Student Essay: Becoming a Professor Begins Early with Achievable Goals

by Diana Drake

Kenneth A., 16, is a junior at Bemidji High School in Bemidji, Minnesota, U.S., and is also taking classes at Bemidji State University. In our student essay of the week, Kenneth writes about his journey to spread knowledge to the world, one goal at a time.

I had a problem in the fall of 2019. In the past year I had read more than 200 books and had become fascinated with personal growth and learning about the world. Reading transformed me and inspired me to want to contribute my own share to the world’s knowledge. Many of the authors I respected most were professors, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. But I had no clue how to get there.

My father is a commercial fisherman in Alaska and my mother prepares taxes for companies. They couldn’t help me. However, unlike them in their youth, I had access to the internet. I decided that I would start my search in a familiar place: reddit. Reddit offers thousands of communities discussing different topics, and I found one just suited for my questions called r/AskAcademia. On that subreddit, I found several threads asking how to become a professor. I decided to dig in and see if I could find practical advice for following my new passion.

I found what I was looking for from the people on reddit who had posted the highest quality comments to other users’ questions. One reddit user was especially helpful, writing nearly 15 pages of material. I even talked on the phone with this user for more than an hour, conducting an interview of sorts. I made sure to clarify every little bit of information I was unsure about, and it paid dividends. I had truly struck gold with this wealth of information! I had it all in front of me, but I lacked a roadmap helping me to get where I wanted to go.

I needed actionable steps; steps that would help me see progress in real time. To solve this problem, I created a goal hierarchy.

Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a big champion of goal hierarchies. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she writes that the most effective way to discover your top-level priority in life is by organizing your goals into a hierarchy. I learned from her that hard work is the deciding factor in regard to your success. Grit can be taught, as Duckworth identifies, and one way to improve your grit is to make a goal hierarchy.

“When you take personal responsibility, your motivation and work ethic increase to levels that you didn’t even know were possible.” — Kenneth A., Minnesota High School Student

Goal hierarchies start with your top goal (for me, becoming a professor), and continually break them down into parts that contribute to achieving them. This process eventually leads down to actions that you can do right away. This process may sound like a waste of time, but its benefits have not only improved my progress towards a professorship, but also my mental health.

For example, I figured out that research experience is crucial for getting into a top graduate school. So I took that step. I am currently researching how memories are stored in the mind and how they can conflict with one another with my mentor, Dr. Travis Ricks at Bemidji State University. I also realized that getting into the best undergraduate institution I could with a full tuition scholarship would save me financial stress and provide the best path to a professorship, so I set out to master the SAT test. I went through every practice test out there and ended up getting a perfect score. I wasn’t just doing this for my family. I did it for me. When you take personal responsibility, your motivation and work ethic increase to levels that you didn’t even know were possible.

By using a goal hierarchy, I was able to gain three major benefits:

Progressing toward my top goals. Before I created a goal hierarchy, I did not know if I was making progress toward my ultimate goal. And I hate stagnation. With my goal hierarchy, however, I can see where my time spent today leads me in the future. Furthermore, I chose to color code the bottom nodes of my goal hierarchy by their ability to be completed at this very moment. Green means it is a future goal. Yellow is a task which I can do right now. Blue is something I’ve already accomplished. If I am feeling down, I can pull up my goal hierarchy and hone in on the yellow tasks, taking action in areas that will improve my future self and boost my morale in the present.

Less mental clutter. Life is just too complicated, especially in the internet age. Grades, extracurriculars, social media, college applications . . . the list goes on. For me, it was my future. All the things I wanted to do were in one gigantic mess in my head. My goal hierarchy allowed me to think more clearly throughout my day. Beforehand, I was always afraid that I would lose some crucial piece of information, crippling my plan. When I was able to map out my long-term plans into a hierarchy, I was able to give that information a place to live and free up space for mental growth.

