SMART New Year’s Resolutions For Graduate Students

It’s January 2. Happy New Year!

Statistically speaking, only 8% of Americans who make them achieve their New Year’s resolutions, and most people who go into the new year with a list of resolutions to achieve start out strong and drop off before the end of January. On our First Hike yesterday at Hanging Rock State Park in North Carolina, the park ranger leading the hike said this was because most people didn’t make SMART resolutions. For those who don’t know, ‘SMART’ is a mnemonic acronym often used in personal and business development strategies to help create achievable objectives geared toward successful outcomes. The letters in the acronym can vary in exact wording, but in general they stand for:

Specific — the plan targets a specific area or set of areas for improvement

Measurable — there has to be a way to measure your progress towards success in your goal(s)

Action-oriented — there must be something that you intentionally do to achieve the goal(s)

Realistic — Your goal(s) should be something you actually have it within your power to accomplish

Time-related — there needs to be a deadline or other date by which the goal(s) have been achieved, rather than a nebulous “I’m getting fit in 2015!” statement

Now, I’m not one to support a business model for education, but I know a good idea when I see it. As graduate students, we could probably stand to gain from using a SMART-like approach to just about anything, from preparing for the classes we are taking and teaching to studying for comps and writing our dissertation prospectus. Here, I suggest a couple of ways in which using SMART might enhance graduate student success in specific and targeted ways this year, whether you are in your first year of a program or going on the job market. I’ve chosen four of the situations that graduate students routinely face–giving conference papers, submitting work for publication, time management, and developing as an instructor–but I’m confident that this system could work for almost any goal you might want to achieve during graduate school and beyond. it’s just a really good, solid goal-setting method.

1. Conference Papers. No one can guarantee that your papers will be accepted for presentation, but you can substantially improve your chances if you go about submitting abstracts in a specific and targeted way:

S: I am going to give a paper I have written or am currently writing at (select a number) conferences this year. (2-3 is a good number to shoot for; I’d go for 1 if you are a first-year student, and don’t overlook local/regional graduate student conferences, which are a really good way to get started if you are nervous about conference presentations. Remember that each paper should only be given once at conference unless you have substantially revised or rewritten it between conferences, so you’ll need to be able to commit to writing and/or revising papers for each conference at which you intend to present.)

M: I will know I have succeeded because I will have met my goal of giving the conference papers

A: I have identified or will shortly identify several conferences to which I intend to submit abstracts. I have written or will shortly write the abstracts for those papers and send them to the conference/session/panel organizers for consideration. I have run my abstract(s) by at least one other person (another student in your program whose work you admire or whose judgment you trust, your advisor or mentor, another professor interested in your work) to be sure of its quality and appropriateness for the conference at which I intend to present. I have revised or will revise the paper to conference length (no more than 8-10 pages, double-spaced 12 point font, or 20 minutes when read aloud).

R: I am currently enrolled in a graduate program and have papers and/or an idea for a paper that would be suitable for a conference presentation; if I do not, I intend to seek assistance from (other graduate student(s), your advisor, a professor you are taking a class with, and/or your university writing center or other resources) to write a paper that can be presented at a conference.

T: I will meet the deadlines for abstract submission for the conference(s) I have targeted, and keep track of when the conferences take place so I am prepared to attend and give my paper.

2. Publications. As with conference papers, no one can guarantee you’ll get published. But if you aim for something at or near your current level of expertise, you can maximize your chances.

S: I am going to submit (insert number here) book review/article/encyclopedia entry/blog post(s)/conference proceedings for publication this year. (Note I didn’t say “I am going to publish” but rather, “I am going to submit for publication”. That’s because many academic journals and presses work slowly, through a process of peer review, revision, re-submission, and editorial decisions that can take up to 6 months or more. The best you can do is to make sure your work is as good as you can make it and to submit it; after that, a lot of the control is out of your hands. The goal has to be achievable–so saying “I will publish” makes it less so when so many other variables are at stake. Better to go with what you can achieve–you can “submit for publication.” And start small–almost anyone at the graduate level can do a signed encyclopedia entry in a subject-specific reference text, or a book review. There are also graduate student essay prizes with a publication opportunity offered by many academic organizations, and journals that focus on publishing graduate students’ work. Ask your advisor/mentor to help you identify publishing opportunities that are appropriate to your level of training; if s/he doesn’t know of anything, check with other professors in your field. If you are told “you’re not ready to publish” take that seriously and ask what you need to do in order to get to a point where you are ready to publish.

M: I can measure the success of my goal by whether or not I submitted the stated number of works for publication this year. (I keep a spreadsheet listing what I’ve written, where I’ve sent it and when, and when to expect response/what the response(s) are, which reminds me that I really have been productive.

A: I have identified or will shortly identify several publication opportunities to which I intend to submit abstracts and/or essays or articles. I have written or will shortly write abstracts to send to the publisher/editor for consideration. I have run my abstract(s) by at least one other person (another student in your program whose work you admire or whose judgment you trust, your advisor or mentor, another professor interested in your work) to be sure of its quality and appropriateness for the publication I am querying. I have revised or will revise the completed paper/ essay to publishable quality (run it by other graduate students in a writing group, take it to the writing center and/or have your advisor, mentor, or another professor read through it and give comments on its quality. Hint: Start thinking of your work as publications. Don’t tell them, “I have a paper I would like you to critique;”  say rather, “I have an article I’m considering submitting to X journal for publication. Would you be willing to read through it for me?”)

