Be SMART: Setting Realistic Goals

Doing a PhD can be all about setting goals and staying on track. But how do we know if they’re realistic or achievable? This week, blogger Sola gives her top tips.

By Sola Browne.

As a PhD student it’s really important to be organised and part of that is setting achievable goals. Key ingredients for this include focusing on making small adjustments to skills and thinking patterns, clarifying goals, and setting up an action plan to achieve them. Research shows that goal achievement happens more quickly when you focus on your own skills, resources and solutions. It is also important to make sure that your goals are personal and meaningful to you to help increase your commitment to those goals.

Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when preparing to set some new goals:

  • What might be causing discrepancies between where I want to be and where I am now?
  • What does success look like to me?
  • How can I take responsibility for my own growth?

When setting goals, it is important to make sure that they are clear, observable and measurable. So, what’s a good formula to follow for this? You may have heard of the popular acronym SMART, a method for goal setting.

SMART elementExample
Specific I want to be comfortable using R to run advanced statistical analyses in 3 months time
Measurable (and can be monitored) What is your current competence with using R for statistics? What indicators would you look for to determine whether you have made progress?
Achievable Is it reasonable to assume that your goal can be achieved? Do you have any specific tests that you would like to learn how to run in R? Do you have the ability to train yourself to use R or might you need to seek help elsewhere?
Realistic/ relevant Are you really committed to this learning goal considering you are also currently learning how to do a systematic review for the first time?
Timescale/ timebound Can you attain your goal within your specified time frame, considering your other activities and commitments?

To further develop your goals, you can use the RICS method of rating yourself on a scale 1 to 10 for readiness, importance, and confidence (see example below).

 Example questions to ask yourselfScale (1= not at all, 10= completely/100%)
ReadinessHow ready are you to achieve your goal of comfortably using R to run advanced statistical analyses in 3 months time?7 (I am somewhat ready but also aware that I have a lot of things to learn)
ImportanceHow important is this goal to you?10 (It’s super important because this is what most researchers in my field use and it is what is expected of me)
ConfidenceHow confident do you feel in your ability to achieve this goal?3 (I don’t feel very confident because I’ve never used it before and I have a lot to learn in a short space of time).

With RICS it is important to evaluate why you have rated yourself the way you have. For example, why might you have put a 7 instead of a 10 or 3 for readiness. What skills do you already have that let you know that you are not completely unprepared, and how can you gain what you need to get yourself up to a rating of 10 for readiness? That might involve, talking to your supervisor about your concerns, seeing if there are any relevant resources available to e.g., an R workshop or e-book, or maybe you could speak to another PhD student who has used R before.

scrabble letters spelling out the word 'goal' stuck on a corkboard
Image credit: Alexas_Fotos

Despite our best intentions, sometimes we still fall short of our goals, which is why it’s important to have an action plan. Actions plans incorporate the setting of goals, with achievable actions steps and target dates for the completion of each step and an overall target date. Importantly, this also gives you the opportunity to think up any potential challenges that might arise and potential solutions you might use to tackle these. In your action plan you should also include a list of things you will reward yourself with to encourage yourself for completing each action step.


If you’d like a range of resources to further help you with your professional development, visit Warwick Skills Forge. If you’re unsure about your progress, check out our blog on ‘am I working hard enough?’

What is your current goal? What was the last goal you succeeded? Let us know by leaving a comment below, by tweeting us @researchex or by emailing us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk

Header image: marcusspiske.

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