A practical look ahead. We all worry about how to get to our future goals. There seems to be such a wide gap between us as teenagers and the career workplace, and it strikes fear in us to measure that gap. Everyone tells us these days to follow our passion, but it’s hard to know how to even get there. We can start taking meaningful steps toward what we eventually want to achieve.

Doesn’t this goal hierarchy lock me into a set future? I have found that it doesn’t. I have switched from interests in genetics to history to cognitive psychology, and almost every single goal I have accomplished with the help of my goal hierarchy has contributed to all of them. The small, actionable steps you take right now can open you up to a world of opportunities – leading to your ultimate goal. They give you what scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls optionality, a readiness to take advantage of the opportunities that life offers you.

Considering I didn’t know much about becoming a professor just last year, I’ve come a long way. I am pretty confident that I will achieve my top goal and end up at a research university, studying the human mind. How do we store memories? Can they be modeled in a simple way? Can we model the mind in a computer? What then happens to humans? The research possibilities are endless.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

What is a goal hierarchy and how did it help Kenneth? Use the Related Links in the side toolbar for help.

Do you have a goal-setting strategy that has helped you focus on actionable steps toward a goals? Explain how it works and how it has helped you.

Kenneth is driven at a young age to achieve a particular goal. It is early enough, though, that his top goal may change along the way. Should he consider his goal hierarchy a failure if he goes off course? Why or why not?

6 comments on “Student Essay: Becoming a Professor Begins Early with Achievable Goals

  1. If you’re competing in the Comment and Win, student essays are written in the first person, and therefore qualify as a comment to which you can respond.

  2. Hey Kenneth!
    What I admire most about your academic ambitions is how proactive and pragmatic you’ve been in setting out to achieve them. 

    In this age of internet and free information, we have access to more information than we could consume in a lifetime. Unfortunately, we often take for granted the vast sea of knowledge that is right at our fingertips. When you discovered the user on Reddit who gave you advice on how to become a professor, you tapped into a mere one of millions of treasure troves of information on the internet. I too find myself swimming in this endless sea of knowledge, whether it be going down youtube rabbit holes trying to understand complex physics theories or perusing KWHS articles to read ideas shared by my peers. Most people have access to the endless stream of knowledge on the internet, but individuals such as yourself who take advantage of it reap the most benefit.

    Your work ethic and conviction that hard work leads to success was also extremely eye-opening for me. Setting goals is, arguably, the number one way to fulfill your vision, whether it be in academia or anywhere else.  Speaking from personal experience as a leader in my Boy Scout troop and community, setting goals is also one of the toughest skills to develop and apply. The way that you’ve employed Angela Duckworth’s “goal hierarchy” method is simple yet effective, can be applied to any vision you hope to achieve and is something I strive to emulate in my own academic endeavors. 

    Becoming a professor is no small undertaking. You have a strenuous and time-consuming journey ahead of you, but I have no doubt in my mind that your goal-setting habits and defining curiosity will lead you to success. 


  3. Hi Kenneth,
    I truly admire your dedication to achievement and your organizational strategies. I’ve had similar experiences, and wanted to share one of them with you. Like you, I have a long-term goal of working in finance. A few years back, this seemed simply unattainable due to my lack of knowledge. However, by taking small, precise steps that will eventually translate towards my future goal, I was able to make progress. Since then, I have reached out to groups on reddit, such as r/wallstreetbets, and have found ways to expand my knowledge of the financial world. In addition, KWHS has played a role as one of my goals, since I found a team of high school students to compete with in the 2019-2020 KWHS Investment Challenge. This was an excellent way to experience realistic and focused trading strategies using the OTIS simulator. Generally, small steps towards a larger goal has helped me progress, and using this strategy for anything in life will make it attainable.

