Matters to a Degree

I know it's not Jan. 1, but the beginning of the academic year is another good time to celebrate new beginnings and make resolutions. What educational goals have you set for the coming months? Whether you'd like to deepen your understanding of psychological theory, become a better therapist or get published, the psychological literature is rife with evidence-based ways to help you succeed:

Reflect and revise

Review your past academic year and ask yourself what went well for you and what you could have improved upon. Then, take stock of potential opportunities for growth. If you are a researcher, you may want to make a list of the studies you'd like to conduct. If you are training to be a clinician, you may want to reflect on the populations you feel competent to work with, and consider how you'd like to grow in your clinical skills. Your goals don't have to be just academic. If you're spending too much time in the lab, resolve to exercise regularly or make more plans with friends. Considering where you have been and where you are heading will help you identify your upcoming goals.

Commit to specific goals

Research has shown that you are more likely to achieve your goals if you are more specific. Goals should also be relatively manageable; smaller goals are more achievable than larger goals. So, rather than saying, "I'd like to learn more advanced statistics," you might decide, "I'd like to take a course on hierarchical linear modeling" or "I'd like to use my thesis data set to become more comfortable with path analysis." Practice-oriented students might replace a goal of "I'd like more experience in assessing children" with "I'd like to conduct and write up three complete psychological testing batteries with school-age children with disruptive behavior disorders." A good teaching goal might be "I'd like to develop two lectures for my introductory psychology course that use multimedia and interactive examples that are new to me." Write down each goal and post it someplace that you will see it daily, such as your mirror or your door.

Set realistic expectations

Be sure your goals are attainable. "Getting my literature review for my dissertation published in Psychological Bulletin" may be a bit lofty. Try something more tenable, like "Submit my literature review for publication in a respected journal." Remember, it's great to reach for the stars, but first you have to get off the earth.

Develop a plan

Once you have created your goals for the year, identify how you will accomplish them. If you want to complete your dissertation proposal by the end of the semester, one plan might be to work a minimum of 20 minutes every day, plus one or two hours on the weekend. Then, set aside time to work — if you're a morning person, block out time right after you wake up, and if you're a night owl, schedule dissertation-writing time in the evening. Remember, any movement toward your goal can help you build the momentum you need to finish. If you are struggling to find the right dissertation project, commit to read journal articles for 20 minutes a day. Chances are, you'll get sucked into exciting new research areas and find your whole morning has (productively) flown by.

Engage social support

Your friends, family members and classmates can be crucial allies in helping you work toward your goals. Tap this powerful source of motivation with the "buddy system." Invite a couple classmates over for dinner to discuss your past year and your goals over dessert. Then, keep them updated on how you're progressing toward your goals, and have regular "check-in" dinners where you keep them accountable to their goals. You can also take advantage of social support by posting your goals on Facebook or other social networking sites. Your friends will cheer you on as you reach important milestones and help you when you face disappointing setbacks.

Here's another suggestion: Share your goals for the new academic year on an APAGS listserv or the APAGS Facebook page. I'll be there to cheer you on.