Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Five Steps to Setting Semester Goals

There is no denying it: the Fall Semester is here. The beginning of the semester is always a hectic time for academics. We often are anxious about all we have to do in the moment – finalize syllabi, set up appointments, prepare for classes, and re-arrange our schedules – as well as all we have to do over the next few months.

Although you probably are in a frenzy to get ready for the upcoming semester, I am going to suggest that you add one more task to your immediate to-do list: Set goals for the Fall Semester. In this post, I am going to lay out why you need to do this now and explain exactly how to set your goals.

Academic life revolves around semesters which start and end several times over the year. The beginning of a new semester, then, is something that academics experience over and over again. However, even for those of us who have been teaching for many years, new semesters continue to be times of high anxiety and insecurity. We may have taught our classes several times before, but we never know how this batch of students will be. We may have been in our department for years, but it is often unclear what issues or challenges our department will face this year. For new professors and graduate students, the horizons are even less clear. The unknown, logically, leads to anxiety. Setting goals for the fall semester will allow you to see a bit more lucidly what lies ahead and will relieve some of your anxiety by permitting you to come to terms with what you can and cannot accomplish.

Thus, even though it is one more task in addition to all you have to do, I highly recommend you take thirty minutes to sixty minutes out of your busy schedule and sit down and write out your goals for the Fall Semester. Here is how you do it.

Step One: List all of the tasks that you would like to accomplish this semester. Look over your calendar and through your emails to make sure that you do not forget any important tasks.

Step Two: Separate those tasks into categories. The categories I use are: Research, Teaching, Service, and Personal. Dividing these tasks into categories will help you to prioritize your tasks according to your professional trajectory. For example, if you are at a Research I institution, and your Teaching and Service categories are much longer than your Research categories, you may need to figure out how to move things around.

Step Three: Arrange your tasks by month. It’s almost the end of August, but go ahead and put in August anything that needs your immediate attention. Anything with a September deadline goes in September, and anything with an October deadline goes in October. Once you have dealt with the tasks that have deadlines, you can decide where to put the remaining tasks that do not have firm deadlines.

Step Four: Arrange your tasks by weeks. If you have four writing goals for September, then you can place one in each week of the month. If you have two, then give yourself two weeks for each. The point is to decide NOW when you will turn your attention to each task. This will help you to keep on track and to feel less guilty about not dealing with everything at once.

Step Five: Cut. If you have tasks that do not fit into your semester plan, now is the best time to decide that you will either put them off for another semester or remove these tasks from your list of goals. Believe me, it is much better to make this decision now than to have this weigh on your shoulders for the rest of the semester. If the project is something you really would like to do, make it a priority for the Spring semester. If it is something you wish you could get out of, find a way to do that diplomatically. For example, you could say: “I just made a detailed plan for my semester, and have come to realize that I simply do not have the time to complete this work this semester.”

I wish you the best as you plan for the Fall Semester.


  1. Thanks for this. It's also worth noting that for most academics, the most difficult time of the semester is October. Just about everything comes due then or thereabouts: papers; midterms; committee projects; job applications; placement activities; conferences; faculty meetings; schedules; book orders; paper abstracts. It might be helpful to notify friends, family, and associates that October is not the best time to ask for any non-essential tasks to be tackled.

  2. Great point. It is good to acknowledge ahead of time that October is going to be extra busy. Speaking for myself, this October is crazy!