1 Kazrakasa

Process Goals Definition Essay

Goal setting involves the development of an action plan designed to motivate and guide a person or group toward a goal.[1] Goal setting can be guided by goal-setting criteria (or rules) such as SMART criteria. Goal setting is a major component of personal-development and management literature.

Studies by Edwin A. Locke and his colleagues have shown that more specific and ambitious goals lead to more performance improvement than easy or general goals. As long as the person accepts the goal, has the ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance.[2]


Cecil Alec Mace carried out the first empirical studies in 1935.[3]

Edwin A. Locke began to examine goal setting in the mid-1960s and continued researching goal setting for more than 30 years.[2][4][5] Locke derived the idea for goal-setting from Aristotle's form of final causality. Aristotle speculated that purpose can cause action; thus, Locke began researching the impact goals have on human activity. Locke developed and refined his goal-setting theory in the 1960s, publishing his first article on the subject, "Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives", in 1968.[6] This article established the positive relationship between clearly identified goals and performance.


Goals that are difficult to achieve and specific tend to increase performance more than goals that are not.[7] A goal can be made more specific by:

  • quantification (that is, making it measurable), such as by pursuing "increase productivity by 50%" instead of "increase productivity",
  • enumeration, such as by defining tasks that must be completed to achieve the goal instead of only defining the goal.

Setting goals can affect outcomes in four ways:[8]

Goals may narrow someone's attention and direct their efforts toward goal-relevant activities and fromward goal-irrelevant actions.
Goals may make someone more effortful. For example, if someone usually produces 4 widgets per hour but wants to produce 6 widgets per hour, then they may work harder to produce more widgets than without that goal.
Goals may make someone more willing to work through setbacks.
Goals may cause someone to develop and change their behavior.

Goal commitment[edit]

People perform better when they are committed to achieving certain goals. Through an understanding of the effect of goal setting on individual performance, organizations are able to use goal setting to benefit organizational performance. Locke and Latham (2002) have indicated three moderators that indicate goal setting success:[9]

  1. The importance of the expected outcomes of goal attainment,
  2. Self-efficacy: one's belief that they are able to achieve the goals,
  3. Commitment to others: promises or engagements to others can strongly improve commitment.

Expanding the three from above, the level of commitment is influenced by external factors. Such as the person assigning the goal, setting the standard for the person to achieve/perform. This influences the level of commitment by how compliant the individual is with the one assigning the goal. An external factor can also be the role models of the individual. Say if they strive to be like their favorite athlete, the individual is more likely to put forth more effort to their own work and goals.

Internal factors can derive from their participation level in the work to achieve the goal. What they expect from themselves can either flourish their success, or destroy it. Also, the individual may want to appear superior to their peers or competitors. They want to achieve the goal the best and be known for it. The self-reward of accomplishing a goal, is usually one of the main keys that keep individuals committed.

Goal–performance relationship[edit]

Locke and colleagues (1981) examined the behavioral effects of goal-setting, concluding that 90% of laboratory and field studies involving specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than did easy or no goals.[10]

Locke and Latham (2006) argue that it is not sufficient to urge employees to "do their best". "Doing one's best" has no external referent, which makes it useless in eliciting specific behavior. To elicit some specific form of behavior from another person, it is important that this person has a clear view of what is expected from him/her. A goal is thereby of vital importance because it helps an individual to focus his or her efforts in a specified direction. In other words, goals canalize behavior.[2]


Without proper feedback channels it is impossible for employees to adapt or adjust to the required behavior. Managers should keep track of performance to allow employees to see how effective they have been in attaining their goals.[11] Providing feedback on short-term objectives helps to sustain motivation and commitment to the goal and without it, goal setting is unlikely to be successful. Feedback should be provided on the strategies followed to achieve the goals and the final outcomes achieved, as well. Feedback on strategies used to obtain goals is very important, especially for complex work, because challenging goals put focus on outcomes rather than on performance strategies, so they impair performance. Properly delivered feedback is also very essential, and the following hints may help for providing a good feedback:

  • Create a positive context for feedback.
  • Use constructive and positive language.
  • Focus on behaviors and strategies.
  • Tailor feedback to the needs of the individual worker.
  • Make feedback a two-way communication process.

