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Setting (and re-setting) goals with your PhD student

In this text, we explain how to define well-set goals.
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So how can you define well-set goals? Below are some steps that we recommend you to keep in mind.

Define the development areas

Keeping in mind the two major objectives of the PhD trajectory, it is useful to define goals with the PhD student on these two aspects:

  1. On the production of the results that will lead to the dissertation (research output and writing) and
  2. On the development of the skills and competencies leading to becoming an independent researcher.

These two aspects are intertwined, and it is important to pay particular attention to the second aspect when setting goals, as they are supporting the output and less easily identifiable.

You might want to think of a number of skills and competencies that the PhD candidate will need to develop throughout the trajectory. Some of these might be field-specific – using a specific piece of software, learning a language, or how to analyse an art form; others might be more generally applicable – learning how to present or network at a conference, or how to work as part of a team, for example.

As you gain experience supervising PhD students in your field, you will easily come up with a list of these skills and competencies. Yet, you will also need to relate these to the needs and aspirations of the PhD candidate, the specifics of the project that they are working on, and their career aspirations.

One thing to keep in mind is that the PhD candidates’ aspirations might be very much influenced not only by their values and beliefs, but by informal stakeholders of which you might not be aware of. It is therefore important that you get to know your PhD student very well, so that you understand early in the process their frame of reference, and can help them in setting and achieving the right goals.

Assess the current situation

Once you have defined the set of skills and competencies, you will need to assess the current situation of the student. This is best done in a conversation with the student, where you together discuss not only their current level of competence on these aspects, but also their motivation. Together you can define where progress is needed, and together you can identify the strategies for getting there.

Set the goals together with the PhD candidate

Keeping in mind the need for autonomy and competence, it is important to involve the PhD candidate in setting their own goals. By setting goals together and exploring with them how they fit their interests, their values, and what they find important and meaningful, you ensure that they tap into their intrinsic motivation, which is a better source of energy than the external one, given by pressure or rewards (Ryan and Deci, 2000). When we (or our PhDs) are driven by autonomous motivation, we perform well and we are gratified by our work. We are full of energy and can persist, persevere and learn.

The best way to find out what motivates the PhD candidate is by asking questions and listening to them. Here are some questions you might want to ask your student when setting goals with them:

  • What literature, technique, or method do you find interesting, and what is so interesting about it?
  • When you lose track of time during your work, what activity are you engaged in?
  • When do you experience sheer enjoyment in your research activities?
  • What type of tasks do you tend to postpone? and what do you prefer to do instead?

Make the goals SMART

A well-set goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. By setting goals that are Specific and Measurable you make sure that the PhD student has the right focus and that you can easily evaluate the progress made together. By making it Achievable and Relevant to the learning needs and interests of the PhD candidate you ensure that they maintain the motivation to achieve it. Setting a specific Time frame for the goal to be achieved, though not always easy, will help with the planning, give a sense of accomplishment throughout the trajectory, and will help identify the moment when a change of course is needed.

Help the student choose the right FOCUS for the goal

When we think about goals we often think of longer-term objectives such as publishing an article in a journal, completing a chapter, or presenting a paper at a conference. These are defined by the literature as outcome goals. The focus here is on the outcome, the result of the effort, and the time frame is relatively long-term. Typically, these are goals over which the PhD has little control. Outcome goals are good goals to define with your PhD student to give them a broader horizon of orientation, but they are not as useful if the overall focus is on acquiring skills and competencies. An example of a SMART formulation of such a goal could be “Present a poster at the XYZ conference in September 2024.

When the focus is on learning, it is more useful to define together performance goals. When we set performance goals, we define what we want to improve in relation to the current situation. The time frame of such goals is typically shorter and, as compared to the outcome goals, the PhD is more in control of what it takes to achieve them. An added bonus of setting such goals with the PhD student is that we encourage them to focus on their own improvement, rather than on the comparisons with their peers. A SMART example of such a goal could be “Improve my Dutch language level from A1 to B1 before the end of 2024.”

A third type of goal is process goals. These are based on specific actions that need to be taken, and they are generally in an even shorter time frame. In achieving such a goal the PhD is fully in control of the actions that are needed to achieve it. A SMART example of a process goal could be “In the month of April, read and summarize three articles every week.”

Goals overview

Check on progress and adjust

Once you and the student have set goals, it is important that you frequently revisit them to assess progress and make adjustments. The typical moment for this is when formal evaluation meetings are scheduled, but this is often not enough. Particularly at the beginning and at the end of the PhD trajectory it is good to intensify the frequency of the checks. In the beginning, it will help readjust and modify the direction, and in the final months, it will help with prioritization and clearing up the space for finalizing the requirements for the dissertation.


  1. Think of a PhD candidate that you are currently supervising. Make a list of at least 10 competencies and skills that they will need to have developed by the end of the trajectory.
  2. Schedule a meeting with your PhD candidate and together assess their situation as compared to the competencies and skills you define. Identify together with the student “performance” and “process” goals to help the student work toward developing these skills.
  3. Share your experiences and recommendations in the discussion section.


  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.
  • Palmer S, Whybrow A, eds. Handbook of Coaching Psychology : A Guide for Practitioners. Second ed. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group; 2019.
  • Locke, Edwin A, and Gary P Latham. 2013. New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance. New York: Routledge.
  • Koestner, Richard, Nancy Otis, Theodore A Powers, Luc Pelletier, and Hugo Gagnon. 2008. “Autonomous Motivation, Controlled Motivation, and Goal Progress.” Journal of Personality 76 (5): 1201–30.
© University of Groningen
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