How to Set SMART(-YO!) Goals For a PhD

In this epic second part I share how to go about setting goals that mean something to you and the people around you.

How to Set SMART(-YO!) Goals For a PhD
Putting the pieces of a PhD together can be pretty tricky, especially when you don't know what they all are.

I'm so happy that you're thinking about planning your PhD. Time spent creating useful goals can be invaluable as you navigate all the different and exciting aspects of your postgraduate work!

This is part 2 of a three part series on setting goals and planning a PhD. I'd recommend you head back and read Part 1 first if you want to set the scene, then head back here.

Setting successful SMART goals for your PhD requires you to understand what motivates you, what you have to do, your priorities and how you are going to get there. To do this, you should consider setting SMART goals using the following hierarchy:

  1. A main goal - the overall motivation
  2. Sub-goals - what are your priorities?
  3. Three monthly goals - the most effect 'long term' planning period or a 6 month timeline
  4. Monthly plans - for a healthy approach to deadlines
  5. Weekly goals (or tasks) - the day to day progress and tracking

What is a 'Goal'?

Lets first consider what a goal is so that we know what we're aiming for! Goals need passion.

Typically, a goal is viewed as an endpoint that you are striving to achieve. It is a point in a personal journey that you have worked hard to get to. Used properly, goals help orientate what you do with your life, because ultimately you need to want to achieve the goal you have set yourself.

However, a goal should not always be an endpoint in itself. That can leave a sense of lost purpose after the goal has been achieved. In the same way a football match doesn't end when a goal is scored, it's a good idea for goals to be part of a larger journey. So whilst goals are an endpoint of sorts, they should also be viewed as just the beginning.

Why I Set Specific Goals for my PhD

I wrote my goals down at a time of frustration with where I was with my PhD. A PhD can pull in lots of directions at once making it hard to know what to prioritise. That, and a pandemic combined with childcare challenges did and still does not, make it easy to get the brain space that I need to cope with a PhD.

Put simply, writing down my goals helped me get out of a rut. Here I've compiled a blog post about the how, where, what, why, who and when about my goal setting process. I'd recommend to do it sooner rather than later because goals give purpose and direction. Because if it can be helped, it's best not to get stuck in a rut or overwhelmed in the first place!

When did I set the goals for my PhD

Although I always vaguely had my PhD goals in my head, it wasn't until well after I was into the second year of my PhD that I made a conscious effort to write them down. Which was kinda stupid TBH. This happened to be when I was on holiday. It was the first time in a while that I had the brain space to sit down, in a sunny, caravan park of all places, and have some me time.

[I don't have a bucket list, but during this holiday, I also finally read an entire book in one day! That gives you an idea of the mindset I was in and the time that was available to me.]

The reality is, that it's better setting goals for a PhD earlier, rather than later; the main one before you even start. My advice is to make them as flexible as possible so that it doesn't matter if the specifics are changed. This is for two reasons. The first is to make the goal more likely to be successful, and the second is to allow a little flexibility in how that goal is achieved. (Think about what I was saying in Part 1). There can be many ways to achieve a goal. For me, I set them up in a way that if I changed what job I want to do after my studies, it doesn't matter. As long as it leads me to a job in some form and feeds into my career experience. I didn't set any time limits, because frankly, I love doing a PhD so want it to last as long as possible! But just in case my situation changes and I have to suspend or pull out, then the goal is still there for the future.

Tip: If you're itching to get started with your PhD but haven't actually officially started as a student yet, then setting goals is a perfect thing to do now. Do it while your brain is free, and you can clearly see your 'why'.This will help keep up motivation when you need it at a later date.

How to set the main goal for a PhD

The first thing to do is to set the overarching goal - the big one that everything will lead towards. Ask things like:

  • Why am I doing a PhD?
  • Where do I need it to lead me?
  • Would I still be doing it if someone offered me a job I'd love?
  • What is the purpose of a PhD generally, and my PhD specifically?
  • Will this PhD be my life, or does it need to fit around other commitments?

Choose the words of your main goal carefully, making sure it doesn't restrict options in the future.

You can read more detail about my own goals in the final blog post of this series: Example Goals and Sub Goals For a PhD Researcher

For me, at the end of the day I want to complete my PhD and I want it to have some relevance and usefulness towards my next employment. I'm not saying what job it needs to get me, as this may actually change and depends on the jobs available. It wouldn't be the first time I've entered the job market in a recession.

