How to keep yourself motivated in the middle of your PhD

Pranav S. Kulkarni
16 Dec ’21

Doctoral studies are akin to a roller coaster ride with lots of high intensity ups and humdrum downs. It is, therefore, easy to lose your motivation to continue and start questioning your decision to start the endeavour in the first place.

But, as thousands before us will attest, it is worth the grind to finish your doctoral studies. Since I am halfway through my own PhD journey, I thought I should share some tips for how to keep yourself motivated during the course of your PhD.

1. Don’t lose track of the big picture

It is important for you to remember why you started the program in the first place. Your passion for a particular research topic, the implications of your research, being interested in a particular gap in the common knowledge, whatever was your key motivation; it needs to be kept in mind throughout the PhD.

You can print out this statement and paste it on your office or bedroom wall or write it down on a board that you see. You can also have a placard made for your room’s door. Sometimes, I revisit a PowerPoint presentation that I made for my interview stating my objectives.

2. Have clear sub-objectives

Since a PhD is essentially a 4/5 years long thesis, it is important to split it into small feasible work packages or research questions. This practice is not just for getting your proposal approved, but also for yourself. Looking at short-term, practical goals during your PhD helps you focus on one particular issue at a time and keeps you engaged.

I am currently working on my penultimate research question. This occupies the majority of my mind’s bandwidth and keeps me away from motivational crises.

3. Talk to peers

This seems like an obvious tip but sometimes, we find ourselves isolated from our peers and other PhDs. ‘They wouldn’t know what I am dealing with’ is often the erroneous assumption that most of us make at some time or other. It is important to fight the urge to struggle in isolation and share with your peers your questions about remaining motivated.

4. Talking with your supervisors

Sometimes, when you really feel uninspired or uninterested in something that you are doing, it is helpful to talk to your supervisors. They know what it is to do a PhD. They also know your research topic thoroughly. Therefore, they can help you keep yourself motivated and inspired.

Personally, I find the annual assessment meetings to be the best time to discuss such issues, but you can also do this in between.

5. Take intermittent breaks

When you feel unmotivated, you should take as many breaks, within reason, as you need. This helps you take a step away from the daily grind and look at the big picture. This also helps you shift focus from ‘what am I doing’ to ‘what do I want to do, really’.

I have been guilty of not taking breaks when I am doing something intense and that has caused me to question my own motivations.

6. Find new perspectives

Sometimes, you might feel that the initial motivation for undertaking a PhD program is lost or you thought it was something else. In that case, you don’t have to get demotivated. You can find new perspectives. Listen to other people and their stories, look at biographical accounts of researchers where they talk about their struggles, or find new people to network with who can provide you with a new angle of approaching your work.

Personally, I find myself having renewed enthusiasm when I read other PhDs’ blogs about their struggles and motivations and how they overcame the hurdles.

7. Think of the future

I think of the possibilities and opportunities that will potentially open up when I am done with my PhD. This prospective thinking also keeps me motivated to keep working. The best thing about such thinking is that we don’t know anything for sure and hence can dream of several things that can happen.

I hope I have provided you with some possible ways to keep yourself motivated. A doctoral program should not just be a struggle but a challenging journey that you are motivated to undertake willingly.

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