Obtaining a graduate degree can be an arduous, long, and unpredictable journey. Sometimes when this journey becomes too difficult, it makes you lose motivation and direction. Consequently, all you can think about is quitting graduate school.

In fact, if quitting has been on your mind, you are not the only one. According to data from Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), students completing their doctoral programs remains as low as 62.9% in life science.

Based on information collected by CGS from faculty and doctoral students, students with certain characteristics have a better chance of finishing their degree. One particular characteristic is those with motivation and commitment to finish their program.

In this case, goal setting is important to help you focus on your commitment and keep your motivation strong.

Why is it Important to Set Goals for Graduate Students?

Goals, whether they are short-term or long-term, are important for graduate students because they provide a clear path to keep you motivated and committed. For your goals to serve as a powerful engine to keep you going forward, you can set your goals according to the ‘SMART’ criteria.

What are ‘SMART’ Goals?

‘SMART’ goals are objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. Using the SMART template will allow you to set reasonable goals, develop a strategy to tackle your goals, take action to finish your smaller goals, and check your progress from start to finish towards your long-term goals. All of these actions are important to achieve success.

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How to set ‘SMART’ Goals


The first thing to remember when setting a goal is it must be specific—it should be simple with one particular result so you can complete it. If your goal is too broad, it will make it hard to focus and plan your strategy. To make it specific, before you set your goal, answer the questions below:

  • Who: who will be involved in accomplishing this goal?
  • What: what is the result of this goal?
  • Where: where can you work to complete this goal?
  • Why: why do you need to reach this goal?

An example of a goal that is too broad, “I want to get good grades.” You can make this goal specific by adding your requirements for good grades. Does getting good grades mean you must reach a GPA of 4.0?

An example of a specific goal would be, “I want to finish writing the materials and methods part of my thesis.” Or, “I’m planning a meeting with my advisory committee discuss my research proposal.”


When setting a goal, it’s important to make sure this goal is measurable to see how close you are to accomplishing your goal.

If your goal is unmeasurable, it is similar to watching a football game without a scoreboard and therefore being unable to easily determine which team is going to win the game.

Keeping track of your progress can help you stay motivated, keep going forward, and bring you closer to achieving your goal.

One way to do that is by establishing a timeline or by creating a checklist. For example, to measure your goal of finishing the materials and methods section, you can divide your workloads based on different research projects in your thesis, create a checklist, include a timeline, and keep track of it.

To print a checklist for measurable goals, click below:

measurable goals checklist


To create a goal that is within your reach, ask yourself this question: “Can I complete this goal?”

A goal may force you to work harder and be somewhat uncomfortable, but it should still be possible for you to complete it. To create an achievable goal, think about the scope of the goal, consider your time, gather all your resources, and find out about all factors that can prevent you from reaching it, including time, efforts, or perhaps, financial costs. Only then, you can create a strategy to reach your goal.

As an example, is it possible to finish your materials and methods section in 6 months when you are still performing your last experiments?

If this six-month deadline is tight, is there anything that you can do to make this goal achievable? Sometimes, planning your strategy smartly can change what’s impossible into possible.


To see if your goal is relevant, find out if this particular goal aligns with your long-term goal or if the result of this specific goal is necessary to reach your long-term goal.

As a graduate student, perhaps, your long-term goals are to finish your thesis, get your degree, and find a job. Attending leadership training seems irrelevant to get you closer to your degree, but you can ask why the result of this goal is important for you. Does it help you finish your thesis? If your answer is no, does it help you get a good job? If yes, it means your goal is still relevant.

5.Time Bound

To highlight the significance of the goal, create a timeline to complete it. The timeline should include when it should start and when it needs to end. In addition, it can also include tasks you need to complete daily, weekly, or monthly.

What’s really useful about creating a timeline is it helps you handle manageable daily, prioritize your tasks, and create the urgency to follow the list.

Examples of SMART Goals for Graduate School

  • I will complete the materials and methods section by May 5th of this year.
  • I will have my DNA extraction completed by March 19th.
  • I will maintain at least a 3.8 GPA for the entire year.
  • I will have my graduate admission application turned in by December 12th.

Examples of SMART Goals Broken Down into Smaller Tasks

Primary Goal: I will take my qualifying exam by March 12th.

Smaller tasks:

  • I will discuss a plan for the qualifying exam with my advisor by November 15th.
  • I will schedule the exam date with my committee members by December 1st.
  • I will prepare my PowerPoint slides for the qualifying exam by February 12th.
  • I will submit a request to schedule the exam to the Graduate School by February 20th.

Tips to Keep Up with Your ‘SMART’ Goals

  • Write your goals and include the timeline.
  • Break down your goals into smaller tasks.
  • Write the significance of the goal on top of this list.
  • Write your daily smaller tasks on a sticky note and put it somewhere you can see it.

  • Keep track of your timeline and check-off every time you complete a task.
  • Reward yourself when you finish your smaller tasks.
  • Keep pushing forward to move closer to accomplishing your goal.
  • Remind yourself about the significance of the goal when you face hurdles.
  • Find support from friends, family, and even your professor to help you achieve your goals.


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Complete College with a SMART Action Plan. (2020). Villanovau.Com. https://www.villanovau.com/resources/student-learn...

Gardner, S. K. (2008). Student and faculty attributions of attrition in high and low-completing doctoral programs in the United States. Higher Education, 58(1), 97–112. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-008-9184-7.

Gosling, P., Noordam, B. Dec. 15, 2006, & Am, 10:00. (2006, December 15). Mastering Your Ph.D.: Setting Goals for Success. Science | AAAS. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2006/12/mastering-your-phd-setting-goals-success.

Indispensable Importance of Setting Goals in College | Fashion Institute of Technology. (2019). Fitnyc.Edu. http://www.fitnyc.edu/counseling-services/resources/goals/setting-goals.php

Lee, S. R., 2020, & Pm, 2:00. (2020, August 27). I struggled in grad school—until I learned to set realistic goals. Science | AAAS. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2020/08/i-struggled-grad-school-until-i-learned-set-realistic-goals

NASFAA | Issue Brief: Grad School Completion Rates, Earnings Greater Among Higher-Income Students. (2015). Nasfaa.Org. https://www.nasfaa.org/news-item/10949/Issue_Brief_Grad_School_Completion_Rates_Earnings_Greater_Among_Higher-Income_Students.

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