1 April 2019
How to set achievable research goals
What is realistic? What is feasible? What can be achieved?
Setting realistic study designs and goals is vital for building a strong reputation as a researcher, and for success, but is not always easily achieved.
When thinking about what is realistic, bear in mind different types of resources, for example:
- Calendar time: are there deadlines for completion of studies, either because you are a student with an end date, or because a grant will terminate by a certain date?
- Staff hours: who will actually be running the research? How many hours (e.g. per week, over what period) will that take? Don’t forget to consider your own time.
- Participant recruitment and time: can you recruit volunteers/patients and if so how quickly and from where? How much involvement will there be for participants in the potential study, and how might this affect recruitment and retention?
- Infrastructure: where will the study be conducted? What physical resources are needed at those sites to conduct the research? Requirements depend on the nature of the study but can include cognitive testing batteries, computer equipment, blood sampling equipment, brain imaging technologies, etc.
- Cost: each of the above has a financial cost. There may also be overheads due to your department, beyond what is needed for direct running of the study itself. Can you apply for additional funding to cover some or all of these costs?
What goals should you be setting as an early career researcher?
In terms of goal setting, in early stages of a research career, your supervisor may outline a study design and expectations for you; you may only have limited input into the process of designing a study and funding it. In this situation, you need worry less about ‘grant funding’ resource considerations but instead would want to set personal goals relating to roughly when you want to complete different aspects of your work.
If you are a research intern, you may know when your post will end and might set yourself a goal such as completing data collection by a particular date, and writing up a summary of the findings (data analysis) for a deadline.
Do you have a contingency plan?
When setting realistic research goals it is very important to consider the resources required (and available to you) overall. This is not only a practical consideration for your own planning; funding bodies like to see that you are showing value for money and the costs are well justified.
Furthermore, in a funding application, ensure you acknowledge the risks of your project and suggest alternatives to demonstrate the feasibility and flexibility of your proposal by building in layers. In this way, your project becomes achievable in best and worst case resource scenarios.