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Why Setting Goals Matters in Graduate School

Setting goals for graduate school helps students to keep the big picture in focus while trying to balance other priorities like working full-time and spending time with family. In fact, one study found that individuals who make the effort to write down and share their goals accomplish significantly more than those who simply ideated about what they’d like to achieve.
setting goals in graduate school
Graduate programs require a significant investment that calls on students to be especially vigilant with how they expend resources, such as their time and energy. Graduate students, and especially distance learners such as those enrolled in USC’s online graduate GIS programs, are offered a certain level of autonomy to shape their own schedules; however, this means they also have to be especially skilled in managing their time well and balancing demands from multiple projects as well as demands from family and work.

The value in outlining clear, well-defined and measurable goals should not be understated—goal setting offers graduate students a valuable framework to maximize the use of their time and energy resources. Below, we define SMART goal-setting in addition to other helpful ways to stay on track.


SMART Goals for Graduate Students

The SMART concept was introduced by notable management consultant Peter Drucker for goal setting in business, but the process applies to students as well.

In this context, SMART is an acronym:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-specific

Defining a goal through this method requires a student to consider all their resources in context with what they are trying to obtain. It puts accomplishment strategies in motion and helps to sketch out a practical timeline. The SMART framework ensures that the goal is not only achievable, but reasonable and realistic.

SMART Graduate School Goal Examples:

“In two years or less, I will obtain an online M.S. in Geographic Information Science and Technology, focusing on Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization from USC in order to seek advanced career opportunities in geographical information systems.”

“To transition into a career as a geographic information systems software engineer, I will enroll in an online graduate certificate in geographic information science and technology program in one year or less.”

“I will apply for USC’s online M.S. in Human Security and Geospatial Intelligence and take advantage of the fieldwork opportunity on Catalina Island in order to be promoted to the senior staff systems engineer position in five years.”


The Key to Goal Setting for Graduate Students

John P. Wilson, director of USC’s Spatial Sciences Institute, says goal setting is key to being a successful graduate student. It’s more than ambitious goals; Wilson recommends students also set priorities for their activities and always plan ahead.

For example, when planning for on-campus graduate student experiences, like the USC GIST Catalina Island excursion, it may be helpful to outline which faculty member(s) you especially want to connect with and detail which specific questions about careers and education advice you would like to ask them.

“A prepared student,” says Robert O. Vos, director of graduate studies at USC, “is going to know not only when to seek help, but probably who to seek help from.”

Being willing and able to seek help when necessary can go a long way in obtaining a graduate certificate or degree and a successful career. Do your research and know in advance who can help. Run a SMART goal related to GIS education by a USC enrollment advisor and read through the faculty page to find out which established government, science and industry leaders teach which courses.


Think Big Picture

Take a holistic approach to your written goals and plans; don’t simply focus on your academic pursuits. Of course, you will likely set goals for academic achievement, but give thought to the career you envision for yourself; this way, you can more effectively plan how to make important connections during your graduate education, which types of internship opportunities to pursue and tailor coursework such as capstone or thesis projects so that they give you experience with the type of work you want to do in your career.


Stay Organized

Effectively managing your time are among the most important factors when it comes to setting goals for graduate school. Here are a few steps you can take to stay organized when pursuing a master’s degree or graduate certificate:

  • Make a plan to manage your study schedule
  • Organize your assignments and important documents in the way that makes the most sense to you
  • Consider leveraging a cloud storage service to make your documents accessible anywhere
  • Think of the relationship between the goals you set for studying and your career goals to stay motivated

As a final tip, always remember that you have support in graduate school. If you know the type of role you want in your career but don’t know how to get there, for example, asking a faculty member with experience in the area can help you refine your SMART goals and outline specific steps for achieving them.


About USC’s Online GIS Graduate Programs

The University of Southern California offers a comprehensive selection of online GIS programs, including GIST master’s degrees and graduate certificates. This gives our students the ultimate flexibility in tailoring their education for their career goals. Click on the programs below to learn about our leading geographic information science education.

Online GIS Master’s Degrees

Online GIS Graduate Certificates


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Fill out the information below to learn more about the University of Southern California’s online GIS Graduate Programs and download a free brochure. If you have any additional questions, please call 877-650-9054 to speak to an enrollment advisor.

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