Career Advice

Setting Goals That Increase Success

Lisa M. Balbes

When you’re in school, it’s easy to identify your next goal. You finish 3rd grade, you start 4th grade. You finish middle school, you start high school. And if you’re reading this, after you finished college, you probably started graduate school, with the goal of earning a master’s or doctoral degree. You may find, though, that the further you go in your career, the less well-defined your next goal becomes, and the more you need to set it yourself. In fact, you will be more successful and professionally satisfied if you take the time to plan your career—setting both long- and short-term goals to continually move your professional life forward, and using what you learn along the way to revise existing goals and set new ones.

If you’re currently in graduate school, a postdoctoral position may seem like the next logical step—and if your long-term goal is a tenure-track academic position, it prob­ably is. However, recent research has shown that’s not true for everyone, and in fact, those who had spent the most time thinking about their careers were least likely to plan a post­doctoral position. Furthermore, many scientists have fallen into a postdoctoral position by default, using it as a holding pattern while they figured out what they really wanted to do in the long term (http://science.sciencemag.org/con­tent/352/6286/663). Unfortunately, this strategy turns out to be expensive, both in lower career income (https://www. nature.com/articles/nbt.3766) and in lost time.

So how do you set your long-term professional goals, and the short-term goals you need to get yourself to them? Start by thinking about where you see yourself 5–10 years, or even longer, in the future. Are you a tenure-track professor at a primarily undergraduate institution? Are you a sales scientist for an analytical instrumentation com­pany? Are you working for the federal government, developing new analytical methods for testing biological products? Or are you living in a particular region of the country, communicating the re­sults of others’ scientific research to the general public? You may not be able to specify all the details, but you can start listing the “must haves” and the “nice to haves.”

The more specific your long-term goal is, the easier it will be to identify the steps needed to get there. Converse­ly, the more flexible your long-term goal is, the more options you have, and the more you can use what you learn along the way to refine your goal. Sometimes, one of your goals may be to gather the information you need to inform your next goal.

Once you have your long-term goal, determine how to get there, and set short-term goals for what you need to learn or do. To define them, ask: What are the milestones along the way? What can you do this year, this month, this week, or even today, to move you closer to your long-term goal?

Suppose your long-term career goal is to be a tenure track professor at a primarily undergraduate university (PUI) in the Midwest. What can you do now, to set yourself up for success? Your immediate goal for this week may be to read 10 online job advertisements and determine what those PUIs are look­ing for in new faculty members. If you learn that teaching experience is highly valued, you can set a short-term goal to teach a lecture course next semester.

You can set another one to attend some classes or workshops in your university’s education department.

As You Set Your Goals, Make Sure They Are SMART

S—Specific
Your goals should specify what you are going to accomplish, what resources you will need, and why you are doing it. If you can’t be that specific, you may have a vision that needs to be broken down into SMART goals. For example, “Find a job” is a worthwhile goal, but not very actionable. Break it down by identify­ing the characteristics of your ideal job, determining what skills or expertise you are missing, creating strategies to acquire them, talking to people about companies and industries that need that type of work done, and so on.

Start by thinking about where you see yourself 5–10 years, or even longer, in the future.

M—Measurable
As a scientist, you are used to quantitat­ing things. Goals are no different—if you don’t measure them, how do you know when you are done? If your long-term career goal is to manage others, you may set a short-term goal to gain experience. But “Get better at manag­ing people” is not a quantitative goal. Instead, use, “Supervise at least two un­dergraduates in the laboratory all sum­mer” or, “Organize an all-day science outreach activity that involves at least 15 volunteers and 50 participants.”

A—Achievable
Goals should be challenging, but reach­able. Think about the resources (time, money, energy, other people…) that will be needed, then set your scope for an objective that is nontrivial but accom­plishable. For instance, taking a class is a great way to learn something new, but it will require time and can cost money. Be honest with yourself—if you sign up for a free online class, are you going to put in the work to learn what you need? If you invest money in a class, will you be more likely to work at it, or will you feel that you’ve already put something in and slack off? What makes a goal achievable for you?

R—Relevant
There are lots of things you could do with your time, many of which could add to your array of skills and abilities. But are they relevant to your short- and long-term goals? Is this the right time in your career to be working on those areas, or is there something else that would be more relevant? Maybe you need to focus on improving your teach­ing skills now, and learn supervisory skills later in your career.

T—Time Based
Quantitation can also be time-based. When are you going to get this done, and how much time are you going to put into it? Are you going to do an online search for information today? Sign up for a class within four months? Again, you may have to break larger goals down—maybe you’ll do an online search this week to identify three pos­sible classes you could take on the topic you want, then next week discuss the options with your mentor.

Enhance Your Chances of Achievement
In addition to making your goals SMART, there are other things you can do to improve your chances of achiev­ing them.

Prioritize
Use deadlines to prioritize your goals and decide which one(s) to work on first. Although career planning, for ex­ample, is important, it is rarely urgent, so it’s very easy to put off for “just one more day.” Even self-imposed deadlines can help, if you write them down (so they are concrete).

Publicize
Write your big goals down in a place where you will see them every day. Write your sub-goals down as well, and check the list daily to see what prog­ress you can make, or whether there’s a deadline coming up. Share them with someone else, and ask that person to hold you accountable.

Ideally, find someone who is work­ing on a big goal of his or her own, so you can support each other. Maybe you could meet regularly to discuss progress and challenges. At the very least, have a colleague check in with you on the dates you specified and ask you how you are doing. Just knowing that you’re going to have to tell the person can be a very motivating factor!

Reward
When you finish a goal, check it off your list and celebrate the accomplishment. Then, replace it with a new goal. After all, you already have that time blocked out for career development, so keep using it to advance your career. Some habits you don’t want to break!

Review
Review your goals on a regular basis. January 1st, the start of the school year, just before your annual performance re­view at work—whatever you think of as the beginning of the year is a great time to review what you’ve done over the past 12 months and confirm your plans for the future.

Review not just your goals, but also their prioritization. Your personal or professional circumstances may have changed, or you may have learned some­thing that requires revising some of your goals. For example, at the end of their second year in graduate school, many stu­dents decide a tenure-track position is not for them, so they start reevaluating their long-term professional goals.

Take It Step by Step
There’s an old joke about how to eat an elephant. The answer is, “one bite at a time.” While planning out your en­tire professional future can be daunt­ing, breaking it down into manageable pieces that you can attack and conquer in a logical manner makes it not only achievable, but even enjoyable. Soon you will be looking back at how far you have come and setting even bigger, more audacious goals—and achieving them!