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7 Ways To Successfully Keep Your Motivation During Your PhD

How to keep your motivation while working toward your PhD
Written By: Jeanette McConnell, Ph.D.

I reached a place in the third year of my PhD studies when I couldn’t see the point anymore.

Running one reaction after another, making yet another molecule to test and characterize.

Why?

I wasn’t learning anything, I wasn’t making any grand discoveries, and it wasn’t exciting.

I didn’t know how to deal with the stress, anxiety, and depression that I faced on a daily basis.

I was burnt out.

I used to find lab work exciting.

I was the first one in the lab in the morning and I couldn’t wait to find out how the newly synthesized molecule faired in my biological tests.

I was filled with drive and motivation.

But at the beginning of year three, it was gone.

When I talked to my family, they couldn’t understand. “You’ve lost your motivation? But, you’re trying to cure cancer!?

No, no I’m not.

I’m cooking up and purifying useless compounds all day long.

I wondered how I got to this point.

Where was the passion and motivation that had gotten me this far?

Determined to get my mojo back, I did some research.

I found out that I wasn’t alone. I read tons of stories about other people overcoming their personal motivation loss — in academia, in a job, in fitness, and in writing.

It was inspiring.

I tried to absorb all the information and loved the support I received from my alternative career mentor.

I started to take care of myself.

I went to the gym and practiced yoga.

I reconnected with my passion for soccer.

And, I remembered why I began this PhD in the first place.

I figured out a way to re-inject some adventure into a project that I had completely lost interest in.

With each change I made, I felt the motivation and passion return, not only for my research, but also for my life.

Doctoral students struggle to stay motivated

Why Losing Motivation In Grad School Is Normal

First, remember that you are not alone in your motivation loss.

Even Usain Bolt, the only sprinter in history to win both the 100m and 200m gold medal at three consecutive Olympics, struggles with motivation.

Before the 2016 Olympic games, he told The Guardian that he struggled to get out of bed for training.

Sustaining motivation toward a goal that is several years away is daunting.

According to a survey by the NSF, the average time taken to earn a PhD from the beginning of the doctoral program is 5.7 years. And according to the NIH, a postdoc lasts between 2 to 7 years, on average.

That’s a potential 12-13 years trying to maintain your passion and motivation, despite grueling and frustrating work.

(Sound too long to you? Take a look at the reasons why PhDs should stop applying for postdocs and start applying for research scientist positions.)

Based on those long timelines, it’s not surprising that according to a study by The Council of Graduate Schools, 44% of doctoral students lose their motivation and do not complete their degree within 10 years.

That’s a 44% dropout rate for doctoral candidates.

So how do you become part of the 56% of students who find their motivation and finish their degree?

PhD students must go past their comfort zones and expand their personal limits

7 Ways To Not Lose Your Motivation As A PhD Or Postdoc

Losing motivation is normal, particularly when you’re facing real challenges.

The kind that are daunting, even scary… but definitely uncomfortable.

According to motivational speaker and former clinical defense attorney Mel Robbins, we will only ever feel motivated to do the things that are easy.

Resilience, as developed by persevering through adversity and rejecting the comfort zones we love so much, is the real path to success in industry, and anywhere else.

This is what makes PhDs the most sought after job candidates.

Your ability to take life’s most challenging problems and try and find solutions.

You will do an experiment countless times if you feel it will take you one step closer to uncovering the truth.

There are days when you want to give up (which you now know is normal).

There will be days when you wonder why you started in the first place.

A PhD success story is always about one that never gave up and fought against motivation crashes.

Here are seven ways to maintain your motivation as a PhD or postdoc…

1. See the big picture.

It is easy to become demotivated by a never-ending to-do list of mundane tasks.

Ditch your addiction to the to-do list and focus on how each action you take contributes to a larger overall goal.

In the Harvard Business Review article, The Power of Small Wins, researchers showed that employees were more motivated and happy when they felt they were making progress toward their overall goal.

What is your big picture goal?

If you have forgotten it along the way — go dig it back up.

Now, write it down.

Focus on how each action you take during the day gets you one step closer to that goal.

Be purposeful with your actions so that they actually do serve your big picture goal.

Celebrate small successes on your path to a PhD

2. Celebrate successes.

Achieving any big goal doesn’t happen overnight.

It’s important to celebrate all the successes along the way.

Celebrate your big wins, as well as the small ones.

Celebrate your coworkers’ wins.

Celebrate your supervisor’s wins.

