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Goal Setting for Professors of All Levels

Goal setting for professors

Goal Setting for Professors of All Levels

If you took out a piece of paper and listed all the tasks that you have to complete in a given semester in your current role, I bet it would look pretty long and daunting. That list may even cause you some anxiety thinking about how you will get all that done in the three to four month timespan of a semester. A lot of professors feel this way at some point in their careers (I know; I did several times), and for many, it can feel like progress on any given day is minimal. This article presents some tips and tricks for making progress on a variety of fronts (research, writing, and teaching) that will have you feeling confident with your growth and accomplishments at the end of the semester. Let’s start with some goal setting basics, and then we can explore some examples.

Why even set a goal to begin with? Setting goals provides you with a focus, something on the horizon that you can work towards. Without goals, you may do a lot during the day but never actually get anything done or completed, or worse, you could be working on tasks that are lower priority and forego progress on higher-priority tasks. Having a few well-crafted goals to choose from allows you to rank or prioritize them based on your needs and those of your family, students, and community. Note that I mention a ‘few’ goals, not ‘many’ goals. Stretching yourself too thin, especially repeatedly across many semesters, can lead to burnout and exacerbate stress. It is up to you to set boundaries and know where to put your efforts.

How do we set a goal that we can actually reach? There are many schools of thought on how to set goals, but the key is to make them both measurable and meaningful. One common goal-setting method comes from the management realm–SMART. Pioneered by Doran in 1981 (1) and popularized by Drucker in 1992 (2), similar goal-setting methods have been adapted to a variety of business, government, and academic situations. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. Combining this method with the idea of macro and micro goals, often borrowed from behavioral science for changing habits, can help you focus on what you want to accomplish within a semester, a project, a course, or even a single lesson. Macro goals are the broader, overarching goals you have set for yourself, such as eating healthier or exercising more, while micro goals are the subgoals that will help you reach the macro goal, such as cooking one vegetarian dish a week or fitting in a 10 minute walk over lunch.

There are two more important things to consider when setting goals: finding your motivation and checking on your progress. Early in the goal-setting process, it is important to think about why you want to set a goal for a particular aspect of your life or career. For example, maybe you want to improve your teaching because you want to see students apply their knowledge to more advanced topics, or maybe you want to see higher final exam scores. The more intrinsic your motivation, the more likely you are to commit to improvement in that area. You will also want to set periodic check-ins throughout the semester—maybe once at midterms and once after finals—to see how you are making progress on your goals. You may find that you have fully met one of your goals by midterms, so you can focus less on improvement there and refocus more effort on other goals. Maybe you have made little progress on a goal and could consider focusing on it further, or maybe that goal needs some adjustment in future semesters as you right-size it for your situation. Overall progress in the long term is especially rewarding, even when one or two goals seem off track.

Now let’s consider some example goals and ways to meet them.

Research-focused goals

You likely have less time at the bench or in the field than you did in graduate school or your post-doc, and your focus now is spread across acquiring funding, setting up or maintaining your lab, presenting research, and recruiting and mentoring graduate and/or undergraduate students.

  • If you want to increase your lab’s funding, then maybe a single-semester goal that is measurable and achievable could be to ’find two new grants to apply for,’ Notice that this goal does not commit you to the long process of applying for those grants immediately, which may help relieve the pressure of having to prepare those materials on top of your other duties during the semester. Some tasks or micro goals that can be accomplished on monthly or weekly timescales include searching the web for granting agencies, narrowing that list down to agencies that fund in your area, creating a file or database to store your findings about these agencies, reading the funding requirements and other source materials, and finally marking the deadlines on a calendar so that in a future goal you can set a timeline for actually applying for your top two options.

  • If you want to increase the number of people in your lab, then maybe your goal could be to ‘recruit one new graduate student’ or ‘hire one new post-doc.’ Some micro goals might be to make an attractive website and put a plan in place to keep it updated regularly, to draft a job posting for recruitment sites or professional society job boards, to have regular coffee chats with peers teaching courses with students who might be interested, or even to devote some time in your own class to talk about opportunities in your lab.

