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Goal Setting and Motivation

How many of us set goals for the academic semester or year? Goals are important to getting things done and moving forward to advance both our professional and personal lives. They serve as a motivational tool to keep us on track and focused on the many smaller tasks that lead up to achieving our desired outcomes. Goal setting is a foundation upon which to build your personal and professional development. Goals should encompass short-term, long-term, personal and professional.

 “Begin with the end in mind.” – Stephen Covey

As a graduate student, consider the obvious goal – graduating. To envision this goal, one must examine the many steps that may take place along the way (e.g. passing the qualifying exam, writing the thesis, defending the dissertation, etc.). In his 1989 book entitled, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey suggests to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.[i] There are numerous self-help books that references goals setting such as The 4-Hour Work Week and Personal Development for Smart People.  These self-help books encourage an introspective view of what’s important and articulate a wide range of goals that a graduate student may set forth.

How to say ‘No’

In setting goals for yourself, it is equally important to learn how to say “No.” For graduate students, we often feel the pressure to say ‘Yes’ to every opportunity that crosses our path. We often say ‘Yes’ to joining another student organization, or attending a social event.  Having goals in mind can help you evaluate each opportunity and then decide whether to say yes or no within the context of whether the opportunity helps to further your goals. Essentially, the graduate student ought to weigh the opportunity cost before agreeing to give one’s time.

“Action expresses priorities” – Mohandas Gandhi

Your goals define your priorities. The next step is to put into play your actions which express your priorities. For the average graduate student, a list of priorities can seem daunting and never-ending. If you follow a few simple steps, you can avoid being overwhelmed:

  • List all projects, deadlines and priorities on a piece of paper. Include big and small things.
  • Categorize in terms of time needed to complete: 1 month, by the end of the year or within the next 5 years. Cross off things that cannot be done within these time frames.
  • Add them to your calendar. My favorite scheduling tool is Microsoft Outlook but you may prefer your cell phone or another device. Typically these devices allow color coding your input. Whatever the technology, use it! And stand by the principle that if it’s not on your schedule, it doesn’t exist.

In closing, if we are guided by our goals, then we can schedule everything that’s important and say ‘no’ to the things that don’t help us achieve the end result we so desire as graduate students. Whether your goal is to draft a dissertation manuscript in the short term or keep up your weekly readings in the longer term, you can achieve what you set out to do academically. Figure out what planning tools work best for you and just get it done.

If you would like to learn strategies for managing your time, register for this Friday’s webinar on Scheduling and Time Management, part of the Maximizing Productivity during Graduate School series offered by Graduate Student Life and Learning Services. The webinar will be held 12:00-1:00pm; login information will be sent to those who register. Visit here to sign up.

Learning Services offers additional resources to aid graduate students with goal setting and time management, including workshops, academic coaching, and online videos. Visit the Learning Services website for more information.


[i] Covey, Stephen R. 2004. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Free Press