At some point, while you have been reading articles for classes, attending seminars, teaching and occasionally collecting data, you have progressed into the later years of your PhD. One day you will realize, “Hey, I’m getting there!” and simultaneously feel “Ugh, so much more to do.” This is the point in time when your motivation is as necessary as your experimental controls. Why does this point in time happen so abruptly and how do you keep moving past it?
First, let’s briefly consider why this dichotomy of optimism and frustration occurs. I think it has to do with the grand scope of a PhD program. The large, amorphous goal is to develop, execute and communicate a project of to-be-determined size, depth and importance. What you find at the end may be completely different than what you thought when you started. And there is no simple roadmap of how to get from Point A to Point B while hitting all the landmarks in between.
Our minds (and hearts) often have difficulty wading through the small details of a big picture. To better allow our brains to get to the end point, we need to set smaller, intermediate goals. Now you may think, “Goal setting is obviously important for getting my papers written and my experiments completed, but how does this help my motivation?” Not only do these intermediate goals enable us to manage the day-to-day, they help us see progress on the messy path to Point B. This article on mindtools.com has some great tips for goal setting and utilizing these goals as a compass toward your big picture.
Goal setting seems like the practical explanation to the question of how to maintain motivation. I really appreciated this TIME article’s not-so-logical explanation of productivity loss. Life is not just logic, and emotions alter our productivity and motivation. So, what to do when you have an experiment that is just not working, your advisor asking you to do more and the feeling of frustration and fatigue inhibiting every reasonable plan of action? Here are three magical suggestions:
- Stay Positive: Whatever is going wrong is temporary and not the end. If you are relating to this article, it is because you are in the middle of the long journey. This means you have accomplished A LOT on your way to this point. Remember all of those experiments that have gone well, those papers that you have really liked, that conference talk that was awesome.
- Get Rewarded: Tom and Donna from Parks and Recreation have this one solid with “Treat Yo’self Day.” You don’t need a reason – you’ll feel happy and much more excited to get back to the grind.
- Get Peer Pressure: You care what your friends think, so use them! Ask them to push you toward that scholarship deadline or paper outline. Be deadline buddies and set dates to check in on your progress.
There is no one path to a PhD or one solution for staying motivated, so these tips are as good a place to start as any. Slow days will come and go. Stick with it. There is light at the end of the tunnel…