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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 you have to complete in a given semester in your current role, I bet it would look daunting. You may feel anxious thinking about how you must finish it all within the three to four month timespan of a semester. A lot of professors feel distressed at some point in their careers (I know; I did several times). For many, it can feel like progress on any given day is minimal.

This article presents tips and tricks to professors for making progress on researching, writing, and teaching.that will have you feeling confident with your growth and accomplishments at the end of the semester.

Let’s start with goal setting basics. Then, we will explore examples.

Why are goals important?

Setting goals provides you with a focus and something on the horizon you can work towards. Without goals, you may do a lot during the day but never get anything done or completed.You could be working on lower-priority tasks while forgoing progress on more important assignments.

Have a small list of goals

Having a few well-crafted goals 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. Set boundaries. now where to put your efforts.

How do we set realistic goals?

There are many schools of thought on how to set goals. The key is to make them both measurable and meaningful.

SMART goal-setting method

One common goal-setting method comes from the management realm–SMART. It was 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 stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • 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 goals you want to accomplish within a semester, project, course, or single lesson.

Macro vs. micro goals

Macro goals are the broader, overarching goals you have set for yourself, such as eating healthier or exercising. 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.

Find motivation

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 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.

Check your progress

Set periodic check-ins throughout the semester—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.

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. Now, your focus is spread across acquiring funding, setting up or maintaining your lab, presenting research, and recruiting and mentoring graduate and/or undergraduate students.

Example of a research goal: Apply for two grants

Macro goal

If you want to increase your lab’s funding, a measurable and achievable single-semester goal could be to find two new grants to apply for.This goal does not commit you to the long process of applying for the grants immediately. This will relieve the pressure of preparing those materials on top of your other duties during the semester.

Micro goal

Some tasks or micro goals that can be accomplished on monthly or weekly timescales include:

  • Searching the web for granting agencies
  • Narrowing the list 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
  • Marking the deadlines on a calendar so you can set a timeline for applying for your top two options in a future goal

Example of a research goal: Increase the number of people in your lab

Macro goal

If you want to increase the number of people in your lab your goal could be to ‘recruit one new graduate student’ or ‘hire one new post-doc.’

Micro goal

Micro goals might be:

  • Make an attractive website and keep it updated regularly
  • Draft a job posting for recruitment sites or professional society job boards
  • Have regular coffee chats with peers teaching courses with students who might be interested
  • Devote 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 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 attainable goals and consistently working towards them alleviates the time pressure of these important activities.

Example of a writing goal: Create a research paper draft

Macro goal

If you have identified a topic to write about, say the results of a year-long experiment, then a single-semester goal could be to ‘Create one complete draft of a research paper.’ Notice 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. Next semester’s goal could include revising and publishing it.

Micro goal

Some micro goals to get you started could include:

  • Outline the major methods and results in bullets/fragments
  • Set 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

Example of a writing goal: Keep up with current literature

Macro goal

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.’

Micro goal

Micro goals could be:

  • Sign up for email notifications from journals about newly published work,
  • Set aside specific times or days to check certain websites or preprint servers
  • Delegate students or staff in your lab to monitor one or two journals so they can improve their scientific literacy and presentation skills

Example of a writing goal: Reading more efficiently

Micro goal

You could also consider a goal centered on reading more efficiently.

Micro goal

Subgoals could be:

  • Read the abstract of new articles and bank them in a computer file for a full read when you have time
  • Skim the figures and their legends before committing to reading a whole article
  • Keep a digital article diary to 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 which courses you teach and the times they are offered, but much of what happens 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.

Example of a teaching goal: Innovating in the classroom

Macro goal

If you want to innovate in the classroom, one goal could be to ‘find one new teaching method or tool to test in class.

Micro goal

Some micro goals could be:

  • 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 choicesIncorporate 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.

Example of a teaching goal: Improve student exam scores

Maybe you want to improve student performance on your exams.

Macro goal

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’.

Micro goals

Some tasks to help you reach your teaching goal include:

  • Read pedagogical research studies on exams/assessments
  • Rewrite one or two questions per exam in your top new style
  • Add bonus questions to your exams in your top new style
  • Analyze the results of these new questions at the end of the semester

Waiting until the final exam to test new questions may not provide you with the results you are looking for. Students could be confused why those types of questions were not used earlier in the semester.

Final thoughts

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 helps you focus on your next steps.

Find time to relax

Give yourself permission to stop when you reach your goal. If you planned to draft the introduction of a paper 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.

Forgive yourself

Be forgiving when you do not meet a goal. Maybe that goal was too big and needs to be broken down further. Maybe something changed beyond your control and that goal fits with the direction you want to go. Building buffer time will help you be prepared in case of emergencies or unseen issues.

Be realistic

When setting your goals, be realistic about how much energy you are willing to devote to an activity. Make a list of your current commitments and how long they 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.

Practice goal-setting

The best way to get good at setting goals is to practice. Create just one goal for one of the above categories or another of your choosing. Share that goal with your friends, colleagues, and family for feedback and accountability. Seek help when needed

Asking for help is not a sign of failure. Know your limits. Seek help when you need it.

AJE provides professional English editing services. Lighten your busy workload by allowing one of our native English editors to thoroughly edit your paper.

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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