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What are SMART goals and how to use them in your research?

Success is a journey, not a destination. How to set SMART goals for your research project to successfully deliver your PhD and enjoy the process.

Have you ever missed a deadline or struggled to hand in your work on time? 

Did you promise yourself that you were going to make it this time, yet it happened again? After all, you planned to complete the chapter of your thesis or send the paper for review to the journal. 

Yet, regardless of your willingness to do so, you didn’t do it. Another week has passed, and you feel like you’re in the exact same place as a week ago? Uncertainty of research doesn’t make it easier, does it?

I feel for you! It happened to me, too – it was so frustrating when I had to pull an all-nighter to submit my work on time! 

That’s why in this article, I’m going to teach you how to use SMART goals in your research project and adjust them to your needs. 

I’m confident that this will help you manage your work better and meet your deadlines, especially those you set yourself!

Why do you even need goals in your research project (and life)?

We all need something to look up to in our lives. Having a purpose in your life can help you focus on what’s really important. We all have dreams that we wish came true, plans for the future, and hopes for better tomorrow.

But we sometimes get too focused on what is the final line, and we lose sight of happening in between. Remember:

success is a journey, not a destination.

Enjoy everything that’s between you now and you in the future when you’ll achieve your goals. If you want to finish your PhD – I encourage you to enjoy the process and experience as much as you can throughout your programme! 

Use smart goals in your research project to keep track of your progress

After you finish your doctorate, there’s more life to live!

For example: 

If you want to lose weight, what do you do? You usually set the plan for what you’re going to eat and for your workout. You also set the timeline and regularly measure your progress (i.e. counting calories and completed workouts). There’s a lot of methods, even apps which might help you to achieve and track your goal. 

If you want to travel in some nice, what do you do? You usually check your bank account and try to figure out how much money you need to save. Then you set the plan for how to get the money, when to buy the tickets, how to travel on the place you’re dreaming of visiting. 

In short, to achieve something, you set yourself a goal that will make you happy. If you really want to travel, you’ll be motivated to put the effort to explore the travel routes and plan the perfect trip – regardless of the budget. If you really want it, you’ll always find a way to achieve your goal!  

And you know what? This process works in your PhD too! There’s no difference if you want to finish your PhD, chapter, assignment or paper! All you need is the clearly defined goal that will help you answer the following questions: what, why, how, and when?  

How to use SMART goals in your research project? 

SMART goals it’s a kind of a mystery concept created by marketers.

When I heard about it for the first time, I was really curious how this concept works (and whether it works at all!).

Let me show you how does it work.

SMART is an acronym that can be expanded as:

Right, this all read great and it’s just another fancy concept you can use in your PhD. 

But, what does it really mean to you? 

SPECIFIC – analyse your project and identify the specific action that you want to complete. To “write a PhD” is a massive project you won’t finish in a week time. You may also be easily overwhelmed by how much work you’d need to put in to achieve such a goal. However, if you use “write a chapter” or “write 3 pages” as your goal, these are much more specific and much easier to swallow. Try to answer
– what do you want to accomplish?
– why it is important to you?

MEASURABLE – think about how you can measure your progress towards achieving your goal? It’s important to find the way to do so – even it is just simple “tick the box” list, number of pages/words per day and so on. Having a way of measuring your progress will keep you motivated to achieve your goal!

ACHIEVABLE/ASSIGNABLE – This is a crucial part of your success! It’s easy to set a very ambitious plan and then try to work as hard as you can only to let it go because the goal seems to be too big to achieve in the set timeframe. Instead, be realistic about what you can achieve. Don’t set the bar too low just to achieve something either. It’s always good to push yourself a little bit to grow, but not too hard. It’s easier to set your goals as steep, yet achievable steps and then just take one at a time to reach the peak of your research project!

RELEVANT – try to find the most realistic scenario for your case. It’s a good time to check if the goal really matters to you, whether it’s important for your research or would help you to push your work forward. Sometimes it’s worth to change the direction at the very beginning of the project, rather than lose time!

TIME-BOUND – it’s important to choose the specific time by when you need to achieve your goal. It’s not measurable and time-bound if you’ll say you’ll complete it “some time next year” or “in the future”. Instead, be very specific about when you want to complete your work, for example “by 20th this month”, “in six months from now”. Try to forecast possible delays and the time for corrections, and factor these in your deadline! We all have days that things just don’t work for us! And it’s okay as long as you factored such delays in your schedule, giving you sufficient time to finish your project.

Examples of SMART goals for your research project

Although you know the concept of SMART goals now, I include some examples of such goals that you can use in your research project. 

  1. To write 10 pages on carbon capture technologies for the literature review chapter by 20 August 2020
  2. To prepare 10 slides on the project for the day before the review meeting on 31 August 2020
  3. To answer all the questions raised by the reviewers on the manuscript entitled “hydrogen production from renewables” and write a response to reviewers document by 5 September 2020.

Here are some more job-related SMART goals by Indeed.

I trust you get the gist of it now. Remember, the more you practice, the better you’ll become at setting the SMART goals and the more you’ll enjoy your research project.

Additional tricks for using SMART goals in your research project

Here are some additional tricks and tips I developed throughout my career: 

1. Try to plan in from big to small – if you want to write a PhD, try to divide it in small pieces, write it down step by step, as small steps as you need. 

Remember, no step is too small! You can use all the time you have if you even will spend 20 minutes a day to read something. You’ll be 20 minutes further in your work! For each week you’ll get extra 2h of your work done!

2. WRITE YOUR GOAL DOWN AND PUT IN VISIBLE PLACE! Our memory has short spans, so it’s a good idea to write down everything that’s important for you now. Having your goals in a visible place will help you to keep track of and prioritising them. 

3. The concept of 3 MONTHS YEAR – it’s quite a big thing, but to sum it up quickly – it’s the concept of planning your work just a 3 month ahead. It’s easier to measure the progress and easier to set the goals if you just consider such time frame. You’ll also get a feeling you’re in charge of your research project and the time you spend on your PhD. 

A final word…

If you want to achieve success in your research career, you need to clearly define what you want to achieve. Without goals, you’ll not know when you’ll get to where you want to get in the first place. 

Success is a journey, not a destination after all. 

Using SMART goals, which stand for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound, can help you focus and prioritise work in your research project and PhD. 

Make sure you write down your SMART goals and place them in a visible location so that you could keep track of them. 

I’d love to hear about the SMART goals you set for your project. Share them in the comments! 

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