Setting goals part II: making the big things granular (yearly)


The next trick is to break the big goals down into more manageable bite sized pieces.  If one of your goals is to get a PhD, then you will have to break down the steps required to get there and set up a timeline for when these things have to be done.  Here’s what that looks like:

  • Get a PhD, Find a post-doc job
  • Survive classes (1st year)
  • Find a thesis lab (1st year)
  • Survive teaching (1st year)
  • Pass Quals (2nd year)
  • Perform research/publish (2nd year-5th year)
  • Write and defend thesis/graduate (5th year)
  • Find a job/post-doc (5th year)

When asked about the key to success, the comedian Steve Martin responds “Be so good they can’t ignore you”. How this applies to you is discussed in depth by one of my favorite academic productivity bloggers, Cal Newport. The goal isn’t to win by a field goal...the goal is to completely crush it.  Again this starts with the language that you use when you define your goals. Here’s what your updated goals might look like:


  • Get a PhD, Find a top post-doc job
  • Get straight A’s in classes (1st year)
  • Find a top thesis lab (1st year)
  • Become a great teacher (1st year)
  • Crush Quals (2nd year)
  • Do great research/publish 4 first author papers and 4 collaborative papers (2nd year-5th year)
  • Have one of the best theses to ever come out of the lab/department (5th year)
  • Find a top job/top post-doc (5th year)

The key is to not just be ambitious but to be overambitious.  In order to keep your sanity while doing this you must realize that it is ok to come up alittle short.  If your goal is to get a B in a course, then that is likely to be the best you’ll do.  However, if you set out to get an A in a course and you end up with a B+ or A-, that’s still very respectable and you should be okay with that. It’s still much better than if you would have gone for the minimal goal.  In the next post, I’ll discuss how to take these granular goals and make them actionable.