Grad Pathologies II: Breaking a Project into Reasonable Goals

Continuing on the theme of what I’ve learned in the last year of building my own business doing dissertation and academic coaching and freelance editing, at the invitation of the blog owner, Chad, I’m back for a two-part series on common problems that I’ve seen working with grad students on their dissertations. This is part 2 of 2. (Later there will be a two-part series on common faculty issues.)

The most common problem I saw with graduate students is a lack of midrange planning. The second most common problem that I see is difficulty in breaking projects into meaningful, doable tasks. It’s not uncommon to see “write theory chapter” on a student’s daily To Do list. The problem is, that’s not a helpful way to express the task. When are you done? What exactly are you writing? Is this really the thing you should be working on right now?

The solution to this problem is to think of your To Do list in terms of SMART goals. SMART goals are:

  • Specific They are precise in what they call for doing; you can tell exactly what the desired output form will be.
  • Measurable Goals should have a specific metric or target associated with them. You should be able to tell when you have completed a task.
  • Attainable The goal should be something you can reasonably achieve that day (or week, depending on what period you make your lists for), given the other commitments you have that day/week.
  • Relevant The goal should be directly connected to the weekly or semester goals that you have. If it’s not helping you reach your goals, should it be on your list?
  • Timely The goal should be the next logical step in the project, building toward the following logical step. It should be necessary for upcoming work, not just ‘for the future.’

So a better daily To Do list item for our hypothetical grad student would be “Write 300 words on scope section of theory chapter.” It tells us what part of the project, and where in that project, we should direct our attention. It tells us how much work we need to do to call this task “done.” Presumably, writing the theory chapter is one of the student’s goals for the semester, and this is the next section waiting to be written.

If you’re interested in dissertation or academic coaching, the summer is a great time to start. It gives you a chance to develop and solidify new or better habits before the chaos of term time arrives. Feel free to take a look around my website at  and if you’re interested, drop me an email at . The initial consultation is free. You can also follow me on Facebook at or Twitter @LeanneCPowner for free daily writing tips.