Beyond bringing some fun into your life, celebrating small successes along your path brings joy back into the journey.

The technique of celebrating can be incredibly helpful when you’re struggling with motivation.

It breaks your rut and helps you focus on what you’re working towards, and not just what you’re frustrated with in the short-term.

On difficult days, reward yourself for the basics — even if it’s just setting up an experiment.

Over time, the impact of those rewards can be huge.

3. Focus on another passion.

A study published in the International Journal of the History of Sport found that the ‘dual-career’ demand faced by student athletes is beneficial to their performance in both areas.

When your academic achievements soar, so does your performance in other areas of your life, typically.

During struggles with motivation, identify with another passion you have and cultivate it.

Reconnect with your passion for sports, hobbies, or other talents that you have enjoyed in the past, to benefit from the ‘dual-career’ idea.

Invest time in something you are passionate about.

Do not feel guilty about spending time on something that is not your research.

The time away will benefit your research.

The motivation you feel for this second passion will flood over into your PhD or postdoc work.

4. Eat and eat well.

Most PhDs have lost count of the number of times they skipped a meal to finish an assay or start another reaction.

If you have sacrificed meals for the lab, you might have even bought into the idea that this is a sign of devotion to your project.

In reality, it’s just setting yourself up for failure.

Lack of food reduces your blood glucose level — and you need that to focus.

Your cognitive abilities are directly affected by the food you eat.

Take the time to eat a good, healthy breakfast and lunch.

Give your body the nutrients it needs, and it will reward you with top-notch focus and an improved mood.

In fact, this study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found a correlation between eating fruits and vegetables, and a higher state of mental well-being.

5. Drink water.

In addition to eating regularly, drinking an adequate amount of water is essential to maintaining your motivation.

The amount of water your body needs to function is often underestimated.

PhD candidates and postdocs tend to choose drinks with caffeine, rather than water.

Sacrificing hydration for stimulation to push through is a grad school trademark.

But an unhealthy one.

An article in Nutrition Reviews discusses how dehydration can lead to a lack of motivation, reduced cognitive function, headache, and reduced kidney function, among many other adverse physiological effects.

Give yourself a leg up and combat the contribution that dehydration is playing in your lack of motivation by drinking lots of water.

Keep your motivation by remembering why you started going for a PhD

6. Change your perspective.

You used to have motivation and passion for your project.

Try to remember why.

What about the project previously motivated you?

See your situation through the eyes of that freshly minted undergraduate.

For many, early motivation can simply be attributed to the fact that your PhD is something new.

Every new thing seems sparkling with adventure.

Until the newness burns out.

Whatever moved you to the diligence and passion you had in the beginning, try and remember what it was.

How can you bring that excitement back to your present situation?

How can you make this project you have been working on for years seem new?

How can you make this project feel new again?

It might be that learning a new technique and applying it is enough.

For others, it might be creating a new adventure by trying something new in a different part of the world.

However you reinvent newness with a new thought or process for your work, improved motivation will be a byproduct of that creative process.

7. Invest in yourself.

This one is especially tough when you are at the bottom of a motivation pit.

Think about it…

Who does your experiments?

Who analyzes your data?

Who gives your presentations?

You do (obviously).

You and your well-being are of the highest importance.

According to an article in The Guardian, happy and healthy employees are more motivated and productive.

If you are not at your best, your project and your motivation suffer.

Investing in oneself means something different for everyone.

Maybe you take the time to do yoga every morning, or go to the gym every afternoon.

Maybe you set aside Sundays to bake, play video games, or go for a long walk.

Your physical and mental health are key to regaining your motivation and maintaining that motivation throughout the rest of your PhD or postdoc.

This same work will also help you maintain that motivation and overcome frustration and depression while job-hunting after your PhD or postdoc.

It is common to lose your motivation during the long process of a PhD or postdoc. You are not alone and there is a way out. Reject the complacency of your comfort zone and the monotony that is draining your motivation and focus. Take the time to invest in your well-being, eat well, drink water, and adjust your focus. The motivation to keep going is there; you just have to let it out.

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Jeanette McConnell, PhD

Jeanette McConnell, PhD

Jeanette is a chemistry PhD turned science communication enthusiast. During her PhD she realized that her favorite part about research wasn’t actually doing research, but rather talking and writing about it. So, she has channeled her passion for discovery into teaching and writing about science. When she isn’t talking someone’s ear off about her latest scientific obsession, you’ll find her on the soccer field or reading a good sci-fi novel.
Jeanette McConnell, PhD