R: The publication opportunities I am seeking out are appropriate for my level or training and the quality of my work, and I believe that my work is a good fit for the publication(s) in question (because you ran it by your advisor/mentor/another professor you trust who verified that you are being realistic in your evaluation of the work in question.)

T: If I am submitting to an edited collection or a journal with set deadlines, then I will have submitted my work for consideration on or before those deadlines. If there is no deadline, I will have (my essay or article or abstract) sent for publication by (choose a date.)

3. Time Management. As graduate students, we all have our own, individual and personal issues with time management. Maybe for you, it’s trying to figure out how to read everything you need to get through for classes or comps; or how to juggle your preparation for the classes you are taking and those you are teaching; or how to juggle finishing your dissertation with creating dossiers for the job market; or how to juggle work and life or professional and family obligations. This year, I have two especially major time-management issues: how to get my dissertation written, and how to make sure it doesn’t completely swallow my personal life in its wake. Here’s how I might use SMART to help me stay focused on meeting those goals:

S:  I will write for one hour each weekday, and spend time each day involved in non-academic and non-responsibility activities with my family (no errands, chores, & etc. during that time.)

M: I will keep a log of my dissertation activity to ensure I meet my daily goal of working for an hour. I will ask my family members to hold me accountable to spending time with them engaged in fun activities instead of work or responsibilities.

A: I will identify and use an hour each day specifically for dissertation activities–reading articles or books, taking notes, drafting sections, and revising my work. I will identify and engage in fun and interesting activities with members of my family, like playing games, reading, going for walks, art journaling, doing crafts, or baking or cooking together.

R: This is why I wrote, “an hour each weekday” as the time I intend to spend on my dissertation. We all know that there is NO WAY I am going to finish my dissertation if I ONLY spend an hour a day on it. But some days are going to be busier than others, things are going to come up, and I’m not going to be able to devote 6-8 hours a day, every day, to my dissertation. I can, however, certainly identify and commit to one hour a day, five days a week. Obviously, to achieve my ultimate goal of finishing the dissertation, I’ll need to add substantially to that number whenever I can–but this is about setting discrete, manageable goals towards the big picture. Likewise, realistically I can’t commit large swathes of time every single day to my family (particularly when I am gone two days a week next term)–but I can commit to making sure we spend regular, quality, fun time together.

T: I will give myself three months on this schedule, and then revisit and reevaluate my progress at that point. If I am meeting my dissertation schedule deadlines and my family is satisfied with how things are going, then I will continue on this schedule, but if not I will need to alter the schedule at that time to ensure I am staying on target to finish and meeting my family needs as well.

4. Developing as an Instructor. As graduate students, many of us are planning to enter or continue in the education field in some way. We may even have a teaching assistantship funding our own degree, or we might be adjuncting, or teaching a class or two, in order to make some money while we finish our degree. If this is the case, we should be actively engaged in trying to improve our ability to teach. SMART works well for that, too:

S: This term I will engage in (a specific initiative) tied to improving my ability to teach (suggestions for such initiatives: develop a digital project or assignment for my students/ use the Internet/social media as an aspect of my teaching/ revise my course syllabus to reflect recent changes in my field or my perception of the subject/ write a new syllabus for a class I’d like to teach/ attend a teaching conference or professional development workshop/ come up with a creative assignment tied to my course objectives/ develop a new means of assessing my students’ progress/ serve as a TA for a professor in an upper-division course/ have a professor/my advisor/my mentor observe my teaching and make suggestions for improvement/ submit a portfolio for a teaching award)

M: My success will be tied to meeting the goal I have set for myself (for example, if you chose from the suggestions above, “write a new syllabus for a class I’d like to teach” then you would have that syllabus to show for it.)

A: The actions you will take will again be directly related to the goal(s) you have chosen; if, for instance, you intend to attend professional development workshops, you might check with your Graduate School or College of Arts and Sciences of Faculty Teaching and Learning Commons, or other programs at your university, to identify appropriate workshops that can help you meet your goals of improving your teaching. If you are going to develop a digital assignment, you might look for online examples of the kinds of digital projects you could do, speak with a professor whose online teaching has won awards or who has developed innovative online projects, or see if your school offers faculty development initiatives or support in digital instruction.

R: You aren’t going to overhaul everything about your teaching style in one term, or even in a year. Teaching is a skill you develop over time (I would argue, over a lifetime.) Choose one or two initiatives you are particularly invested in and start there as a realistic beginning.

T: Aim for one or two initiatives per academic term. That way you can track your progress, evaluate how you did, and set new goals for the next term without feeling overwhelmed or like you are trying to do too much. It makes good sense to tie your teaching initiatives to your classroom experiences–your classes are your laboratory! It’s also really the only way to know if what you are doing will work instructionally and pedagogically.

So, there you have it–four specific ways you can make achievable goals for yourself this year. What about you–what do you want to accomplish this year, and how are you going to do it?


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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1 Response to SMART New Year’s Resolutions For Graduate Students

  1. Pingback: Link Round-Up: Critical Reading, Writing, and Resolutions - How To Do A Literature Review

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