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Robert Neubecker

I struggled in grad school—until I learned to set realistic goals

It was a sunny Friday afternoon, and my smiling labmates were heading home for the weekend. I, however, was glumly sitting in Tristan’s office, staring at the spreadsheet on which we had outlined our goals for the week. I shaded my cells red; I had not been able to complete any of them. I was disappointed in myself. Tristan gave me a reassuring smile, reminding me not to beat myself up too much. “It’s OK to be ambitious, but make sure your three weekly goals are realistic and measurable,” he advised. It was guidance I was still learning to follow.

Halfway through my second year of grad school, I had been feeling overwhelmed by a sea of experimental failures and lost without the structure I was accustomed to as an undergrad. When my mentor Tristan—a postdoc—saw that I was struggling, he suggested an approach from an unlikely source: his experience in the world of elite sport. Introduced to him by a coach during his time as a member of the Australian men’s national field hockey team, it’s called Three to Thrive (T2T), referring to three goals set each week to help guide progress.

We set up a shared spreadsheet where we would plan our goals, which can be personal as well as academic. At the end of the week, we would meet and discuss our progress in the “Friday Finish.” That’s how I found myself, a few weeks in, sitting down with Tristan that Friday afternoon.

As we talked through my weekly goals and why I hadn’t been able to complete them, we realized the goals themselves were the problem. It was easy for me to see where I wanted to be in 1 year, or five, but I had a hard time figuring out what weekly steps would get me there. As a result, I was setting goals too high to achieve in a week. Since then, Tristan has helped me learn to break up my big-picture goals into smaller tasks that are challenging but realistic, and I’ve started to make some good progress on my research.

With T2T, I have been able to regain some control over my life. On Sunday afternoons, I sit down at a coffee shop—or, these days, in my cozy plant room sipping coffee—and set my goals, mentally preparing myself for the week ahead. Then, during the week, I can focus on working hard to achieve those goals, not wanting to disappoint myself—or Tristan. T2T has also helped Tristan and me develop a much more honest and authentic mentor-mentee relationship, connecting on everything from cryogenic electron microscopy techniques to tips for not eating too much ice cream.

Here are five keys for a successful T2T experience.

Set appropriate goals

Goal setting is a skill. Your weekly T2T goals need to be measurable and achievable but challenging at the same time.

Be honest

If you don’t accomplish a goal, that’s OK. But don’t make excuses to yourself. Be upfront about why you fell short so you can figure out how to do better in the future. Similarly, if your accountability partner isn’t fulfilling their role, you have to be comfortable holding them to account.

Make it routine

T2T is not a groundbreaking concept; staying accountable and making it habitual are key to its power. Set time aside in your weekly schedule for goal setting and reflection.

‘Make sure your three weekly goals are realistic and measurable,’ he advised.

Record your progress

Logging your weekly goals and progress allows you to look back and see what you’ve achieved—or what prevented you from reaching your goals. The exercise can be encouraging when you’ve had a tough week, reminding you of the progress you’ve made. Or it can serve as a wake-up call if things aren’t going the right direction.


With all good habits, sometimes the hardest bit is just getting started. You won’t have it perfect from the beginning. But with some practice, you’ll figure out what works for you.

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