I'm a young graduate student in the physical sciences. As far as I can tell, the purpose of graduate school is to learn to become an independent researcher. This means becoming a good writer, solving novel problems, publishing good papers and becoming an expert in your field.

The trouble is that these goals are horribly vague. I have no clear idea how to get from my current skill level to that of an "independent researcher". There is some mix of learning from a textbook, reading papers, attending classes and coming up with new ideas. But I find it hard to break it down into subtasks and be deliberate with my time. Instead I find myself wandering from textbook to textbook, learning this and that, solving this small problem and that small problem, wondering if I am really spending my time on the right things.

In many other domains, it's easy to tell if you are getting better on a short-term basis. For example, in bowling you can practice and see if your score goes up. In chess, if your rating goes up. In music, if you're hitting the notes. But in research there is no such metric. This leads me to feel discouraged and unsure of my progress and myself.

What are general, realistic research goals that I can set on a daily, weekly and monthly basis?

Some of my ideas are setting a target for: number of papers read, number of practice problems solved from a textbook, number of hours spent writing about a technical topic, number of hours worked in a state of deep concentration.

The most relevant question I could find is here: Is it possible to measure/evaluate one's progress or development in quantitative terms?

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    Don't stress out. Trust whatever program you are in to guide you. If you are early in the program and are still taking classes, do the best you possibly can in those classes. If you have extra time, do things like sit in on seminar talks or talk to people about their research. "I find myself wandering from textbook to textbook, learning this and that, solving this small problem and that small problem" sounds like exactly the sort of thing a first or second year graduate student should be doing. That is the only way to get a decent breadth of knowledge. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 2:51
  • Nobody can tell you how to set goals. Because goals have to work for YOU. For some people vague goals work, for others they don't. Some people are stressed out by trying to reach a long term goal, others prefer not having short term goals. First goal: Get settled. Figure out how it works for you right now. (That will change anyway during the process.) It is a process. Don't over-think the process, it is supposed to be fluent.
    – skymningen
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 7:38

2 Answers 2


Becoming an independent researcher is hard, and is nearly impossible to do on one's own, which is why one has a Ph.D. advisor, to give structure, guidance, and advice (hence the name!). Plus, in the physical sciences, one typically is part of a research group that also serves as an intellectual home. Even if you're a beginning student, taking classes and not yet part of a group, it's very good idea to start to associate with faculty and more senior students; it's (probably) enjoyable as well as useful.


The trajectory of "progress" and how to measure it depends heavily on your field, or even your subfield, so it's impossible to give general advice about benchmarks. For example, I've heard many people swear by writing x words per day, but this is an approach which works well in the humanities and much less well in theoretical physics.

Check the CVs of people you admire in your field--especially more recent PhDs--and look at the timing of their publications and other accomplishments. Find out what kind of expertise and experience went into those accomplishments. Then work backwards from there to where you are now.

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