Advances in technology can facilitate providing feedback. Systems analysts have designed computer programs that track goals for numerous members of an organization. Such computer systems may maintain every employee's goals, as well as their deadlines. Separate methods may check the employee's progress on a regular basis, and other systems may require perceived slackers to explain how they intend to improve.

More difficult goals require more cognitive strategies and well-developed skills. The more difficult the tasks, the smaller the group of people who possess the necessary skills and strategies. From an organizational perspective, it is thereby more difficult to successfully attain more difficult goals, since resources become more scarce.

Honing goal setting using temporal motivation theory[edit]

Locke and Latham (2004) note that goal setting theory lacks "the issue of time perspective".[12] Taking this into consideration, Steel and Konig (2006) utilize their temporal motivation theory (TMT) to account for goal setting's effects, and suggest new hypotheses regarding a pair of its moderators: goal difficulty and proximity.[13] The effectiveness of goal setting can be explained by two aspects of TMT: the principle of diminishing returns and temporal discounting.[13] Similar to the expression "the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole", a division of a project into several, immediate, subgoals appears to take advantage of these two elements.[13]

Employee motivation[edit]

See also: Job satisfaction and Motivation

The more employees are motivated, the more they are stimulated and interested in accepting goals. These success factors are interdependent. For example, the expected outcomes of goals are positively influenced when employees are involved in the goal setting process. Not only does participation increase commitment in attaining the goals that are set, participation influences self-efficacy as well. Additionally, feedback is necessary to monitor one's progress. When feedback is not present, an employee might think (s)he is not making enough progress. This can reduce self-efficacy and thereby harm the performance outcomes in the long run.[14]

  • Goal-commitment, the most influential moderator,[citation needed] becomes especially important when dealing with difficult or complex goals. If people lack commitment to goals, they lack motivation to reach them. To commit to a goal, one must believe in its importance or significance.
  • Attainability: individuals must also believe that they can attain—or at least partially reach—a defined goal. If they think no chance exists of reaching a goal, they may not even try.
  • Self-efficacy: the higher someone's self-efficacy regarding a certain task, the more likely they will set higher goals, and the more persistence they will show in achieving them.[15]

In business[edit]

In business, goal setting encourages participants to put in substantial effort. Also, because every member has defined expectations for their role, little room is left for inadequate, marginal effort to go unnoticed.

Managers cannot constantly drive motivation, or keep track of an employee's work on a continuous basis. Goals are therefore an important tool for managers, since goals have the ability to function as a self-regulatory mechanism that helps employees prioritize tasks.[9][16]

Four mechanisms through which goal setting can affect individual performance are:

  1. Goals focus attention toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities.
  2. Goals serve as an energizer: Higher goals induce greater effort, while low goals induce lesser effort.
  3. Goals affect persistence; constraints with regard to resources affect work pace.
  4. Goals activate cognitive knowledge and strategies that help employees cope with the situation at hand.

In personal life[edit]

Main article: Personal goal setting

Common personal goals include losing weight, achieving good grades, and saving money. The strategy for goal setting begins with the big picture; taking a look at the big picture before breaking it into smaller components allows one to focus on the primary goal. Once the main goal is set, breaking it up into smaller, more achievable components helps in the planning portion of setting the goal.[17] These smaller, more obtainable objectives promote self-esteem and provide instant feedback to keep the individual on task.[18][19]

Time management is the practice of systematically finishing tasks assigned by superiors or one's self in an efficient and timely manner. Time management steps require identifying the objective and laying out a plan that maximizes efficiency and execution of the objective.[20] There are many useful mobile apps that help with personal goal setting; some of the categories include budgeting, wellness, calendar and productivity apps.[21][22]


Goal-setting theory has limitations. In an organization, a goal of a manager may not align with the goals of the organization as a whole. In such cases, the goals of an individual may come into direct conflict with the employing organization. Without aligning goals between the organization and the individual, performance may suffer.

