Everyone entering graduate school instinctively knows that this is not an easy path. It is a long process requiring determination, perseverance, and a touch of luck to succeed. To graduate with your PhD requires two complete bodies of publishable work but often times, several projects are undertaken simultaneously and the outcome is never certain. This can create a situation in which a student can be toiling away for years without making measurable progress towards their degree. This is not a question of intelligence or determination but one of serendipity. Stuck in a system which values positive results, negative data can be mistaken for no work or progress. Especially to the student doing the work.
I found myself in this situation a year and a half ago. Having finished my qualifying exam, there was a period of time when apparent progress stalled and negative data accumulated. It was at this time that I realized the value of having short-term attainable goals. For my own well-being, I needed to be able to complete projects from start to finish. In fact, this was one of the driving factors behind the creation of IMMpress Magazine. The magazine allowed me to realize my goals and feel a sense of accomplishment, something that I might not otherwise get in an open-ended research project.
In the lab setting, this same realization translated to setting simple weekly goals. They could range from compiling data to making figures or running particular experiments. The result of the work did not matter, it was the idea of setting a mark and meeting it that brought about the feeling of work satisfaction. Of course, much thought goes into the goals each week and they are all part of a bigger long-term plan.
Short-term goal setting is a well-studied management technique which has been shown to boost performance and promote drive behaviour. Unfortunately, there can be potential negative side effects to the over prescription of goal-setting including the promotion of a narrow focus and an increased likelihood of unethical behaviour.
Of course, these are just my feelings on the matter. Every student may be different. What do you think? Do you set short-term goals in your own research? Leave a comment below.
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