Darcie Cook: Setting Goals to Stay Motivated

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the last six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook have given monthly updates on their progress. Check back in September for posts from 4 new students and postdocs!

Current Position: 6th year PhD candidate in Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis

Program Start Date: 2011

Institution: Emory University

If you are like me, you may find that you have difficulty staying motivated, particularly when things get really difficult. There are a select few people that are highly intrinsically motivated and I often wish that I could be more like them. I have a tendency to sprint to the finish as a deadline approaches. I always get my work done (and done well) by the deadline, but I am definitely not a marathoner.

Staying motivated without a specific deadline is something that every graduate student has struggled with at some time or another in their graduate career. There are periods of intense experimentation where there’s something going on every day and there are lulls where you’re on your own to make sure forward progress is happening. I’ve found the best way to keep moving is to set tiny accomplishable goals.

When the amount of work to get done starts to pile up, I find that the tasks I set for myself get tinier and tinier. But the size of the goal doesn’t really matter. The important thing is to get started on the work and gain some momentum. A bunch of tiny goals will add up into a completed experiment that will eventually lead to a figure and a published paper. This strategy helps me not only stay motivated, but also stick to a timeline. For individuals who are more responsive to extrinsic motivation, even just writing that task down knowing you’ll get to cross it off later can be enough to get started on that task.

Project and time management are two incredibly important skills to cultivate during the PhD process. These are some of the “transferrable skills” you’ve probably heard about. Knowing how to keep yourself motivated, plan a project, and manage its timeline are crucial to a career in any field, not just academia. In addition to setting small goals, I find it helpful to make monthly calendars and assign my tasks to specific days. This is particularly helpful when trying to balance my professional development and time in the lab. Because I am pursuing a career outside of academia, I knew early on that I would have to cultivate some skills outside of the lab to be competitive in the job market. Keeping a calendar of my research allowed me to know when I could squeeze in some time for the extra activities.

The calendar also has the added bonus of making you aware of how much time is passing. Sometimes it can feel like no time at all has passed, when in reality, it’s been a month and the deadline for the internship you were going to apply for is suddenly upon you. Job hunting and internship applications are really easy to break up into smaller achievable goals. Set aside one day specifically to work on your resume, one day for the cover letter, another day for the application itself. Schedule reminders to contact your references to make sure they’ve submitted their letters. Don’t let those deadlines sneak up on you!

It can be annoying to look back on your timeline and realize you are not where you wanted to be, but this is a classic human mistake. We always think it will take us less time to do something than it actually does. This isn’t really a problem though. Having any sort of plan and timeline is better than aimlessly wandering your way through a project. Starting with a plan and one tiny task, you can ensure that you are always making some forward progress on whatever project you are working on, whether it’s your research, job applications, or impressing the new boss with your amazing time management.

As this is my last post for the NIH BEST Blog, I just wanted to say thanks for reading and I hope it’s been useful to you. While my time as a graduate student is coming to an end, I’d also like to thank the NIH BEST program for all of the opportunities it has provided and the professional development I have received.


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