For complex tasks, goal-setting may actually impair performance. In these situations, an individual may become preoccupied with meeting the goals, rather than performing tasks.[23]

Some evidence suggests that goal-setting can foster unethical behavior when people do not achieve specified goals.[24]

Goal setting may have the drawback of inhibiting implicit learning: goal setting may encourage simple focus on an outcome without openness to exploration, understanding, or growth.[citation needed] A solution to this limitation is to set learning goals as well as performance goals, so that learning is expected as part of the process of reaching goals.[25][26]

Developments in theory[edit]

Goal choice[edit]

Self-efficacy, past performance, and various other social factors influence goal setting.[2] Failure to meet previous goals often leads to setting lower (and more likely achievable) goals.

Learning goals[edit]

There are times when having specific goals is not a best option; this is the case when the goal requires new skills or knowledge. Tunnel vision is a consequence of specific goals; if a person is too focused on attaining a specific goal, he or she may ignore the need to learn new skills or acquire new information. In situations like this, the best option is to set a learning goal. A learning goal is a generalized goal to achieve knowledge in a certain topic or field, but it can ultimately lead to better performance in specific goals related to the learning goals.[25][26]

Locke and Latham (2006) attribute this response to metacognition. They believe that "a learning goal facilitates or enhances metacognition—namely, planning, monitoring, and evaluating progress toward goal attainment".[2] This is necessary in environments with little or no guidance and structure. Although jobs typically have set goals, individual goals and achievement can benefit from metacognition.


Framing, or how goals are viewed, influences performance. When one feels threatened and or intimidated by a high goal they perform poorer than those who view the goal as a challenge.[2] The framing of a goal as a gain or a loss influences one's eventual performance.


Realization of goals has an effect on affect—that is, feelings of success and satisfaction. Achieving goals has a positive effect, and failing to meet goals has negative consequences.[2] However, the effect of goals is not exclusive to one realm. Success in one's job can compensate for feelings of failure in one's personal life.[2]

Group goals[edit]

The relationship between group goals and individual goals influences group performance; when goals are compatible there is a positive effect, but when goals are incompatible the effects can be detrimental to the group's performance.[2] There is another factor at work in groups, and that is the sharing factor; a positive correlation exists between sharing information within the group and group performance.[2] In the case of group goals, feedback needs to be related to the group, not individuals, in order for it to improve the group's performance.[2]

Goals and traits[edit]

On a basic level, the two types of goals are learning goals and performance goals; each possesses different traits associated with the selected goal.[2][25]

Learning goals involve tasks where skills and knowledge can be acquired, whereas performance goals involve easy-to-accomplish tasks that will make one appear successful (thus tasks where error and judgment may be possible are avoided).

A more complex trait-mediation study is the one conducted by Lee, Sheldon, and Turban (2003),[27] which yielded the following results:

  • Amotivated orientation (low confidence in one's capabilities) is associated with goal-avoidance motivation, and more generally, associated with lower goals levels and lower performance.
  • Control orientation (extrinsic motivation) is associated with both avoidance and approach goals. Approach goals are associated with higher goal levels and higher performance.
  • Autonomy goals (intrinsic motivation) leads to mastery goals, enhanced focus, and therefore enhanced performance.

Macro-level goals[edit]

Macro-level goals refer to goal setting that is applied to the company as a whole. Cooperative goals reduce the negative feelings that occur as a result of alliances and the formation of groups.[2] The most common parties involved are the company and its suppliers. The three motivators for macro-level goals are: self-efficacy, growth goals, and organizational vision.[2]

Goals and subconscious priming[edit]

The effects of subconscious priming and conscious goals are independent, although a conscious goal has a larger effect.[2] The interaction effect is that priming can enhance the effects of difficult goals, but it has no effect on easy goals.[2] There is also the situation in which priming and conscious goals conflict with one another, and in this situation the conscious goals have a greater effect on performance.[2]

General action and inaction goals[edit]

Action goals are believed to promote the sense of action, whereas inaction goals are considered to reduce people's tendency to take actions.[citation needed] Common action goals can be to do something, perform a certain act, or to go someplace, whereas typical inaction goals can take the form of having a rest or to stop doing something.

