in order of importance. This process will allow you to separate the important tasks from the many time-consuming trivial ones.

Multi-tasking: is it for you?

Multi-tasking is the ability to do more than one thing at a time. Talking on the phone while reading your e-mail, or eating lunch while recording data from an experiment. These are both examples of multi­tasking. The more tasks we juggle in an attempt to make the most of the time we have, however, the less efficient we become at performing any one task. And the more time you take to return to an interrupted task, the harder it is to remember where it was that you left off. Studies have shown that multi-tasking can greatly increase your levels of stress, so you’ll have to decide whether it’s the right approach for you. Some people are natural multi-taskers, others prefer to do one thing at time. Many people feel that multi-tasking, while a good idea in theory, diminishes their productivity and makes them work harder in order to feel that they’re keeping up with all the things they’re supposed to do. Increases in technology have made it harder than ever to avoid multi-tasking, so you might want to try to slow down a bit and work on one task at a time to see how this effects your work – and your mood. Your concentration and productivity will most likely increase and you will probably stop feeling like you’re running in a million directions at once.

The 80/20 rule

Attributed to the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the original con­cept of the 80/20 rule states that the relationship between input and output is rarely, if ever, proportional. When applied to your work, it means that only 20 percent of your efforts produce 80 percent of the results. Learning to identify the 20 percent that produces the majority of your results is the key to making the most effective use of your time. While simplistic in its conception, putting the 80-20 rule into practice is somewhat more difficult. So how do you recognize the crucial 20 percent?

  1. Take a look at the people around you. Twenty percent of your colleagues probably give you 80 percent of the support you need. They are your true advocates. Take the time to learn from their example and to cultivate supportive relationships with them.
  2. Take a close look at your work. Ask yourself, Which 20 percent of my work should I be focusing on?

How do I know if I’m focusing on the 80 percent or the 20 percent?

Let’s look at the above statements in a bit more detail. The following are some indications of whether or not you’re spending your time as you should.

You’re focusing on the unproductive 80 percent if the following statements are true:

  • You’re working on tasks other people want you to do, but you have little or no stake in them.
  1. You’re frequently working on tasks considered ‘urgent.’
  2. You’re spending time on tasks you are not particularly good at.
  3. Completing some activities is taking much more time than you expected.
  4. You find yourself complaining all the time about how little you seem to be accomplishing compared to the effort you put in.

You’re focusing on the effective 20 percent, however, if:

  1. You’re engaged in activities that advance your overall goals in the lab.
  2. You’re working on tasks that you may not like, but you’re doing them knowing they relate to the bigger picture.
  3. You’re asking for help with tasks you are not good at doing yourself.
  4. You feel a sense of accomplishment.

Implementing the 80/20 rule

All of this may sound hopelessly simplistic, so if you’re particularly sceptical, try applying the 80/20 principle for a few days just to see what happens. An increased awareness of the way you work and the time you spend on a variety of activities will help you learn to make use of this remarkably effective principle. You will feel that you have more time, that you are able to focus on what is essential and that you can reduce the amount of time you spend on meaningless tasks or those that won’t help you reach your goals.

Saving an Old Master painting: Yousef establishes a set of goals

Not one to waste any time, Yousef decides to start off on the right footbyestablishingsome goals and objectivesforhimself during the first week in the lab. Some of these goals are non-research related, such as familiarizing himself with the department and

the library and setting up his work space. Even though he’s anx­ious to do his first experiment in the lab, he takes the time to write down some goalsfor his research. First, he needs to do some background reading as he knows very little about the chemistry and physical properties of paint pigments. Even though he is a physics student, he also wants to read up a bit on art history, so he can put the project into context and make it easier to talk to Peter with whom he is collaborating. He sketches out in his note­book his goals for the first month, and then for the three month, and six month mark, and then creates a realistic action plan for himself in the given time frame. Since he will be using a relatively new technique for studying paint samples (secondary ion mass spectrometry, or SIMS), Yousef has made one of his goals to do a thorough literature search on this technique. He also maps out an initial set of experiments, and highlights any possible pitfalls. Yousef is pleased that he now has a plan to work with and goes out for a coffee. In the hallway he runs into his supervisor and Yousef realizes that he has not discussed his plans with him at all. So he tells his supervisor about his ideas and asks for a brief meeting to be sure that his plans are in line with his supervi­sor’s own ideas and vision. After some minor modifications they agree on the plan and Yousef communicates to his team mates the things he wants to work on in the coming months.


Gosling, P., & Noordam, L. D. (2006). Mastering Your PhD. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.


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