Woman climbing a ladder into the air
Doing a PhD without some kind of goal in mind is like climbing a ladder into mid-air

Next, get a practical idea of where it needs (or has) to lead

My big goal gives me plenty of flexibility in how I go about my PhD. But at this stage, it does pay to think about some of the types of jobs that would be of interest. This is because, at the end of the day, after the PhD has finished, some kind of job is required. But this is where the beauty of a PhD lies. It opens many doors, due to the range of skills acquired and the flexibility in choosing which skills are acquired. Of course, it can also shut some doors too, so do be aware of this.

So, how to go about this? Well …

… want an academic job? Maybe focus on writing and publishing papers. A communication job? Maybe focus on writing lots of different styles encompassing web copy, social media, magazines and book chapters; get a freelance gig or two. If it's a business job, maybe focus on metrics, management and skills; the things to put real numbers to. Want a teaching job? Focus on teaching, mentoring and supporting others.

And this is where the sub-goals come in.

How to set the sub-goals for research work

Setting the main goal (see here) for my PhD was a fairly simple affair. The sub-goals were slightly more challenging, as that is where it gets into more specifics. But the beauty of the sub-goals reflects in how much the experience of a PhD can be tailored to what is needed. Therein also lies the challenge.

Try to be structured in setting sub-goals so that they last throughout the PhD. These are starting to drill into the 'how' of doing a PhD. Changing these down the line can lead to frustration, a lack of accomplishment and resentment. Obviously they aren't set in stone, but design them to limit the number of changes, that can be made.

Sub-goals begin to provide the metrics by which a PhD is measured and provide the skills needed for the next step. Losing sight of the trackable metrics of a PhD is when everything gets … a bit overwhelming. So choose them carefully.

Questions to ask yourself to help identify your PhD sub-goals

  1. What methods, skills and techniques am I particularly interested in? Is there a technique that I really need to know about to fulfil my ambitions?
  2. How much do I want to focus on the teaching and mentoring side?
  3. Is there an aspect of interdisciplinarity? Do I want to be focused or broad? Do I want to combine two unusual topics?
  4. Do I want to be able to evidence leadership? Working in a team?
  5. What about creative thinking? Do I want to develop a new technique?
  6. How are my research and ideas to be communicated? Scientific papers? Industrial partnerships? Social media? Or just my thesis? Do I want to write a book or a chapter?
  7. Do I want to show how good I am at getting funding and writing grant proposals?

There are no right or wrong answers here. Don't feel there's anything wrong with not wanting to publish scientific papers, when 50% of time is spent focusing on honing teaching skills, for example; this is of course the reality of many academic roles nowadays. Ultimately, passing a few assessments along the way, writing a thesis and doing a verbal defence are the only things that need to be done (in the UK). (This may not be the case for everyone, so check with your institution). But use any wiggle room as an advantage to maximise the benefits of doing a PhD!

Man putting the missing piece into a question mark puzzle
So many questions ... what's most important to you?

Further notes about setting sub goals

My goals and sub goals for my PhD shows my own goals to be quite metric based, and there's good reason for that; they are easier to track progress.

So make sure that sub-goals have numbers:

  • how many
  • how often
  • when

At the basic level, give some numbers to start to drill down into the specifics. The end date is already set, so that bits easy. And don't go too crazy. It's a much better feeling to overshoot a goal than to set them way higher than ever could be achieved, given that life happens. What's typical in your area? For some, it might not be unusual to publish 4 papers. For others, particularly those involving long term field projects or trials, 1 or 2 may be more realistic. Industrial partnership-based projects may not be allowed to publish.

Sub-goals loosely conform to the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) methodology. Specific SMART goal methodology isn't gone into detail here, as that would make this post longer than it already is. It's a post for another day. But the approaches that I'm discussing are all SMART.

While the SMART method is very useful, I think it misses off two really key points. So I'm actually going to change this to YO-SMART. You could also call it SMART-YO if you wish ;) So what's this 'YO' bit all about?

'YO' stands for 'you' and 'others'

In my opinion, the two critical components missing from traditional SMART goals, are 'You' and 'Others'. I can say from my personal experience that a goal not set around me to some degree, is much less likely to be completed. Involving others (in a healthy way) can provide additional incentives. Some PhD positions are part of a larger group project. What's required will be different from ones where the project is more of a standalone. For example, I have a great research group, but my project is pretty much up to me. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type. Again another blog post.

Ultimately, how can you benefit from this goal; what will you receive, and how will it affect you?

I also added in the bit about 'others'. This could be an organisation, family, a business, mentees and mentors, employees and managers. How will this goal affect them? Think about both positives and negatives and have these in mind. Sometimes this requires looking retrospectively.