Goal-regulated overall activity and inactivity tendency result from both biological conditions and social-cultural environment.[28][page needed] Recent research revealed that most nations hold more favorable attitude towards action rather than inaction, even though some countries value action and inaction slightly differently than others.[29]

Recent research suggested that people tend to choose inaction goals when they are making decisions among choices where uncertainty could result in negative outcomes, but they prefer action over inaction in their daily behaviors when no deliberation is needed.[30][31]Timothy D. Wilson and colleagues found that many people "preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts".[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Grant, Anthony M (September 2012). "An integrated model of goal-focused coaching: an evidence-based framework for teaching and practice"(PDF). International Coaching Psychology Review. 7 (2): 146–165 (149). Archived from the original(PDF) on 2014-11-29.  
  2. ^ abcdefghijklmnopqLocke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (October 2006). "New directions in goal-setting theory"(PDF). Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15 (5): 265–268. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00449.x.  
  3. ^Carson, Paula Phillips; Carson, Kerry D.; Heady, Ronald B. (1994). "Cecil Alec Mace: the man who discovered goal-setting". International Journal of Public Administration. 17 (9): 1679–1708. doi:10.1080/01900699408524960. 
  4. ^Locke, Edwin A. (Spring 1996). "Motivation through conscious goal setting"(PDF). Applied and Preventive Psychology. 5 (2): 117–124. doi:10.1016/S0962-1849(96)80005-9. 
  5. ^Locke, Edwin A. (2001). "Motivation by goal setting". In Golembiewski, Robert T. Handbook of organizational behavior (2nd ed.). New York: Marcel Dekker. pp. 43–56. ISBN 0824703936. OCLC 44681839. 
  6. ^Locke, Edwin A. (May 1968). "Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives". Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. 3 (2): 157–189. doi:10.1016/0030-5073(68)90004-4. 
  7. ^Swezey, Robert W.; Meltzer, Andrew L.; Salas, Eduardo (1994). "Some issues involved in motivating teams". In O'Neil, Harold F.; Drillings, Michael. Motivation: theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 146. ISBN 0805812873. OCLC 29952231. 
  8. ^Latham, Gary P.; Budworth, Marie-Hélène (2007). "The study of work motivation in the 20th century". In Koppes, Laura L.; Thayer, Paul W.; Vinchur, Andrew J.; Salas, Eduardo. Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology. Series in applied psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 353–382 (366). ISBN 0805844406. OCLC 71725282. 
  9. ^ abLocke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (September 2002). "Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey"(PDF). American Psychologist. 57 (9): 705–717. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.705. PMID 12237980. 
  10. ^Locke, Edwin; Shaw, Karyll; Saari, Lise; Latham, Gary (1981). "Goal Setting and Task Performance: 1969-1980"(PDF). p. 125. 
  11. ^Skinner, Natalie; Roche, Ann M.; O'Connor, John; Pollard, Yvette; Todd, Chelsea, eds. (2005). "Goal setting". Workforce development TIPS (theory into practice strategies): a resource kit for the alcohol and other drugs field. Adelaide: Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation (AER); National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (Australia). pp. 8–9. ISBN 1876897066. OCLC 156766716. 
  12. ^Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (July 2004). "What should we do about motivation theory? Six recommendations for the twenty-first century"(PDF). Academy of Management Review. 29 (3): 388–403. doi:10.5465/amr.2004.13670974. 
  13. ^ abcSteel, Piers; König, Cornelius J. (October 2006). "Integrating theories of motivation"(PDF). Academy of Management Review. 31 (4): 889–913. doi:10.5465/AMR.2006.22527462. 
  14. ^Bandura, Albert (March 1993). "Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning"(PDF). Educational Psychologist. 28 (2): 117–148. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep2802_3. 
  15. ^Goal-setting theory might define self-efficacy as an impression that one has the capability of performing in a certain manner or of attaining certain goals. Or one could define self-efficacy as a belief that one has the capabilities to execute the courses of actions required to manage prospective situations. Unlike efficacy (defined as the power to produce an effect—in essence, competence), self-efficacy consists of the belief (whether or not accurate) that one has the power to produce that effect. For example, a person with high self-efficacy may engage in more health-related activity when an illness occurs, whereas a person with low self efficacy may succumb to feelings of hopelessness. (Compare: Sue, David; Sue, Derald Wing; Sue, Stanley; Sue, Diane (2015). Understanding abnormal behavior (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning. p. 194. ISBN 9781305537606. ) Note the distinction between self-esteem and self-efficacy. Self-esteem in this context relates to a person's sense of self-worth, whereas self-efficacy relates to a person's perception of their ability to reach a goal. For example, take the case of an incompetent rock-climber. Though probably afflicted with poor self-efficacy in regard to rock climbing, this hypothetical person could retain their self-esteem unaffected.
