Yes, it is hard to deal with lack of motivation. You might feel this only goes to prove you are not cut out for PhD, you might feel you are letting down your supervisors, your funders, yourself …. But try to stop yourself there.
Originally posted on February 8th, 2017.
Motivation is not fixed and it is irrational to expect you would be riding the excitement wave which started when you heard you got it. It is ok to feel this way. It does not mean you’re lazy or incompetent or ungrateful. It just means you are human and not a Duracell Bunny.
But what can we do, within human abilities, to tackle different issues affecting our motivation?
It’s long and I am bored
PhDs are long (veeeery long if you’re in the US). The novelty wears off easily and what is left is an intimidating mountain of work. How to move on from there?
I get bored (too) easily and, sometimes, even the smallest changes in my routine can be beneficial and inspire me to work; new study environment, starting a different experiment or section of analysis. I feel that side projects and extracurriculars give breadth to my skills (and diversity to my CV). Also, as the saying goes, distance makes the heart go fonder. If you cannot remember when the last time was you had a proper break, it is probably time to take one. A week or even a couple of day can help you refocus and return to refreshed to you PhD.
It is hard and I am struggling
When talking about undertaking PhD research, many students and graduates will use the words like change, develop, challenge and this is not without reasons. The very purpose of research is to push the boundaries of human knowledge and, change, development and growth will often take you out of your comfort zone. In addition to demands put forward by modern academia and discouraging state of job market, the strain on physical and mental health, and social relationships can become unbearable.
I take pride being self-reliant and independent, but in moments like that, it is important to ask for help, even if grudgingly. Reaching out for support and delegating is not a sign of weakness, on the contrary, it shows that you are able to assess the situation you are in, and make use of the resources available.
Am I even making any progress?
You will rarely find instant gratification and PhD in the same sentence (ok, apart from this one). PhD is hell for the impatient. Imagine painting a wall – with every stroke of the brush the painted surface expands and you can see yourself closer to the final result. And now imagine adding another coat to the Eiffel Tower. Coat of transparent varnish. Under water, during night. Even after a successful viva, it is hard to shake off a feeling you missed a spot (or ten).
Planning your activities and recording the completed ones is a good way to track your progress and help you build a sense of accomplishment.
I am worried about the future
It is much easier to be enthusiastic about your work if you know what is it that you a working towards. Getting into academia is a quite an ordeal and job market on the whole is not as friendly as to other type of doctors. Political meltdown does not help either.
Can we do anything about this? Deciding on career pathways might seem intimidating, but having a destination in mind make the journey a whole lot easier. Once you know what you’d like to do, working on things which lead you there is a great way to add more purpose to PhD experience – skills development, work experience, networking… Doing something always beats doing nothing! (Have a plan B, and C, and a few more letters, just in case.)
I just don’t like it anymore
Ask a first year PhD student about their topic. They wlll explain it in great details, even if not to coherent, what they’re trying to do, their eyes glistening and posture opening. Third year student will sight, probably several times. PhD can be annoying. In fact, it might seem that the more time you spend working on it, the less interest you have in your topic. Weeks of transcribing, observing or running repetitive analysis can do that. Becoming expert in your niche field means that you become painfully aware of its shortcomings too.
But a third year sigh is temporary (literally and figuratively), and in most cases it will be followed by a, now perfected, enthusiastic elevator pitch. Every time you share your research with a new person, you get a chance to see it afresh through their eyes. Public engagement and outreach activities are a fantastic outlet for this (bear in mind that people in the supermarket or on the bus might be less receptive).
I love talking and writing about everything, and PhD is no exception. If I feel particularly overwhelmed and confused, I try breaking this up and writing down different elements. Try it yourself – it might be that you find a particular reading extremely challenging, that you cannot get your head around a technique or an instrument, that the very thought of writing that chapter makes you despair… This could help you see that the issue is much more localised than you initially thought.
And that’s ok.
Lastly, but probably most importantly – REACH OUT to others – your colleagues and supervisors have likely experienced the same.
Please note that this post was published in a different context than the current pandemic/lockdown situation. We are aware that motivation is even more difficult to find these days, and do not forget to reach out when things get too much.