For example, I've done a lot of reflection in the past few months. One of the things I realised that would have had a big impact on my life would have been having a mentor in school and at university. So I signed up to become a mentor to a young person. I can't tell you how excited I am to do this! I'm hoping it's not only life changing for them, but also an incredible learning experience for myself. If I hadn't considered the 'You' and 'Others' bit, I don't think this goal would have made it into my 12.

To be honest, I never wrote my goals down this detailed, but I still thought about the impact on myself and others. The one thing it is important to commit to, is to write down and keep track of, progress.

Keeping track of goals is one of the most important things to do

Keeping track of goals is very important. There should be some way to regularly check in regarding progress. Regularly ask the question:

Is (most of) what I'm doing contributing to my goals?

If that's not the case, then it's likely, things are not going well. The trick is being able to identify that this is the case as soon as possible to prevent problems in the long run. This is done through regularly reviewing the goal setting process.

The main way I keep track of my own goals is by having 'Weekly Reviews'. I covered my weekly review progress in an earlier blog post but ultimately the first section of this is what went well and how my week contributed to the 1%. This makes note to the fact that progress is made at the daily level. Infinitesimal things we do each day are what contribute to the bigger picture. These can be lost in the busy day, but by regularly writing it down, you have a visual reminder of the ladder you have climbed so far. They also allow quick identification of things that are getting in the way.

There are numerous ways to keep track of progress. Find a way that resonates. It'll make the whole process a lot smoother and successful.

Please do leave your comments below. I always love hearing about your systems! I personally need some kind of confined structure, otherwise I will waffle on and on and on…

Here's some ideas to get you started tracking your goals:

  • One line a day - I bought this beautiful (large) pocket-sized one line a day journal from Waterstones. Because I'm limited for space, I can only write down the most meaningful things each day.
  • Bullet journal - I tried this a few years ago. The trouble was, I was so focused on making it fancy (for which there is absolutely no need) that it didn't work for me. It took too long to manage because I got bogged down in the diary/planning aspect. Many people love it though! There are structured options or you can keep it freeform.
  • Planning or journaling app - I like the look of Complice for its unencumbered interface and obvious 'Have you done this yet?' appearance. It'll set you back $10 a month, but its in-your-face-attitude I like. If you feel overwhelmed by apps like Todoist, then this simple but effective app might be for you.
  • Weekly review - This is where the magic happens for me. You could have a short daily one if you make the time available. I use this to make sure I'm orientated around my goals and have my focus for the following week. I use Obsidian, but you could use your software/notebook of choice.
  • Website or blog - Or some kind of medium where there is an obvious progress. Clearly I use this… I can see each week if I have posted on my blog. If I haven't I'm off track. Writing can be quite a good metric to track progress. Ultimately, your PhD will be finalised in written form (thesis, presentation, report etc.) so writing is a great 'penultimate' metric. If you can write about your PhD, however much it may need editing, chances are you've done the relevant work beforehand.
Two people trying to work out the most effective way through a maze.
How are you going to make sure you are on track and not side-tracked by something else?
So, lets check in with where we are. We've got our main goal, some sub-goals with some metrics we can track and a way of tracking. What next?

The next part details how we are going to get there. What can we do to flesh out, what it is we actually do with our time? I've briefly mentioned that my Weekly Review takes the burden of this, but it's a big jump from my three year PhD goals to a week. Lets break it down a bit further.

How I set my three monthly goals

Three months, or twelve weeks, is one of the most effective time-planning periods. In fact, Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington wrote a whole book called 'The 12 Week Year'. [I read it in June 2022]. A year is just too long to allocate your time accordingly. The beginning starts out (too) slow and the end is one big rush to get everything finished. Does this sound a bit like a PhD per chance?

A 12 Week Year creates greater focus by highlighting the value of each week. With the 12 Week Year, a year is now equivalent to 12 weeks, a month is now a week, and a week is now a day.Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington, The 12 Week Year

In another blog post, I'll cover the 12 Week Year approach to planning. It's not one I've completely implemented myself yet (I still go with the 6 month timeline), but the idea is a lot easier to manage than 12 months. I disagree with the idea that 'you can achieve more in 12 months than you can in a year' rubbish, but consistency and the ability to plan better through your shorter 'year' helps prevent burnout. A shift in mindset can do amazing things for what you get out of your time. That shift in mindset is not only that consistency is key, but also by wanting to do something i.e. your goals, it's much easier to do.

The way to do three monthly plans that has resonated with me the most so far, in terms of practicality and creativity, is the post-it note method of arranging tasks. I was first exposed to this by Caron Fraser-Wood of Educating Experts/The Mindset Method. It basically takes the form of doing a brain dump of everything you think you want to achieve over the next 3 months. I found it useful to see everything visually organised on the wall. I kept using it over the 3 months that followed.