  16. ^Shalley, Christina E. (April 1995), "Effects of coaction, expected evaluation, and goal setting on creativity and productivity", Academy of Management Journal, 38 (2): 483–503 (501), doi:10.2307/256689, JSTOR 256689 
  17. ^Davis, William E.; Kelley, Nicholas J.; Kim, Jinhyung; Tang, David; Hicks, Joshua A. (2015-12-10). "Motivating the academic mind: high-level construal of academic goals enhances goal meaningfulness, motivation, and self-concordance"(PDF). Motivation and Emotion. 40 (2): 193–202. doi:10.1007/s11031-015-9522-x. ISSN 0146-7239. 
  18. ^Mouratidis, Athanasios; Lens, Willy (2015-09-29). "Adolescents' psychological functioning at school and in sports: the role of future time perspective and domain-specific and situation-specific self-determined motivation". Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 34 (8): 643–673. doi:10.1521/jscp.2015.34.8.643. ISSN 0736-7236. 
  19. ^Lens, Willy; Paixao, Maria Paula; Herrera, Dora; Grobler, Adelene (2012-05-12). "Future time perspective as a motivational variable: content and extension of future goals affect the quantity and quality of motivation"(PDF). Japanese Psychological Research. 54: 321–333. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5884.2012.00520.x. Retrieved 2016-05-13. 
  20. ^Kaliski, Burton S, ed. (2007). Encyclopedia of business and finance (2nd ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. pp. 733–735. ISBN 9780028660615. OCLC 64084686. 
  21. ^Corpuz, John (2016-05-04). "20 best productivity apps". Tom's Guide. Retrieved 2016-05-13. 
  22. ^Duffy, Jill (2016-01-06). "The 25 best fitness apps for 2016". PC Magazine. Retrieved 2016-05-13. 
  23. ^Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1997). Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465045138. OCLC 36315862. 
  24. ^Schweitzer, Maurice E.; Ordóñez, Lisa; Douma, Bambi (2004-06-01). "Goal setting as a motivator of unethical behavior". Academy of Management Journal. Academy of Management. 47 (3): 422–432. doi:10.2307/20159591. ISSN 1948-0989. Retrieved 2013-01-23.  
  25. ^ abcGrant, Anthony M (September 2012). "An integrated model of goal-focused coaching: an evidence-based framework for teaching and practice"(PDF). International Coaching Psychology Review. 7 (2): 146–165 (151). Archived from the original(PDF) on 2014-11-29.  
  26. ^ abKegan, Robert; Congleton, Christina; David, Susan A (2013). "The goals behind the goals: pursuing adult development in the coaching enterprise". In David, Susan A; Clutterbuck, David; Megginson, David. Beyond goals: effective strategies for coaching and mentoring. Farnham, Surrey: Gower Publishing Limited. pp. 229–244. ISBN 9781409418511. OCLC 828416668. 
  27. ^Lee, Felissa K.; Sheldon, Kennon M.; Turban, Daniel B. (April 2003). "Personality and the goal-striving process: the influence of achievement goal patterns, goal level, and mental focus on performance and enjoyment"(PDF). Journal of Applied Psychology. 88 (2): 256–265. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.88.2.256. PMID 12731709. 
  28. ^Hepler, Justin; Albarracin, Dolores; McCulloch, Kathleen C.; Noguchi, Kenji (December 2012). "Being active and impulsive: the role of goals for action and inaction in self-control". Motivation and Emotion. 36 (4): 416–424. doi:10.1007/s11031-011-9263-4. PMC 3678776. PMID 23766548. 
  29. ^Zell, Ethan; Su, Rong; Li, Hong; Ho, Moon-Ho Ringo; Hong, Sungjin; Kumkale, Tarcan; Stauffer, Sarah D.; Zecca, Gregory; Cai, Huajian; Roccas, Sonia (September 2013). "Cultural differences in attitudes toward action and inaction: the role of dialecticism". Social Psychological and Personality Science. 4 (5): 521–528. doi:10.1177/1948550612468774. 
  30. ^Byrne, Ruth M. J.; McEleney, Alice (September 2000). "Counterfactual thinking about actions and failures to act"(PDF). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. 26 (5): 1318–1331. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.26.5.1318. PMID 11009260. 
  31. ^Roese, Neal J.; Hur, Taekyun; Pennington, Ginger L. (December 1999). "Counterfactual thinking and regulatory focus: implications for action versus inaction and sufficiency versus necessity". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77 (6): 1109–1120. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1109. PMID 10626366. 
  32. ^Wilson, Timothy D.; Reinhard, David A.; Westgate, Erin C.; Gilbert, Daniel T.; Ellerbeck, Nicole; Hahn, Cheryl; Brown, Casey L.; Shaked, Adi (July 2014). "Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind". Science. 345 (6192): 75–77. doi:10.1126/science.1250830. PMC 4330241. PMID 24994650. 