  4. Like many children, I didn’t always enjoy writing so much. It was only through several supportive experiences that I was able to find such a passion. I believe that when you try new things and set goals for yourself, you are able to tap into unknown potential. Every person has certain abilities and skills, but they only gain meaning when they are used to create something special; sometimes, people are not even aware how to use them. I admire Kenneth for his hard-working character, being more than just the “smart student” in class. After reading his interview, I felt it is important to understand yourself and your capabilities. Many times, people are only aware of its existence but not much else. However, if you are able to study it, understand it, and harness it, you’re able to accomplish unbelievable things.. That is what creates passion.

    After reading hundreds of books and becoming fascinated by the world, Kenneth found a drive to work hard and achieve what others couldn’t. By establishing a goal hierarchy, he was able to increase his motivation and work ethic to levels he didn’t think was possible. He was able to do this because of how he used his skills. Others might have had the same potential but were unable to create anything unique due to their inability to understand and use it well. During my last year in middle school, I began a journey of language and self-exploration.

    I was in eighth grade, and my only life was school. I would wake up, take the bus to school, and spend time with my friends in class. My friends meant everything to me, and all I thought about was seeing them the next day after I had completed all my homework. My life was very simple — I didn’t think much about anything else. However, as the year went on, I began to notice that I was showing increasing interest in my English class, especially being engaged with my teacher who taught it. Before then, I was only concerned about finishing the assignments on time because I never knew what lay beneath the surface of the art of language. With his help, I was able to greatly improve my writing, and I no longer felt as if I was just writing for the grade. I was able to do so because I connected with him and was able to use the opportunities he gave as resources, just as Kenneth did to find a mentor. My goals before were simply his assignments because I myself hadn’t had any ideas for myself yet, but once I found my own ideas and feelings, I understood that writing was so much more than I originally thought. I knew that if I tried to explain what I felt now to my past self, I would not have understood. When simplified, writing is just a variety of letters ordered in a special way to create something meaningful. Without passion and understanding, words are just “one gigantic mess in [your] head.”

    Since graduating middle school and saying goodbye to all my teachers, I’ve continued to write, not to impress others, but because it brings me to places in my heart only I’m able to enter and explore. I have so many thoughts and emotions everyday — from thoughts about life to little stories I play out in my head — so as to lose them all to forgotten memories, I now write in a journal to keep track of everything in my mind. I had used to write in a diary as a kid but quickly gave up as soon as my mom stopped reminding me to do it. Now, however, I love writing everyday because I’m able to feel what I couldn’t before. After knowing that what was once a mess in my head is now written for me to read, I feel complete. I don’t write because anyone tells me to, but because I find it to be something I love.

    Since Kenneth started his journey, he has been sharpening his skills to achieve a goal much greater than mine, working hard to set goals for himself. What many people don’t realize is that even though sometimes they understand what they have and have polished their tools well, they don’t use it to its full potential, leaving the creation of possibilities untouched. In this way, they are completely unaware of what they could’ve been able to do, because they haven’t realized that there is no passion driving them forward. I am still on a journey of understanding who I am and what I’m able to do, and I’m sure there are many things still left for me to find. Kenneth is on a journey of his own, aiming to become a respectable professor studying human memories. Regardless of one’s goal or path, if you are able to understand yourself and find the right emotions to push you forward, there is so much potential to be discovered.

  5. A goal is having a set of goals and breaking them down from most important to least so it will be easier to achieve the goals. This help Kenneth because it showed him what he needed to do and how he needed t do it just to be successful. I do have a goal-setting strategy and its very simple. I just set a list of goals short and long term and then I follow the short term because I will achieve those first, but once I achieve one short term I put effort into one long term because it’s easier to start early. Starting at a young age is very early but it is also great. It is never too early to start and yes his goals will change along the way because as he gets older he will experience new ideas and have a different mindset and might not be interested in those things anymore. If he doesn’t achieve his goals then yes it is a failure but if he achieves then and changes his mind because he doesn’t feel accomplished it’s not, its just a part of life and growing up.

