Set SMART Objectives

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn how to turn ambiguous goals or problems into solvable objectives.


“I know it is important to leave graduate school with a strong career network, but so far I haven’t made many close ties with people in my program.”

“I feel like the outsider on my research team. Everyone spends a lot of time socializing in the lab. As for me, as soon as I finish for the day I bolt out the door to pick up my kid at day care.”

“My advisor is not particularly helpful to me. He doesn’t seem to care about my progress.”


It is likely that there are many aspects of your graduate school experience that you wish could be different. Graduate school life may not be perfect, but there is a lot about your particular circumstances that you do have the power to change. This module will teach you how to turn general concerns into specific, attainable objectives.

Setting SMART1 objectives is a step-by-step process of carefully defining a desired outcome and strategically setting goals to reach that desired outcome. This process will help to clarify your priorities and organize the steps you need to meet a desirable outcome.2

In this module you will learn to take problems and turn them into objectives that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Advantageous3
  • Realistic
  • Time-limited


Reflections: Taking a Look at Yourself

Before beginning, take a minute to think about what you want to be different about your graduate-school experience. Write down any issues or dilemmas you are facing, whether they have to do with administrative burdens, relationships with your advisor or colleagues, or general feelings of dissatisfaction.

1. ______________________________

2. ______________________________

3. ______________________________

4. ______________________________

5. ______________________________

You probably have more than five concerns, but starting with a small number of issues will help you set objectives and tackle them.  If you try to focus on too much at once, you might get overwhelmed and lose track of what's most important.

Now rank them

1st priority:

2nd priority:

3rd priority:

4th priority:

5th priority:

Take your first priority and walk through the following steps of this module.



Now that you have thought about what you wish could be different about your experiences, you will be guided through the SMART objective-setting procedures.

The first step in setting SMART objectives is to translate your wishes into SPECIFIC objectives.  Objectives that are defined broadly and generally are less likely to be achieved.

SPECIFIC objectives can answer the following questions:1

  • Who is involved?
    (Your family? Advisor? Research team? Administrators?)
  • What do you want to accomplish?
    (For example, “I want to be on speaking terms again with my labmate.”)
  • Where? Identify a location.
    (Where will your actions take place? Where are you willing to travel?)
  • When? Establish a time frame.
    (After you know what steps you need to take to meet your goal.)
  • Which? Identify requirements and constraints.
    (What has been holding you back so far from addressing this issue? What type of response do you expect?)
  • Why? List specific reasons, purposes, or benefits of accomplishing the goal.
    (Example: career networking, social support, preventing discrimination)

Here are some examples of the difference between objectives defined broadly and SPECIFIC objectives:

Broadly defined problem Specific objective
Your labmates are unpleasant. You want your labmates to clean up after themselves and stop asking you to make the coffee.  They can make a pot themselves sometimes.
You want more friends. You want to know that you have people to call on the weekends and ask for a ride to the airport.


The next step in setting SMART objectives is to define the issue in a way that will allow you to MEASURE the outcome of your efforts. Measuring your objectives will help you to stay focused and on track toward reaching a desired outcome.1

If your goal is measurable, you should be able to find answers to the questions below:

1. What evidence will signify that you are making progress toward your goal?

2. What signs will suggest that you need a new strategy?

3. If your goal is achieved, how will you know?

Listed below are the examples of goals that can be measured and those that cannot:

Not measurable Measurable
You want as many research opportunities as the male students, who are much more chummy with the faculty. By the time you receive your Ph.D, you want to have published at least the average amount of articles published by students in your program.
You want more feedback from your advisor. Each time you send your advisor a draft of your thesis, you would like him to respond to you within one week. You would also like him to meet with you once a semester so you can go over your progress in the program.


The third step in setting SMART objectives is to define your objective in a way that makes it clear how achieving it will be of benefit to you. How will meeting this objective make your life better? What is in it for you?

Imagining how things will be better once you have met your objective will keep you motivated.


At this point you have taken a problem and turned it into a specific, measurable, and attainable objective. Still, if you are not willing or able to make the sacrifices needed to work toward it, it is not realistic. Realistic isn’t about how large scale an objective is. It has to do with how much you want to obtain that objective, and what you are willing to do for it.

Ask yourself these questions:

1. What will be the rewards associated with obtaining your objective? What will be the challenges or sacrifices? (For example, if you want more friends in your program, you will have to make time for social activities.)

2. Can you imagine yourself going through with the necessary steps you have laid out in your plan? If not, what part of your plan is unrealistic at this time? How can you redefine your objective so that it is something that you are willing to begin working on now?


The essence of a SMART objective is one with a carefully considered timeline. In the process of defining a specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic objective, you have already begun to consider a timeline.

Take a moment to write out a timeline for accomplishing your objective. Below is an example that might be helpful to you:


Kelly has an ultimate goal of defending her thesis before the end of the spring semester of next year. Which of the following best approaches an example of a SMART objective for her goal?

The best answer is “a.” Answer “b” is not specific enough. If Kelly does not set out in detail when and on what day(s) she will spend time writing, it is likely that this objective will become neglected, or even ignored. Answer “c” is a realistic and perhaps attainable objective, but it leaves out crucial details—how big of a sample, and by what exact date? Similarly, answer “d” fails to specify when and how often her meetings should occur, as well as the nature of the feedback sought for. Answer “a” remains the best answer. It has a specific, measureable outcome, and a specific deadline.


You want more respect from the men on your research team. Specifically, you want to share the lab prep and cleaning equally with team members, and you want to be involved with an equal amount of the planning and executing of the experiments.

Action Plan

  1. You will observe exactly what is going in the lab each day for two weeks. You will write down how many times you have prepared and cleaned in the lab and who is responsible for what tasks on what days.
  2. At the end of the two weeks, you will discuss these findings with your labmates, and ask them how they would like to ensure that responsibilities are shared equally from now on.
  3. You will continue to keep a record of how responsibilities are shared in the lab for another two-week period.
  4. If you are still not happy with the results at this point, you will enlist the support of your advisor.

What is your SMART Objective Action plan? Take a moment to write down your timeline.

Now that you have turned a problem into a SMART objective, you are on your way to creating a better graduate-school experience.

Reflections: Using Your SMART Map

Take the objective you chose at the beginning and fill out your SMART Map.


Now that you have turned a problem into a SMART objective, you are on your way to forming doable strategies to solve your concerns. A SMART Map can help keep you accountable to your own objectives as well as track your progress.


  1. Meyer, P. J. (2007). Creating S.M.A.R.T. goals. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from
  2. Christenbury, P. (2007). Steps for successful goal setting and achievement.
    Retrieved November 3, 2007, from
  3. Vitae Researchers’ Portal. Setting objectives. Retrieved July 31, 2008, from

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Words of Wisdom: Dr. Andino
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Words of Wisdom: Dr. Rosser
The importance of remaining passionate and remembering that the PhD opens doors.

Planning Experiments Around Breast Feeding, Productivity, and Encouragement (Part 1)
Creating a schedule and meeting an advisor's expectations.

Compromises Outside the Realm of Children
Addresses personal relationship sacrifices.

Time Management Profile
Outlines a philosophy on time management.

Interpersonal Satisfaction
The satisfaction that comes from working with colleagues and interacting with others.


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