This is the 10th article* in a series designed to help you create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) using myIDP, a new Web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals. To learn more about myIDP and begin the career-planning process, please visit: http://myIDP.sciencecareers.org

During graduate school, Xiao began to realize that a career in science writing could be the best fit for her—but how to get there? In every discussion she had with science writers, she was struck by how much writing experience they’d had before getting their first job. Xiao realized that she would need to publish more and further refine her writing skills if she wanted to be competitive in her future job search.

Every time you revise a goal, learn something from the process. This self-reflection will improve your ability to set realistic goals and manage your time—an important skill in itself that will serve you well throughout your career.

With 2 years left in her Ph.D. training, Xiao had time to gain more experience before she would have to go out onto the job market. But how would she fit anything more into her already heavy schedule?

An obvious first step is to create an IDP, which will help her chart a course that will allow her to meet these critical career advancement and skills development goals while also making progress on her research projects.

What will you do in the next 6 to12 months to promote your own career advancement? What will you do to develop your skills? What research projects do you need to work on during this time? Together, these three types of short-term goals—career advancement, skills development, and project goals—constitute the core of your IDP. In this article, we’ll share strategies for creating a 6-month or 12-month calendar of goals that is realistic, prioritizes your most important goals, and holds you accountable.

Use the "SMART" principle

Have you ever told yourself, "I need to finish writing that manuscript," but months later you still don't have a draft? Such large goals can often feel—and therefore become—insurmountable. As one student puts it, "It took me 2 months to write the first draft of my first paper. Some delay was procrastination, because the initial blank sheet of paper felt so daunting. When I set goals that were more specifically defined, with realistic deadlines, I could approach each goal more confidently. As a result, my writing progressed much more efficiently overall."

