Goal-setting for personal and professional post-PhD journeys

I would hazard a guess that goal setting is probably the bread and butter of coaching both for myself and other coaches – after all, the key reason why people reach out and decide to engage in coaching is to make positive changes in their lives and reach personal goals. There are a number of coaching techniques designed to help people achieve their goals, with the GROW model being probably the most widespread one, where you go through the process of identifying your Goal, looking at your current Reality and distance from that goal, and then move on to examining their Options (or Obstacles, depending on which version of the model you work with) that they could embrace to make the goal reality and then finally W stands for “the Way Forward”, where the coachee converts the options into reality and then on the basis of that takes actions. Oh, and the goals should ideally be SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound, so a good PhD-related goal could be finishing the literature review chapter by the end of term and ideally breaking that down into smaller, measurable chunks that will make it easier to track progress towards that goal. And then all that remains is for the coachee to report back to the coach at the next session on what wonderful progress they are making.

Except real life is much, much messier. This is not to say I don’t believe in adopting a structured, well-planned approach to areas such as academic productivity and writing, far from it, given my day job as project manager I will happily break things into smaller chunks, monitor my progress and keep myself on track when it comes to institutional and personal projects. Except that’s me and as I’m finding out, not everyone comes equipped with Inner Project Manager 1.0 as standard and not everyone responds very well to the rather mechanistic and prescriptive nature of the GROW model. In addition, SMART goals can actually be quite limiting and not so smart and every now and then I like to go back to the concept of BHAGs – Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. See, I recently signed up to do a 24 hour race which will take place in December round an athletic track in Barcelona. I’ve done a number of running challenges, including running four marathons in four days but I’ve never run for more than ten hours in one day as part of my 100km race I completed last year. To tell the truth, I’ve really run on a track either, and now am staring at a training plan which some Sundays sees me completing a 20 mile run in the morning followed by a 12 mile run in the evening and the most scary bit is that on 17th and 18th December the plan just says RACE/RACE because I will start mid-day Saturday and finish mid-day Sunday. None of that feels terribly smart, realistic or attainable yet I am excited enough to be getting up at five am for long mid-week runs and for my yoga classes to make sure my body is in one piece by the time the race arrives and that it continues to function after the race is over.

What does any of that have to do with post-PhD career planning? I’ve been thinking and writing about confidence in post-PhD transitions recently and still don’t have a good answer but I am beginning to suspect that the key isn’t necessarily being confident, it’s about trusting yourself enough to follow through when an exciting goal grabs you and doesn’t let go.

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