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By: Jonathan Foland, Graduate Career Services Assistant and Doctoral Student in Communication

The start of a new calendar year means the start of a new semester for graduate and professional students. There are classes to plan (or some to take), conference deadlines to meet, and thesis and dissertation defenses to schedule, to name just a few of the projects many graduate students will tackle this year.

Setting goals and following through with them are crucial for staying on track academically and professionally. However, setting the bar too high, or being vague about what to accomplish can undermine the best of intentions.

One way to make meeting goals easier is to adopt the SMART Goal model. In general SMART Goals are specific, measurable goals that can be completed within a reasonable amount of time. Setting SMART Goals is a common exercise in coaching, advising, student counseling, therapy, and many other services and can also be a useful way to make short-term progress for long-term outcomes.

Following the SMART Goal model is not as simple as identifying a goal and then setting a deadline. Specificity of the goal is important. Although a goal such as revising a chapter of a dissertation over the weekend may seem specific, a SMARTer approach would involve clarifying what the revision process entails (e.g., rewriting several pages, proofing grammar and spelling). Likewise, starting a job search may seem like a specific goal, but it does not indicate a feasible starting point (e.g., researching qualifications for a job in a particular industry).

When setting goals, consider the following questions:

  • Is my goal specific? If a goal is too vague, or too big, then try breaking it down into smaller components. For someone revising a chapter of their dissertation, jumping into the work without a plan for what revision entails could quickly become overwhelming. A broad goal may work well as a long-term goal, but identifying the different, smaller components for achieving that goal can clarify the process.
  • Is my goal measurable? Another way to approach this question is to ask, how will I know that I am making progress? A person planning to write an essay may measure progress in terms of hours spent, words written, or pages completed daily. A person preparing a job search may set a daily goal for how many job postings to collect. In each case the goal setter sets a standard for what counts as progress.
  • Is my goal achievable? Develop goals that are do-able. If goals are too big, then scale back to more manageable steps. Specificity and measurability matter here; ensure the feasibility of a goal by having a strong sense of what meeting that goal will entail. Will it fit within your schedule, given other obligations? Are you able to handle the amount of work you set out to do?
  • Is my goal relevant? Will the goal bring about desired progress or results? When conducting a job search it may seem counterproductive to explore job postings without submitting applications. However, exploring job postings can be relevant work when it yields information about a career path. Thus, a goal set right now may be a short-term one that, over time, contributes to long-term results.
  • Is my goal time-specific? How long will you give yourself to make progress on the goal? This could be a set deadline. It could also be a series of dates that act as checkpoints for evaluating progress and, if needed, revising goals. Even when setting SMART goals, it is possible to misjudge measurability or achievability of a goal. It is perfectly fine to pause, take stock of your approach, and make a course correction that keeps you moving.

Give consideration to how you can maintain personal accountability. Although some people are disciplined enough to set goals and follow through with them quickly, others benefit from checking in with a trusted friend, peer, or colleague. Developing this kind of relationship need not demand much of each person’s time. For some people, building accountability is as simple as exchanging a text message, sending an email, or making a quick call to their check-in person.

The SMART Goal model may help you make the most out of a busy semester. By setting SMART Goals, you can make progress that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely that, over time, can add up to substantial success.


Jonathan Foland, Graduate Career Services Assistant and Doctoral Student in Communication,

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