As you set goals, we recommend following the SMART principle:

S – Specific – Is it focused and unambiguous?

M – Measureable – Could someone determine whether or not you achieved it?

A – Action-oriented – Did you specify the action you will take?

R – Realistic – Considering difficulty and timeframe, is it attainable?

T – Time-bound – Did you specify a deadline?

Use this strategy: First identify an overarching goal, and then create an action plan to achieve it. For example, if you want to build your professional network, then you may have three SMART goals for the year: (1) attend one event per month (for example, your departmental social hour or an industry networking event) and talk with at least two people at each; (2) present a poster at a conference in your field; and (3) do four  informational interviews.

Develop your skills: train, practice, get feedback

Improving your skills is a key part of your professional development. The skills you choose to work on may be skills that you need to build now for future success (presentation skills for future job talks, for example), or skills necessary for success in your current training (such as particular research skills, writing skills, and so on). If you focus on improving one to three specific skills this year, and then do the same during each year of your training, then you will be much better prepared for your next career move (and likely more successful during your training).

Setting skill-development goals is like creating your own curriculum. In a course, an instructor decides what material to cover, provides training, gives students an opportunity to practice, and then assesses their learning. Similarly, for each skill that you want to improve, you can set SMART goals for how you will get training, practice the skill, and get feedback. To become a more engaging speaker, for example, you may want to attend a workshop on how to give a strong research talk. Then, to maximize your development of this skill, you can practice the techniques you learn in the workshop by giving practice talks, student seminars, conference presentations, and presentations in group meetings. You can then get feedback from trusted colleagues, your adviser, or whoever is available and willing.

To achieve long-term improvement of a skill, it's a good idea to move through this cycle of training-practice-feedback several times over several months. You may be able to take advantage of existing opportunities to practice, or you can carve out small amounts of time on a regular basis. It need not take a lot of time from your research.

As you develop your own IDP, you can set skill development goals that fit within your time and budget. Box 1 lists some creative ways to get training, practice, and feedback in a time- and resource-efficient manner.

Strategies for developing skills

1. Get training.

  • Participate in a course or workshop (local or online).
  • Watch a recorded workshop or seminar. (The NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education and the Khan Academy have posted many skills seminars online.)
  • Read an article, chapter, or book focused on the skill.
  • Observe others who excel at the skill.
  • Discuss strategies with a mentor or peer who excels at the skill.

2. Practice.

  • Do assignments in the context of a course.
  • Be aware of when you use the skill in your day-to-day schedule and consciously practice particular techniques in each instance.
  • Schedule protected time to practice (for example, you could practice your writing skills by free-writing every Friday morning for 15 minutes after breakfast, or practice assay measurements using a set of standards.)
  • Volunteer for additional activities (for example, you could offer to make an extra journal club presentation).

3. Get feedback.

  • Complete an assessment in the context of a course.
  • Ask anyone who excels at the skill to give you feedback; it could be an outside source, your mentor, or a peer.
  • Define criteria for success and then assess your own improvement. (For example, watch a video of yourself giving a talk.)

Have a strategy for staying accountable

It can be very difficult to protect time to work toward goals that are important but not urgent. Career advancement and skills development goals often fall into this category. It can be helpful to have someone to keep you accountable, perhaps a peer mentoring group (in which you hold each other accountable to goals), or a "project buddy" that you identify for a particular goal: Share your goal with your buddy and ask them to meet with you so you can demonstrate your progress toward that goal. Choosing someone you hold in high esteem is a good idea; you'll be more likely to do whatever it takes to reach your goal in order to make a good impression. Choose someone who is not invested in your other goals; even if your principal investigator (PI) is a fantastic mentor, she or he is unlikely to push you to work to meet a skill-development goal when there is a pressing grant or manuscript deadline.