How I set my monthly goals

My monthly goals could be seen as akin to a task list. They have a bit more of a 'how' and 'what' about them. I'm definitely not a fan of breaking tasks down into minutiae. I like to give myself the freedom to have wiggle room as to how to achieve what I've set out to do. We all have good days and bad days. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not good at forcing myself to do something I don't want to. I'm only really able to do that if I have a deadline. Instead I generally listen to my body and ask it what it feels like doing today. The downside of that is I tend to spend too much time on the things I like doing and not enough on the things I don't.

The major drawback of this, is that it means I don't go out my comfort zone enough. In that respect, I try to incorporate at least one or two hard deadlines in my monthly goals. A month is a nice amount of time to plan around a deadline, so there's no reason it should cause too much stress, like a weekly deadline could.

This approach also means setting early deadlines is something I do often. If it's a conference deadline, I regularly set it the week before. I can't tell you how wonderful it is to get near the deadline and realise you have an extra week! Stress be gone. This works wonderfully because I will forget what the 'actual' deadline is anyway!

How I set my weekly goals

Although it may not seem like it, change and progress happens slowly. It is the things that we do everyday that work into the bigger picture. Any sports person will tell you this.

My deadlines have been taken care of in the monthly goals, so there's less stress involved at the weekly level. Yes, some will crop up at the last minute, but that's life. However by taking care of the high level stuff, there's more flexibility around the small stuff. This is my buffer.

The fact is every week counts! Every day counts! Every moment counts! We need to be conscious of the reality that execution happens daily and weekly, not monthly or quarterly.Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington, The 12 Week Year

Most importantly, I set goals not tasks. You may essentially see them as a task list and that's fine if that's what works for you. But goals are the tasks I want to achieve. There's a huge difference in mindset between 'want' and 'need'. By viewing them this way, I don't have to do anything. I do it because I am confident they will lead me to where I want to go.

I've actually written a whole other blog post on my 'Weekly Review' process, which is one of the ways that I orientate myself around the goals. Again it's not a task manager, it's a 'is what I'm doing, in line with where I need to be?' Are there things I should be doing more or less of?

I tend to use tasks as things that I have to do but I don't particularly want to. Paperwork, life logistics, emails; all the sorts of things that get in the way but have to be done. I use TickTick to manage this side of things.

Who will my PhD goals benefit?

The biggest benefactor of your PhD is you and should always be you. Your goals should make you feel happy and fulfilled. 99% of people do a PhD because they want to do a PhD or it forms part of the bigger picture of where it needs to get them afterwards.

Why not share your goals with your supervisors? They may be able to help guide you, give you suggestions and pointers. Remember they are your goals. As long as the ultimate goal of completing a PhD to the best of your ability is there, the way you get there is up to you. Sharing goals with your supervisors and mentors can help them understand what you want to achieve too.

But I do think goals should also benefit others too. If you are working to your best and your passion, then others will recognise that.

Lots of people working on a puzzle problem
Could you set some communal goals to help others?

Ultimately, is setting PhD goals useful?

Only you can decide whether setting goals will be useful for you. There is evidence, however, that writing down goals is highly beneficial and linked to whether you will have success in achieving what you want. But clearly, there is no replacement for actually getting out there and 'doing the stuff'. I would be the first to admit that I have 'an execution problem'. In other words too much planning and not enough action! But that's just the way I'm wired. It's a slow and steady wins the race approach from me. I need to know what I'm doing, why and how it will benefit me and that's where the goal setting comes in.

By writing this blog post, it seems like I have everything planned out to the nth degree. I guess I have compared to many people, but in an increasingly distractive world, it helps me keep my focus. If it helps you get your work done, go for it. If it's an excuse to buy yet another notebook and spend an hour every day planning out your day, then maybe not.

Everyone has their own way of working, just pick something and stick to it. An important part of your PhD is finding your vibe. It took me two years, a child and a pandemic to find mine. I've learnt that I'm definitely a tortoise with a speed limiter when it comes to life. I hope your journey is a little less fraught than this, but one thing still holds for me and that's setting goals sets the right headspace.

I'd love to know if you find this content helpful. Do you set goals or are they your worst nightmare? Is there an approach that you use that you'd like to share, that may help others?

Remember to head to the final part and see some example goals that I have set myself.

Example Goals and Sub Goals For a PhD Researcher
In this post, I have outlined my overall PhD goal, my sub-goals and how these might map onto a monthly task list. I hope this example will help you in designing your own series of PhD goals.