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Mastering Your Ph.D.: Setting Goals for Success

Everyone has bad days in the lab. If you've been having a string of bad days (or weeks), however, it may be time to step back and assess the situation. Does it seem like the days just slip away and you have little to show for your efforts? Doing research can be a slippery slope, so you may wonder if it's even possible to bring order to the chaos. This is research, after all. Don't luck and accidents play an important role?

Before you start in on another experiment, hoping against hope that this one will pull you out of the hole you're in, step away from the lab bench and spend some time writing down your short-term and long-term objectives. Yes, we know that your ultimate objective is to write your thesis and get your doctorate, but if you're just starting out, that is years away. By committing some concrete goals to paper, you will avoid two things: being overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of you, and feeling frustrated and stuck by your lack of progress.

We've found that one of the best ways to achieve your goals is to first identify what they are and then come up with an action plan:

1. Clarify your goals. First, look at the big picture and then break things down into shorter time segments. What do you want to accomplish in the next 6 months in the lab? Sketch these goals out broadly, as they are likely to change over time. Now write down your objectives for the next 3 months, and then fine-tune these for the month ahead. Look at your list and ask yourself two things: Are my goals measurable? How will I know when I've achieved them?

2. Write down possible strategies. Write down one or two different strategies or approaches that will help you achieve your goal(s). (Do this for each goal.) For example, if you need to learn a specific laboratory technique in order to complete a set of experiments, how will you go about doing this? You could ask a more senior graduate student or a postdoc to teach you. Or you could spend a few days reading up on the technique in the library and teaching yourself by trial and error. Both of these approaches will help you reach your goal; only you can decide which is best for you. Once you have decided on an approach, write down a list of actionable points that will help you to execute it.

3. Prioritize. Take a good look at your list of goals, your possible strategies for meeting them, and the list of actionable points you need to do to implement each strategy. Prioritize your goals so that you work on the one that is most important. Prioritize your actions so that you do first what is most logical or time-efficient. For example, you will need to prepare a sample before you can analyze it. If you don't know how to prepare the sample, you will have to learn, so that action will have to come first. Writing down what you need to do to get from point A to point B will help you visualize the steps you need to take. Finally, don't forget to consider any limitations and constraints you might have: time, know-how, equipment, material, and so on. For some types of research, preparing a flow chart may help you decide what to do depending on the outcome of a particular experiment. For example, if a particular experiment does not support your hypothesis, how will you proceed?

4. Organize your actions into a plan. Actions set into a time frame make up a plan. Make sure your plan is workable. Can you carry out the steps you have set up for yourself in the time frame you've allotted? Make sure you've ordered your actions into a logical sequence: Sample preparation must occur before sample analysis; learning how to prepare a sample must occur before the sample is prepared. You may choose to discuss this plan with your thesis adviser, to ensure the two of you agree on what needs to be done.

5. Monitor and measure your progress. On a regular basis, you will have to monitor your plan and make adjustments if necessary. It's important to remain flexible and restate your goals from time to time as necessary and as you gain more experience with your project. (For more details on how to do this, see last month's column on the Monthly Progress Monitor.)

In the business world, some people prefer to follow the SMART method when setting and achieving their goals: Specific; Measurable; Attainable; Realistic; Time-related. In other words, there is no point in setting a goal that you can't measure or can't attain. If you're not physically fit, the goal of climbing Kilimanjaro next week is specific and measurable but unlikely to be attainable or realistic in the time frame you've allowed yourself. If you have unrealistic goals, you're setting yourself up for failure.

A word to the skeptics

At this point, we can guess what some of you are thinking: Yeah, right. Planning, time management, and goal setting might be fine for some kinds of activities, but science by its very nature resists all attempts to be fitted neatly into lists and time frames. After having logged many years in the lab, we couldn't agree more--but that doesn't mean that goal-setting and time management have no place in the world of research. Good planning will give you a scaffold from which to work, as well as a way to monitor your progress. Getting a Ph.D. takes years of dedication and lots of incremental steps. It can feel daunting at times. So to keep from feeling like you're drowning, we strongly urge you to set reasonable goals for yourself and plan to achieve them in a reasonable amount of time--all the while recognizing, and bowing to, the vagaries of scientific research.