Write them down

Thinking about your goals is not enough. You need to write them on paper (or type them into myIDP). Lee Iacocca, a well-known business guru from the 1980s, said,

The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen. In conversation you can get away with all kinds of vagueness and nonsense, often without even realizing it. But there’s something about putting your thoughts on paper that forces you to get down to specifics. That way, it’s harder to deceive yourself or anybody else.1

The strategy Iacocca proposes has been shown to help research trainees. A 2006 study2 identified a structured plan as one of the few factors that significantly improved the postdoc participants’ training experience. Postdocs who had a structured plan and discussed it with their mentors were more satisfied with their postdoctoral experience, more satisfied with their relationships with their PIs, and more productive (30% more first-author papers and 25% more grant proposals) than those without a plan.

Evaluate your plan

As you look over your IDP, make sure your goals for this year are not biased toward urgent projects. As discussed above, career-advancement and skill-development goals may not feel urgent, but they are important and should be a part of your overall plan.

Next, merge your goals for the year onto a single timeline. myIDP does this automatically, in the printed summary at the end of the process. Take a look at the goals you have set for each month; is your plan feasible? You may want to shift start or completion dates for some goals so that your expectations for any 1 month are realistic.

Translate your goals to a daily calendar

When creating your IDP, don’t let perfection and detail stall the process. The short-term goals in your IDP should give you a big-picture plan for the coming year. If you want to break these SMART goals into smaller subgoals, consider doing so as part of your weekly planning process. Once Xiao created her IDP, she considered how she could coordinate her IDP with her daily calendar, which she managed electronically using Google Calendar. She wanted to have a constant reminder of her overall, big-picture goals. To do this, she printed her myIDP Goals Summary and taped it on the wall next to her desk. Then she entered each SMART goal from her IDP into her Google Calendar. As she approached the start to each month, she looked ahead to see what IDP goals she’d set for that month. Then she thought about how to break that SMART goal into subtasks and blocked out time for those subtasks on her daily calendar. When she was finished, her to-dos for each day were listed on her daily calendar 1 to 4 weeks in advance. This gave her a sense of how long it would take to complete each task and empowered her to say "no" to additional requests that arose.

Revise your plan as you move forward

As you progress through your plan, celebrate each goal you achieve. In science, where rewards are sometimes few and far between, the simple act of checking off a SMART goal from your list should provide a sense of progress. Experiments can be unpredictable, but when it comes to your career advancement and skill development goals, you are in control. Use these goals, and the satisfaction of meeting them, as a mechanism to enhance your wellbeing (and career development) during times of scientific struggle.

Though there will be celebrations, you will also have to revise some goals. Things happen. Experiments don’t work; a new critical deadline arises; your goals change. If you do need to revise a goal, ask yourself: Why am I changing this goal? Was the original goal unrealistic? Am I managing my time effectively enough? Am I prioritizing my goals and projects appropriately? Are urgent tasks overwhelming my professional development goals? If so, what can I do to ensure that my professional development remains on track?

Every time you revise a goal, learn something from the process. This self-reflection will improve your ability to set realistic goals and manage your time—an important skill in itself that will serve you well throughout your career.

Setting goals in an IDP structures your dreams and guides your development as a professional. It may not be easy at first, because setting goals effectively is itself a skill. As you move ahead, though, your ability to set and achieve goals will improve. Your time management will improve, too. As a result, you are likely to achieve more of your own career development goals, and also become more productive in your science.

1 L. Iacocca, W. Novak, An Autobiography (Bantam Books, New York, 1984).

2G. Davis, "Improving the Postdoctoral Experience: An Empirical Approach", in The Science and Engineering Workforce in the United States, R. Freeman, D. Goroff, Eds.  (NBER/Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2006).


Cynthia N. Fuhrmann

Cynthia Fuhrmann is assistant dean of career and professional development in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester

Jennifer A. Hobin

Jennifer Hobin is director of science policy at the American Association for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Philip S. Clifford

Philip Clifford is the associate dean for research in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Bill Lindstaedt

Bill Lindstaedt serves as director of the Office of Career and Professional Development at the University of California, San Francisco.

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