setting goals – starting the PhD

If you’re just starting the PhD, you goal is to finish. Finish. Get it done. Get yourself across the stage to receive your testamur. Wear the floppy hat and gown. Change the signature on your email. Finally a Doctor.

Makes sense doesn’t it? That’s your ultimate goal. Why start something that you don’t intend to complete?  It does still surprise me that many of the PhDers I speak to don’t appear to have finishing as their goal. They don’t let themselves dream about the end point. They don’t imagine themselves as Dr Expert. It’s as if thinking about  being Dr-add-surname-here makes it less possible somehow. It’s like a dream that is destined to never come true. Don’t step on the crack in the pavement just in case. It’s better to leave it to fate. 

But let’s say that you do have finishing as your big goal. You are clear that this is what its all about. so Yes. Yay. You know where your’e going. But also no. Thats not enough.

Focussing on the end point is one thing. Focussing on the things you need to do to get there is another. An important another. A crucial another which is perhaps what the people who can’t let themselves think of the end point are hanging their hopes on. Hoping that concentrating on what happens each day will get them there.

But should your goal be an either or? End point or process? Can’t you have one eye on the end point and another on what you do every day? Well of course, yes . That seems pretty obvious. But how do you do this is more the case. There are lots of opinions out there about how to take the long and a short view of the doctorate at the same time. And to get you started, here’s my take.

While everyone is different, and not all things work for everyone, there’s a point in having several goals on the go at once – goals that work at different time scales.  

Goal Scale One. Having an eye on completion creates the time frame within which you need to work. Finishing might be tied to finances from a scholarship, to unpaid leave from work, to the completion time set by your institution. You need to get the job done before you fall in a hole. Or finishing might just be tied to what seems to you to be feasible. it looks as if this time frame is possible, and other people do it in this time so I will too.

But knowing the timing of the finishing line does other work. A defined completion point creates a horizon, a line of possibility, a destination. At this time in the future you will have developed a new aspect of your self. However, this future-you needs current-you to take charge of what happens in order to become a reality. 

Goals Scale Two. Once you have the end point sorted, it’s possible and desirable to understand how the doctorate proceeds and the big milestones you need to reach along the way. These are different in different countries and doctoral traditions. In North America, the doctorate is typically much longer than elsewhere. In the UK for instance, the three year full time doctorate is usually understood as a a first year of getting the research organised and approved, a second year of library, laboratory or field work and a final year devoted to analysis and writing. There are generally institutional hoops to be jumped along the way too. And of course there is an additional fourth full time year available if you go over time.

Now, having a sense of how the PhD unfolds allows you to set goals related to the process that you are in. But the goals you set may not exactly match the taken-for-granted annual calendar. They’ll be particular to you and your project. You may be able to start on the library or laboratory or field work in the first year for instance. And I encourage the PhDers I work with to finish their empirical work well before the end of the second year to leave themselves more time to do the analysis and text work – this almost always takes longer than you think. 

But you still need to break things down much further. Set even smaller goals.

Goals Scale Three. If you are doing field work or laboratory work you are likely to have a detailed timeline for this part of your doctorate. But what about the rest? What about the first and final years?

I imagine some of you are wondering whether you really need to go into the micro-level of what you do every day and every week. Especially if you haven’t had to work like this in the past. The answer is of course it depends – but it’s still  a “yes, most likely yes” from me. Having short-term goals can be very helpful at the outset of the doctorate to get yourself into routines – you build a habit of writing and reading regularly. Short term goals are even more important in the thesis-writing stage when you have to produce multipole iterations of large numbers of words in order to reach your overall submission goal. 

It’s not at all uncommon for PhDers to set themselves daily writing and/or reading goals, or weekly targets. Of course, some people find a daily goal pretty oppressive. It works for others. Find out what works for you.

There are multiple types of goals – text related, time related, task related. You need to work out what is needed when. You may need to vary your goals as you go along, depending how you are feeling and the part of the doctorate you are doing. It’s good to set goals and also to revisit and refresh them.

Once you have nested goals in your mind – end, medium and short term – it’s pretty useful to put them into some kind of diarised form. There’s a load of ways to do this – use a Gannt chart for the big picture, a yearly calendar for the middle level milestones. You can use a bullet journal of some kind to combine middle level and weekly/daily goals. Whiteboards. Post-its. Online reminders.

If’s often helpful to se the doctorate as a project – so take a look at the project management literatures to see how what is done there. But you’ll also find a load of advice just about goal setting and planning. And various hacks that can help.

And your institution might well offer some workshops. Your supervisor will have some ideas. And you can get a lot of information by asking people further ahead in the PhD about what they do – and don’t – do. And there will be coaching and regular reading writing and support groups that you can join – these can go a long way to assisting you to set out and meet your goals. 

But goals. You need some. And they need to be practical and achievable. They also need to be adjustable and flexible because, well, because life happens. And they need to work for you. As always, what works for someone else may not work for you. But it also might, so it’s always worth finding out about available options. So do take the time when you start your doctorate to investigate how people manage their time and get to the floppy hat stage.

You’ll continue to work on goals throughout your doctorate. But it’s well worth getting your head around the timescales and shape of the years to come right now. 

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in planning, time-limited doctorates, writing goals and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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