How to create grad school learning goals

I am a goal setting, type A personality, through and through. But when I found out that I had to create learning goals for my PhD, it felt like a heavy weight on my shoulders. I barely knew what a PhD entailed, so how could I begin to make goals to achieve it? Breaking down the goals into categories helped me create the learning goals from scratch. And more importantly, when a new opportunity presents itself, I can revisit these goals and helps me stick to what I am really trying to achieve, without veering off course.

A colleague and good friend of mine, Katherine Occhiuto, who is also a PhD student, now in her second year created these categories and generously lent them to our PhD social work cohort. I reached out to her and asked for permission to share these with you all too!

It’s currently my reading week and if anyone else is in their reading week, it is perfect timing to set aside a couple hours to reflect on your future learning goals as a grad student.


Where to begin?

Creating these goals for your Masters or PhD program is really for your own learning – it’s a personal activity. This process includes thinking of goals for your own learning, your identity as a scholar and educator, as well as other professional and personal goals. Think of it as a professional dream board (which may give you a bit more inspiration to get started). However, this dream board has a couple more steps to it. Under each goal, there should be some type of process or strategy to actually meet the goals you are trying to achieve. This includes activities and timelines in order to properly assess and evaluate the goals in the future.

The categories

The categories for your learning goals should express all aspects of your life as a scholar. These include:

  1. Doctoral/academic goals: these range from your courses, learning theories, identity as a scholar, your research ideas, conference work, publications and other research projects you are involved in.
  2. Teaching goals: can include your teaching experience, identity as an educator and other projects that advance yourself as an educator.
  3. Practice goals: for those who are also in a degree that has a professional and practice association then you will want to include this section in your goals. These include employment positions, professional development, and volunteer positions.
  4. Self-care/personal goals: these are goals that are personal to you, I included my blog here for example and my relationships with family and friends. Most people skip these goals but these are the most important – especially for grad students!

Under each category, you will have a set of steps to achieve these goals, indicators to break these steps down even further, your progress to date and a timeline/deadline for when you hope to achieve the goal. Here is a template to help get you started:



Action Steps:








Date Completed:
Regularly draft & revise 

Most importantly you will need to regularly revisit these goals. At the beginning of the semester, when an opportunity arises, and/or at the end of a semester are all good times to pull out this document. Revise them, add to them, change them, they are your goals so you are in charge.


I hope by creating these goals you will achieve clarity, a peace of mind and some motivation. Have you ever created learning goals before? I would love to hear how others approach their learning goals for grad school.

Until next time,

Christine xo




P.S Don’t forget to use #ScholarCulture #ScholarSquad #ScholarSunday to keep me updated on your experiences as grad students.

P.P.S Applying to grad school for the 2018/19 school year? Check out this FREE eBook on 5 steps to a successful grad school application. Are you in grad school and struggling to find easy lunches to bring to campus? Check out three FREE recipes and full nutritional information here.


5 responses to “How to create grad school learning goals”

  1. John Hackworth

    Goals are so important to achieving success. Goals without action are most likely to be unattained. I have been since I was at a young age a goal oriented person. Thinking back to when I was in high school I can remember writing out my goals for my participation in the sport of cross country. I wrote specific goals for the different levels that I wanted to achieve during a season of cross country. I learned at a young age that my goal setting had and has a huge impact on my ability to be successful at what I am setting out to achieve.
    Now, I have a goal notebook that I created that has all of the above categories. I have been using my goal notebook to set up learning goals, fitness goals, financial goals, and relationship goals. Having the categories to keep me accountable helps me put action to completing my goals.
    Clarity, peace of mind, and motivation are results of my goal setting and how I have chosen to set up my goal setting program.
    As I approach the start of my PhD program I feel good that I am prepared to be successful throughout my program because I am committed to setting goals and making them happen.
    Thank you for the blog! Good information. Attack The Day!


    1. Scholar Culture

      you are so right, John! Specific goals are so important – I love your categories! Keep it up.

  2. Tiffany a.k.a. The Multipotentialite Coach

    Another Type A Social Work graduate student. Yaaaaaaaaaay! I finished my MSW and MPH in 2016. Like you, I went in with these goals. I think the only one I would have liked to tackle further is teaching. Our School of Social Work doesn’t hire TA’s. In Public Health, the doctoral students had first pick. I was able to give a guest lecture and designed a 6 week course that I co-taught for graduate students. It was on microaggressions but attracted 6 students from different disciplines (go social workers!).

    It wasn’t “for credit” so I still struggle with whether or not to apply for the teaching positions I want. I’d like to teach one evening or online course a year. I just can’t compete with PhD’s. You need one just to teach high school!

    Here in the states, I honestly think that credential is favored more than it should when hiring faculty to teach practice courses in the helping professions. I prefer learning how to do therapy from a therapist than an academic. Even more, at my University, there’s no education or training required on instruction unless you’re actually in Education.

    Luckily, my school has the Center for Teaching and Learning. Between work and school, I’ve spent a good 8 years on my campus and never knew it existed. What a gem! Students and Faculty can get FREE coaching and take workshops to improve their skills as an instructor. They’ll even help you design a course or come audit your class to give you incredible feedback. I wish I’d known about them sooner.

    Hopefully others will look to their school for similar centers. Thank you for starting this discussion. I’m returning for a post-grad certificate and will keep looking at your content.


    1. Scholar Culture

      Thanks for sharing, Tiffany. It sounds like you have a lot of experience yourself. Such a helpful tip for students to look into their centers for teaching and learning and the free courses they offer. I still have yet to take advantage of this at my school. This is a good reminder. I hope you post-grad certificate is going well 🙂

  3. […] Conferences can be expensive, sometimes quite boring and are yet another thing that is keeping you away from your thesis, so you have to ask yourself “is it worth it”? What goal will you be accomplishing by going to this conference. This is why it helps to have overall learning goals to go back to when you start feeling overwhelmed about not doing enough or doing too much. Check out my post on learning goals here. […]

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