pattern while they figured out what they
really wanted to do in the long term
tent/352/6286/663). Unfortunately, this
strategy turns out to be expensive, both
in lower career income (https://www.
nature.com/articles/nbt.3766) and in
So how do you set your long-term
professional goals, and the short-term
goals you need to get yourself to them?
Start by thinking about where you see
yourself 5–10 years, or even longer,
in the future. Are you a tenure-track
professor at a primarily undergraduate
institution? Are you a sales scientist for
an analytical instrumentation company? Are you working for the federal
government, developing new analytical
methods for testing biological products?
Or are you living in a particular region
of the country, communicating the re-
sults of others’ scientific research to the
general public? You may not be able to
specify all the details, but you can start
listing the “must haves” and the “nice to
The more specific your long-term
goal is, the easier it will be to identify
the steps needed to get there. Converse-
ly, the more flexible your long-term goal
is, the more options you have, and the
more you can use what you learn along
the way to refine your goal. Sometimes,
one of your goals may be to gather the
information you need to inform your
Once you have your long-term
goal, determine how to get there, and
set short-term goals for what you need
to learn or do. To define them, ask:
What are the milestones along the way?
What can you do this year, this month,
this week, or even today, to move you
closer to your long-term goal?
Suppose your long-term career
goal is to be a tenure track professor at
a primarily undergraduate university
(PUI) in the Midwest. What can you do
now, to set yourself up for success? Your
immediate goal for this week may be to
read 10 online job advertisements and
determine what those PUIs are looking for in new faculty members. If you
learn that teaching experience is highly
valued, you can set a short-term goal
to teach a lecture course next semester.
You can set another one to attend some
classes or workshops in your university’s
As You Set Your Goals,
Make Sure They Are SMART
Your goals should specify what you are
going to accomplish, what resources you
will need, and why you are doing it. If
you can’t be that specific, you may have
a vision that needs to be broken down
into SMART goals. For example, “Find
a job” is a worthwhile goal, but not very
actionable. Break it down by identifying the characteristics of your ideal job,
determining what skills or expertise
you are missing, creating strategies to
acquire them, talking to people about
companies and industries that need that
type of work done, and so on.
As a scientist, you are used to quantitat-ing things. Goals are no different—if
you don’t measure them, how do you
know when you are done? If your long-term career goal is to manage others,
you may set a short-term goal to gain
experience. But “Get better at managing people” is not a quantitative goal.
Instead, use, “Supervise at least two undergraduates in the laboratory all summer” or, “Organize an all-day science
outreach activity that involves at least 15
volunteers and 50 participants.”
Goals should be challenging, but reach-
able. Think about the resources (time,
money, energy, other people…) that will
be needed, then set your scope for an
objective that is nontrivial but accom-
plishable. For instance, taking a class is
a great way to learn something new, but
it will require time and can cost money.
Be honest with yourself—if you sign up
for a free online class, are you going to
put in the work to learn what you need?
If you invest money in a class, will you
be more likely to work at it, or will you
feel that you’ve already put something
in and slack off? What makes a goal
achievable for you?
There are lots of things you could do
with your time, many of which could
add to your array of skills and abilities.
But are they relevant to your short- and
long-term goals? Is this the right time
in your career to be working on those
areas, or is there something else that
would be more relevant? Maybe you
need to focus on improving your teaching skills now, and learn supervisory
skills later in your career.
Quantitation can also be time-based.
When are you going to get this done,
and how much time are you going to
put into it? Are you going to do an
online search for information today?
Sign up for a class within four months?
Again, you may have to break larger
goals down—maybe you’ll do an online
search this week to identify three possible classes you could take on the topic
you want, then next week discuss the
options with your mentor.
Enhance Your Chances of
In addition to making your goals
SMART, there are other things you can
do to improve your chances of achieving them.
Use deadlines to prioritize your goals
and decide which one(s) to work on
first. Although career planning, for example, is important, it is rarely urgent,
so it’s very easy to put off for “just one
more day.” Even self-imposed deadlines
can help, if you write them down (so
they are concrete).
“Start by thinking about where you see
yourself 5–10 years,
or even longer,
in the future”