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I'm applying for a graduate position. One professor answered my email and asked me some questions. Two of them are listed below:

What are your short- and long-term academic/professional goals?

What are your short- and long-term personal goals?

I can talk about my professional goals in the first question, but I don't know how to answer the second question. To what extent should my goals be personal?

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I agree that the question could be interpreted as inappropriate. But, while it's impossible to know the professor's intention (were they trying to screen out applicants who want to start families, etc.?), I think it's safe to answer the question ASSUMING that they are interested in your academic goals that may not be directly career related.

For example you might answer the first question with a straightforward goal for your career path (I want to be a tenured faculty, I want to work in research, I want to get a sales job with a technical company, I want to start my own company, etc. etc.).

The second question then would be more open ended discussion of what you personally want to get out of your graduate degree (I want to learn to become more independent, I want to learn how to teach myself anything, I want to satisfy my curiosity about how ants communicate [or whatever]). These are personal goals that are related to your graduate training, but aren't necessarily about your future career per se.

It's personal preference, but I would probably steer clear of goals or ambitions clearly unrelated to your relationship to the professor (I want to earn a blackbelt, I want to be an Olympic ping-pong player, etc.). I suggest this because it's unlikely that the professor cares about these goals, and the wrong answer has a possibility to seriously hurt your chances of being selected.

For example, it's hard to imagine a professor thinking to themselves: 'well their theoretical biophysics training is a bit weak, but we need a good ping pong player for the departmental retreats...'; it's easy to imagine a professor - EVEN INADVERTENTLY - thinking 'wow that olympic training is really going to cut into their hours in the lab...'

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This sounds like an inappropriate question. This professor doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “personal”, which is defined to mean “of or concerning one's private life, relationships, and emotions rather than matters connected with one's public or professional career”.

I can’t tell you how you should answer given the somewhat delicate situation. But if someone I don’t know asked me what my personal goals were, I’d tell them that’s none of their business.

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  • Those categories seem taboo but it's only really certain subtopics that are off-limits to talk about. It's certainly possible to come up with answers that avoid danger zones while avoiding being rude. Like I want to run a marathon someday, or earn a blackbelt, or learn chinese, etc. – A Simple Algorithm Oct 17 '19 at 7:05
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm yes, of course it’s possible to answer without being rude, but my point was that a rude answer is what the question really deserves. Not that that’s what I’m actually advocating to answer in OP’s situation, but it should be put on record that the professor simply has no business asking about OP’s personal life, beliefs, hobbies, secret desire to become a movie actor, etc., or anything else that falls under “personal goals”, including all of the sample things that you yourself mentioned. – Dan Romik Oct 17 '19 at 14:50
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I'd like to argue that this is to some extent country-specific. No country was mentioned in the original post, though. Applying to a concrete position while mentioning "graduate admissions" sounds compatible with the German academic system, for which the following answer is particularly applicable.

The professor may simply be asking if long-term you plan to work in industry or in Academia and has worded the question poorly by excluding work outside of academia from "professional" and making the decision whether to stay in academia or not "personal" (the questions may have also been rephrased by the OP, in which case some subtleties may have been lost). Even if that was not the intended purpose of the question, assuming that this is what is meant may be one way to avoid refusing to answer that question.

Asking a candidate about long-time carrer goals may be of relevance because of funding - the professor may have an ongoing collaboration research project with industry, and such projects are very useful for those PhD students wanting to move to industry anyway at some point. They are sometimes or frequently less well suited for those needing publications in the best venues, which should be avoided for those interested in an academic career.

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