Effective time management

Once you've identified your short-term goals, managing your time effectively is key to achieving them. Most of us are familiar with the desperate feeling that time is slipping through our fingers, or that we don't have enough hours in the day to do all the things we need to do. Often, that feeling has more to do with poor time management than with an actual lack of time. We all have the same 24 hours in every day; how we make use of those hours differs widely. Good time management is a major factor in achieving your goals, so here are some time-management guidelines:

1. Keep a record. One useful tool is to keep a record of your daily activities. Naturally, you are already keeping a lab notebook of your experiments, but it is also helpful to keep a written record of all your activities. This will help you analyze how you spend your time. The first time you start writing down all the things you do, you may be shocked to discover how much time you waste throughout the day.

You may also be unaware that your energy varies throughout the day and night. You probably know whether you're a morning person or a night owl--but do you know all the times of the day when your energy dips and peaks? Your productivity may vary depending on the amount of glucose in your blood, the temperature of the room, the length of time since you last took a break, routine distractions, stress, discomfort, or various other factors. Once you've identified your peak-energy periods, you can use time more wisely by reserving those hours for the things that matter most. Here's a hint: Don't use your best hours to check your e-mail, for example. When your energy dips, you can switch tasks, eat something to give you energy, take a break and get some fresh air, check your e-mail, or do something that's easy but useful.

2. Prepare a to-do list. There are people who make lists and people who don't. Perhaps you've never thought of yourself as a "list person," but to-do lists are essential when you need to carry out a number of tasks, or when you have made several commitments that need to be attended to simultaneously. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you can juggle all of this information in your head. If you find that you are caught out time and again because you have forgotten to do something, then you definitely need to keep a to-do list.

The solution to feeling overwhelmed is simple: Write down the tasks you need to do, and if they are large, break them down into their component tasks. If they still seem too large to handle, break them down again. Do this until you have listed everything you have to do in a given day or week. Now run through your list and allocate priorities: A (very important) to D (unimportant). If too many tasks have a high priority, run through the list again and demote the less important ones.

In case it isn't obvious, this list should be closely related to the prioritized list of goals and actions that you wrote down earlier. Think of your to-do list as the short-term equivalent of that longer-term list. Keeping those lists coordinated--making sure your daily activities incorporate your research priorities--is essential for your productivity.

Once you have prioritized your to-do list, rewrite it in order of priority, then start at the top and work your way down. What you have before you is a precise plan that you can use to achieve your goals, one step at a time. This process will allow you to separate the important tasks from the many time-consuming trivial ones.

Although to-do lists are simple tools, they are extremely powerful, both as a method of organizing yourself and as a way of reducing stress. Problems may feel overwhelming if they're left to rattle around in your head, or you may feel you have a huge number of demands on your time. Writing things down in a list (and crossing the items off the list as you accomplish them) can help relieve that feeling of being overwhelmed.

The 80/20 rule

Attributed to the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the 80/20 rule states that the relationship between input and output is rarely proportional. When applied to your work, this means that 20% of your efforts produce 80% of your results. If you learn to identify the 20% that produces the majority of your results, you'll be able to make more effective use of your time. Although the concept is simple, putting the 80/20 rule into practice can be challenging. Here are some guidelines: You're focusing on the (unproductive) 80% if:

  • You're working on tasks other people want you to do, but you yourself have little or no stake in them.

  • You're frequently working on tasks considered "urgent."

  • You're spending time on tasks you're not particularly good at.

  • Completing some activities is taking much more time than you expected.

  • You find yourself complaining all the time about how little you seem to be accomplishing compared to the effort you put in.

You're focusing on the effective 20%, however, if:

  • You're engaged in activities that advance your overall goals in the lab.

  • You're working on tasks that you may not like, but you're doing them knowing they relate to the bigger picture.

  • You're asking for help with tasks you are not good at doing yourself.

  • You feel a sense of accomplishment.

If you're particularly skeptical, try applying the 80/20 principle for a few days just to see what happens. At the very least, you'll become more aware of the way you work, and you'll become more productive without even trying. You'll feel that you have more time, that you are able to focus on what is essential, and that you can reduce the amount of time you spend on meaningless tasks.

Whatever your working style, planning and time management have a definite place in your daily life in the lab. Put some of these tools into practice, and you may find that you're able to bring some order into what sometimes feels like "pedaling in a windstorm."

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