Writing-focused goals

Writing takes a lot of time and often many iterations before a final paper or grant proposal is created. You likely have collaborators contributing to or reviewing the document; they can help lighten the load but will also have their own time constraints. Although many of us have experienced long days and late nights writing and revising our work, setting some attainable goals and working towards them consistently should help alleviate some of the time pressure of these important activities.

  • If you have identified a topic to write about, say the results of a year-long experiment, then maybe a single-semester goal could be to ‘Create one complete draft of a research paper.’ Notice that this goal does not include formatting that paper or even submitting it to a journal right away; the goal is to have a draft to work from. Maybe next semester’s goal could include revising and then publishing it. Some micro goals to get you started could include outlining the major methods and results in bullets/fragments or setting a writing goal for each day or week, either in time or pages/sections. If setting a writing goal, you may benefit from marking your writing time on a shared calendar and scheduling it for when you are least likely to be disturbed.

  • Maybe you would like to do more to keep up with the current literature. A macro goal could be to ‘form a discussion group to report on interesting findings from a variety of journals,’ while some micro goals could be to sign up for email notifications from journals about newly published work, setting aside specific times or days to check certain websites or preprint servers, or delegating the monitoring of one or two journals to students and staff in your lab with the added benefit that they can improve their scientific literacy and presentation skills. You could also consider a goal centered on reading more efficiently. Subgoals could be reading the abstract of a certain number of new articles and banking them in a computer file for a full read when you have more time, or skimming the figures and their legends before committing to reading a whole article. You could even keep a digital article diary where you jot down the citation and any notes that may be relevant to future articles you may want to write.

Teaching-focused goals

You may have little control over what courses you are teaching and what time they are offered, but much of what goes on in the classroom is where you can innovate. The time you spend in the classroom is set, but the time spent outside of the classroom on lectures and assignments can vary depending on your approach and goals.

  • If you want to innovate in the classroom, one goal could be to ‘find one new teaching method or tool to test in class.’ Some micro goals could be to read articles on current teaching trends in your field, discuss teaching strategies with your peers or sit in on their classrooms to see how they are used, reach out to one or two industry representatives to learn more about your top tool choices, and incorporate the new tool into a single lecture or topic in one class. By working slowly and methodically through your options, you do not need to commit a full semester to a tool you or your students may not like.

  • Maybe you want to improve student performance on your exams. Some general goals could be to ‘move away from using the test bank provided with the textbook’ or ‘use higher Bloom’s taxonomy in your exams’. Some tasks that could help you reach teaching goals might include reading some pedagogical research studies on exams/assessments, rewriting one or two questions per exam in your top new style, adding bonus questions to your exams in your top new style, and analyzing the results of these new questions at the end of the semester. Remember that waiting to test out new questions until the final exam may not provide you with the results you are looking for, as students could be confused why those types of questions were not used earlier in the semester.

Goal setting is like a personal roadmap to where you want to be in your career. Even when the semester feels like it is slipping away, coming back to your core goals can help you focus on your next steps. Remember to give yourself permission to stop when you have reached your goal. If you said you would have the introduction of a paper drafted in a given week and you are done by Thursday, do not feel pressured to move on to your next goal for Friday. Instead, relax a little. Spend time with your family or peers. Rewarding yourself a little now will help with motivation later. You also need to be forgiving when you do not meet a goal. Maybe that goal was too big and needs to be broken down further, or maybe something changed beyond your control and that goal fits with the direction you want to go. Building in some buffer time will really help you be prepared in case of emergencies or unseen issues that arise during the semester. When setting your goals, be realistic about how much energy you can and are willing to devote to an activity. It might help to make a list of your current commitments and how long those typically take you. If you teach a three hour lab in the morning, take lunch for an hour, and then teach a one hour lecture, you may have two to four hours in the afternoon to devote to your goals. However, if you factor in standing meetings and office hours, then maybe this available time is closer to one or two hours at most. The best way to get good at setting goals is to practice. Try creating just one goal for one of the above categories,or another of your choosing; and then share that goal with your friends, colleagues, and family for feedback and accountability.

Also Read:


  1. Doran, G. T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”. Management Review. 70 (11): 35–36.
  2. Drucker, Peter F. “Reflections of a Social Ecologist,” Society, May/June 1992.

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