  6. Kenneth’s recommendation for a “goal hierarchy” certainly resonates with many motivated students and learners. His “top down” approach—firstly identifying a long-term goal to become a professor—ensures he will accomplish much if he continues investing in himself.

    Like Kenneth, I have also employed a “goal hierarchy.” A wallpaper of sticky notes and deadlines litters the sides of my room. I too, have condensed my life into checklists of past, present, and future tasks. A friend once entered and theorized that I was a conspiracy theorist.

    What I admire the most about Kenneth’s story is his remarkable flexibility and ability to change his “future” goals. In my sixth-grade year, I competed in my first-ever speech tournament and got eliminated quickly as a first timer. However, after watching the captivating performances by my eight-grade superiors, I immediately went home and set out a long-term goal of becoming the best speaker by eight-grade. My sentiment mirrored Kenneth’s, but I lacked the ultra-long-term vision he possesses. I threw myself into this passion and grew immensely as a person and speaker. Not only did my trophy shelf continue to fill up, I noticed a positive spillover effect. My work ethic in one activity spilled over; I soon excelled in my school grades and many extracurriculars. By eight-grade, I undoubtedly terrorized the local speech competition scene. However, success breeds complacency, and complacency is a dangerous place to be.

    The following school year, I transferred to a substantially more competitive private high school. I was a big fish in a sea of much larger fish. Freshman year proved too challenging: My previous status as an elite student slipped away with my grades, especially in math, a subject I prided myself on. I had no idea how to improve my situation and felt like a failure. I began to falter the second I felt comfortable with the person I became. Thankfully, my peers weren’t. My Algebra teacher, recognizing my difficulty acclimating to her coursework demands, showed up at ungodly hours before school started every day to tutor me one-on-one. A community of lifelong scholars, adults and adolescents alike, rallied around me to ensure my success, igniting my drive for knowledge. Instead of silently taking notes during my classes, I tried joining the class discussion for once, launching me into an educational environment beyond the mundane lecturing I was so used to. I stopped doing things to check off a box on a “goal hierarchy” and fell in love with process we take to reach our dreams instead.

    My new approach is far from Kenneth’s “top down” method; I’m a “bottom up” person. My “goal hierarchy” collapsed because I had surpassed it without updating it. I needed to reinvent myself. Unlike Kenneth, I no longer fixate on a single profession or goal. My interests continuously undergo unforeseen phases. One month I love foreign policy, the next I’m passionate about investment banking. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Although my interests freely range, I concentrate on honing my strengths. Building stronger relationships with my peers, writing more, working out harder, and training my intellect will aid me in any endeavor I pursue. Even if I have no idea exactly who I will become in the future, but I know I want to live a fulfilling life doing things I love for people I care about. It’s far from the specific mindset that Kenneth employs but still means something, at least to me.

    To my fellow comment readers who might empathize: Do not assume that any approach is perfect. Kenneth’s ideals serve as a beacon for him to plot a productivity roadmap for success. No beacon pulls me. Instead, I have taken on responsibility for pushing myself. My future is uncertain, but if I keep putting one foot ahead of the other, reaching out to any opportunity I can uncover, then I will also reach something meaningful. The starting point might vary, but the ends and means both remain the same.

    Kenneth’s article, however, demonstrates that “top down” or “bottom up,” taking responsibility for yourself is a paramount first step in your growth. Kenneth will continue to climb his “top down” hierarchy. And when he reaches the summit, I believe he will raise the bar even further. I do not know where I will end up, but if I continue to do the same, ensuring that I am a better person than the day before, I will also make it.

    Former NBA player Walter Bond once said, “Sharks are hunters and predators. They never stop swimming. In fact, if a shark stops swimming, it will die. If a shark goes backwards, it will die.” Take a closer look at my wall of sticky notes, and you’ll find a picture of a shark, one that pushes me to stay productive every day. Sharks have no idea where they’re really going, but they follow the food. And if they stop, even for a second to breathe and look back, they will never move forward again.

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