To read more classic literature.
To go to the gym every day.
To only drink one (ok, maybe two) cups of coffee a day.
It’s February and your New Year’s resolutions have started to become habit… or fallen by the wayside. Fortunately, there’s still 11 months in the year to make your thesis a priority. The start of the new year and the new semester is a great time to think about what direction you would like your thesis work to go and to make plans accordingly. Below are five tips to help you set (and stick with) thesis-writing goals.
1. Be SMART about your goals.
While this acronym might seem a little corny, the message is spot-on!
Specific: Make sure your goal is not too broad. “I want to write my thesis” is a great goal, but it’s also pretty broad. You might modify your goal to be something like, “I want to complete a draft of two chapters of my thesis by [this date].” Then, think about smaller steps you need to take to get there (for instance, outlining sections, compiling a literature review, writing the introduction, etc.).
Measurable: Basically, you should set goals that have a clear and measurable end point. While writing, you might measure your success by the number of pages or words you have written. If you are doing lab work, you might measure by each experiment completed or if you are doing archival work, you could measure by each archival box you’ve sorted through.
Achievable: The key here is to determine if the goal you would like to complete is realistic. As you plan, make sure to consider if there are any skills you need to develop (such as learn a language or complete training) or resources that you need access to (such as lab equipment, archives, or people). Keep in mind that the ideal goal is one that you can easily complete, and also one that pushes you so that you can grow as a scholar.
Relevant: Focus on the tasks that will help you achieve your goal. When you are working on your thesis, it is easy to get wrapped up in the details—and in the moment, every single detail seems important! Try to differentiate what you have to do vs. what it would be nice to do. If you have trouble distinguishing, try talking it through with your adviser.
Time-limited: Try to plan small daily and weekly goals that you can easily complete. The goal “to write Chapters 1 and 2 this week” might be a tall order. Instead, think in smaller terms, like “I am going to write ten pages about this topic by the end of the week” or “I am going to write the introduction to Chapter 1 today.”
2. Find a fixed deadline and work backward.
One technique to try when setting goals is to plan backward from a fixed deadline, which will help you think through and visualize the steps needed to achieve your ultimate goal. For example, the dissertation and thesis deposit deadlines are fixed near the end of each semester, so you might use this as a starting point. Then, figure out all of the events that need to take place before that date and schedule them (see a sample calendar here). Take a look at our website to read more about the thesis process and to learn about the required deposit items.
A few things to keep in mind as you plan:
- Make sure your schedule is not too rigid or way too ambitious. What if you get sick or have an unexpected family obligation? By planning extra time in your schedule, unexpected events won’t put you too far from your goal.
- Always plan time for a break. Remember, time away from your project is just as important as time working on your project. Give your brain a rest!
3. Make your writing and research a habit and a priority.
Working on your thesis when you happen to have a little time or when the mood strikes is probably not the best way to meet your goals. Instead, develop a daily schedule or routine. If you work best in the morning, set aside some time after you’ve woken up (and maybe with some coffee) to write. If you’re a night owl, plan a few distraction-free hours in the evening (maybe also with coffee). To help you prioritize your research, identify a few tasks you would like to accomplish and write them down. Buy yourself a fun planner and some pens or block out time on a Google or Outlook calendar to help you manage your time and tasks.
4. Hold yourself accountable.
One of the best ways to hold yourself accountable is to talk about your goals. You might find an “accountability buddy” who you periodically check-in with and who gently pushes you to stay on task. Or you could create a writing group that meets regularly to talk through research and writing goals. If you would rather not meet with someone face-to-face, set up an alert on your phone or computer, post your goal on Twitter or Facebook, or write a blog that chronicles your progress.
5. Celebrate any goal (however big or small) that is met.
Plan something fun to do after you have reached your goal. Go to the movies, make an ice cream sundae, or throw a roller-skating party! Having something to look forward to will motivate you to keep working.
As you move forward on your thesis goals, keep in mind that the Graduate College has a number of resources to support you. If you want even more practice with goal-setting, come to one of our GradMAP workshops, which will help you identify SMART goals and connect you with resources to achieve them. If you are working on your thesis, our Thesis Tools workshops and office hours are a great way to get your formatting and deposit questions answered. You can learn more about many other opportunities on the Graduate College website.
Emily Wuchner is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.