Member’s message to students: Setting goals for grad school

By Paul M. Lukacs, University of Montana TWS Student Chapter Advisor

©Hillebrand/USFWS

In graduate school, students sometimes feel lost since the path to completion can seem very long. Graduate education is very different than undergraduate education. University programs carefully lay out undergraduate curricula and few decisions are left to the student – complete the courses in good standing and you graduate. On the contrary, very little is defined in graduate school – producing something novel is required. Students typically enter grad school after having done very well in undergrad, often being one of the top handful of students in their class. In graduate school, formerly top students become average among their peers. A lack of defined direction combined with being just one fish in the pond can make grad school very daunting. Setting clear goals for yourself can help guide you through the process and keep you focused on the end result, even when it feels like it’s a long way off.

  1. Set personal goals for graduate school. Personal goals should be things that you want to achieve to set yourself up for a successful future. These should not be about your thesis or dissertation, but bigger picture goals. In which fields of conceptual theory do you want to build a strong foundation? What skills would you like to possess when you graduate? What is your end game? Try not to lose sight of your broader goals while you are counting willow stems or attempting to deploy those last two radio collars.
  2. Set goals for deliverables in your research. Early in your program, develop a timeline for when you plan to complete your proposal, field work, publications, or other requirements for your research. It can be very helpful to set goals for writing your introduction and methods sections early in your graduate program to get those off your plate. Revisit your timeline each semester to ensure that things are progressing. Reconsider timing if needed, but avoid using the flexibility of grad school as an enabling factor for procrastination.
  3. Be mindful of how other people’s goals interact with your goals. All of the people you interact with in graduate school will have their own goals: faculty, agency personnel, funders, and other students. Some of their goals will help you produce a stronger thesis, others are merely a distraction from graduation.
  4. Reward yourself when you achieve a goal. When you check a goal off your list, take some time to get back outside and remember why you chose wildlife biology. This is especially true for those of us in biometrics who could easily lose focus on real critters or be swayed by income potential in related fields. Setting goals for yourself in graduate school can help provide a clear path toward graduation and a successful career. Goals do not need to be complicated or earth-shattering, simply writing two paragraphs a day for a semester will produce a thesis.

This article originally appeared in the TWS Biometrics Working Group’s April 2017 newsletter.