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Setting Your Own Goals for Graduate School

Here is a problem: attrition rates in graduate school are high and are increasing per year. The percentage of students who don’t complete graduate school can be anywhere from 20% to 60% of the cohort size (depending on which study you read). That’s 20% to 60% of college graduates not reaching their original career aspirations.

So the question is, why do these students, who have excelled in their studies throughout their lives, suddenly decide to quit? Could it be that they were wrong? Maybe not wrong, but that they needed to take a step back for some perspective? Will some of them return to graduate school? Will they spurn higher education? What’s next for this well-educated and overqualified population?

Now let me make this proposition: most experiences in graduate education do a poor job of teaching their students how to be goal-oriented. Again, not all experiences. Most.

You may say that most students at this level of education should already know how to construct goals and devise a plan to reach those goals. And I agree—certainly, at some point in life, everyone has made a set of goals and constructed a plan to attain those goals. When you choose to do your laundry and set aside some time to do so, maybe even multitasking while it’s in the washer and dryer, that is setting a goal and making a plan to reach that goal. When you want to score an A in a course, you do problem sets and homework to prepare yourself for exams in order to score well. When you volunteer for teams like Relay For Life, you set a monetary goal and use fundraising to achieve what you set out to do. Everywhere, people are setting goals and making plans to make those goals happen.

But setting goals in graduate school is different. A lot of the time, the end goal isn’t clear. Why? Because we are discovering new things; we are contributing novel findings to a body of knowledge. One may hope to prove a theory (in science, this is Constructing a Hypothesis), and so set out to collect data supporting this theory. However, any cynical scientist will tell you that theories can never be proven, only supported, and it’s kind of true. More often than not, performing these experiments is like chasing after a gust of wind—endless, unrewarding, and exhausting. And what’s more, the next one could be chasing after you, and you wouldn’t even know it.

Contrast this to experiences in all education up to the point of graduate school. You are in a class. This class has exams, projects, and homework assignments. In other words, this class has long term goals (exams and projects) and short term goals (homework assignments). Each short term and long term goal is hopefully followed up by a reward acknowledging your new skills or knowledge in the field, and thus you feel motivated to achieve more.

Now remember when someone asked something that seemed impossible to you. “Find something you enjoy and get a career in it,” is the first example that comes to mind. You don’t know what that something is. You don’t know how to discover it. And you certainly don’t know how to set a plan to find a career.

That’s what it feels like to be in graduate school.

There’s not a clear “end goal.” I want to publish. I want to graduate. I want to make a significant contribution to my field. I want a job. These goals are what I believe every graduate student enters higher education to achieve. But frequently, there isn’t a roadmap to these goals. There’s no magical device that functions like a GPS, where you can punch in “I want to graduate,” and it’ll map out your education for you. Oftentimes, students expect their mentors to be aforementioned “magical device,” but that just isn’t the case.

I assume, if you’re reading this entry, you’re either a student, a mentor, or neither of the above. If you’re a student, I want to challenge you to set very tangible, realistic goals for yourself as stepping stones along your way to a Ph.D., a Master’s, or whatever you are pursuing. I want to challenge you to be as detailed as possible about these goals, and to feel driven by your goals to accomplish the “impossible.” If you’re a mentor, I want to challenge you to assist your student in making these goals, to be clear about your own goals for the student, and to oversee the student’s progress in achieving these goals. As both a student and a mentor, I constantly fear this process, as daunting as it may be. And at the same time, I feel compelled to reach for it because sitting on the other side of the fence is apathy.

So yes, I believe that most graduate students who have joined the exodus of higher education do so because there weren’t goals for them to follow. “At least three years,” (i.e., the three years typically following the end of qualification exams and signifying the beginning of dissertation research) is a long time to be pursuing a goal you can’t see. But I do believe that setting smaller, obtainable goals is one of the many things that can be changed in order to reduce the attrition rate in graduate school. Indispensible, even.