PhD Motivation: How to Stay Driven From Cover Letter to Completion

Graphic of scientist writing on a whiteboard with a laptop in front of them. A thought bubble contains a graduation cap showing that they are maintaining PhD motivation

PhDs can be a long slog and it’s easy to lose touch with why you set out to do one in the first place. If you’re falling out of love with your PhD why not try these tips to help boost your motivation.

Note – This post, and its predecessor about PhD Burnout, were inspired by a reader who asked for suggestions on tackling PhD fatigue. I love hearing from readers of the blog, so if you have any ideas for posts which you, or others, could find useful please do let me know! Just pop a note in the comments section below or drop me a message.

This post is part of my PhD mindset series, you can check out the full series below:

  1. PhD Burnout: Managing Energy, Stress, Anxiety & Your Mental Health
  2. PhD Motivation: How to Stay Driven From Cover Letter to Completion (this part!)
  3. How to Stop PhD Procrastination (coming soon)

Focus on the Big Picture

If you’re struggling with motivation during your PhD it can be helpful to consider what originally motivated you to pursue one. One way you may find it useful to capture these thoughts is through a vision board or spider diagram.

Try listing out each of the following:

  • What you hope to achieve during your PhD (both personally and professionally)
  • How you picture your life and career post-PhD

The vision board for the PhD itself will help you make the most of your time now, while your post PhD vision board will serve as a reminder of where you are going.

This can be a great way to increase your motivation and identify opportunities within your PhD that may help you to realise your long term vision.

Here is an example one I created about life after the PhD which could serve as some motivation during the PhD:

Brainstorm showing ideas for life post PhD: including moving to Germany, living alone, work/life balance etc

Set Short Term Goals

Depending on how far along you are in your PhD, reaching the finishing line may seem like a herculean task. Rather than risking getting overwhelmed, focus on making regular progress by setting achievable short term goals.

What are some examples of short term goals? Well let’s start by highlighting a few potential milestones during a PhD:

  • Completing your first set of experiments
  • Writing your first paper
  • Drafting your thesis
  • Passing your viva

Try to break down these large tasks into sub-tasks and set yourself short term goals. Importantly, make sure that the goals are actually realistically achievable! Although it is great to push yourself, if you set goals that are too lofty you risk demotivating yourself further! Small and consistent progress is what we’re aiming for.

Breaking tasks down will allow you to recognise your progress and how far you’ve come. While recognising what you’ve already accomplished with your PhD will help provide the motivation to achieve even more.

So for instance breaking down the first of those example milestones, completing your first set of experiments, could be broken down into much smaller short term goals:

Breaking down goal 1: Completing your first set of experiments

  • Read five relevant papers to get ideas from other studies. Which techniques did they use? What further work did they recommend?
  • Speak with my supervisor about first potential experiments. What is achievable in the lab? Do we need to order any consumables?
  • Get inducted into the lab if necessary and get trained on key equipment.
  • If relevant, shadow someone else in the lab to understand certain processes.
  • Give it a go: conduct a few preliminary experiments.
  • Build on these first experiments and suddenly you’ve become a self-sufficient researcher. Good job!

You may personally choose to set goals monthly, weekly or even set yourself one task to achieve each day. Try different lengths and see what works best for you.

Now as a postdoc I personally have an ongoing document which I always keep open with goals and tasks for me to complete which I add to as I have new thoughts and conversations. Every day I set myself a short list of tasks I set to complete myself to work towards these bigger goals and projects. Without this not only would I lack focus but also motivation.

Recognise What You’ve Already Achieved

As mentioned above it can feel like you haven’t achieved much when the big picture PhD goals still seem far away.

Sometimes we can get motivation from realising how much we already have to be proud of. I know what it is like to be in a downbeat part of your PhD and it can be tough to appreciate your successes but this is exactly the time when we need harness positive and motivational thoughts!

Let’s play a quick game. Set a timer on your phone for 2 minutes and write down a few things about your PhD you’re already proud of. Don’t worry, I’m not expecting a list of potential Nobel prize winning discoveries.

Here are some ideas:

  • Coming up with some ideas for experiments
  • Learning a new research technique
  • Facing a personal fear – such as public speaking

If you’re in the early stages, remind yourself that pushing yourself to apply for the PhD is an achievement and getting accepted into a PhD programme is no mean feat. Go you!

Reward Your Accomplishments

Along with setting short term academic goals it’s important to reward yourself once they’re completed. Depending on what length goal you set, the reward may be as simple as taking a break and indulging in something unproductive, taking an afternoon off to relax or treating yourself to your favourite meal.

It can be tempting to skip this step but celebrating when you complete tasks is really important. This will help to get you in the right mindset for progressing towards the next goal. Celebrating achievements is also a great way to instill better habits and we’ll cover more on this next.

Build Better Habits

Mastering self discipline and consistency is one of the best ways to maximise your potential both during your PhD and beyond. If this is something you struggle with then now is the perfect time to try making improvements in a very low risk environment. Here is some great advice on this subject by an incredibly successful guy:

Making these improvements through small actions can make surprisingly big differences. To illustrate this: a person who improved by 1% each day would be 37 times better after a year!

Consistently improving 1% each and every day isn’t likely, but the cumulative effect of working on yourself by building better habits is undeniable.

It typically takes 40 days to master a habit, so start small and once you have your first habit ingrained you can start on the next. Realising success will empower you to master harder challenges too and also provide you with the confidence to know that you can achieve what you set your mind to.

Some ideas for areas you may wish to develop better habits for are:

  • Work schedule
  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Healthy eating
  • Meditation

Habit Building Tips

  • Start small and focus on just turning up – When building new habits it is much more important to be consistent than to set lofty goals.
  • Gamify it – In 2020 I decided to start using Duolingo to learn Spanish. Not only is the format on Duolingo very engaging, so is the “streak” of uninterrupted days you use the app for. It is surprising how powerful motivation can become to keep the streak going. In fact, as of writing this post I’ve just passed 600 uninterrupted days on Duolingo! I now try to apply similar concepts in other parts of my life.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you slip up – It’s natural to make mistakes but it’s what you do afterwards that counts. If you slip up with your habit fight the urge to give it up. Instead move on and work to get back.
  • Be accountable – Tell others about your goals and if you know another PhD student struggling with the same issue why not team up together to try and improve.

I’d also highly recommend giving the below video from Kurzgesagt a watch to learn more about how to build positive habits.

Prioritise Self-Care

PhDs are a marathon not a sprint and in order to make it to the end it’s vital to take care of yourself along the way. Exercising, socialising, eating healthily and prioritising mental health will all put you in the best position to keep your energy levels high.

PhD Burnout is a very real thing and the last thing you want is to lose all passion for research entirely. Check out my post here on PhD Burnout to learn the warning signs and how to intervene before things go to far.

Make sure to take time each week to recharge and don’t prioritise your research to the detriment of all else. It isn’t worth sacrificing your own health for your research. Make the most of opportunities during your PhD and find things you’re passionate about and look forward to.

I personally found it helpful to treat my PhD like a full-time job which meant having weekends and weekday evenings off. There were exceptions to this of course but in general it meant that I had a good work/life balance and didn’t feel desperate for the PhD to end.

Everyone will have different ways of structuring their time, but recognise that YOU are a priority and your life shouldn’t go on hold until your PhD is complete.

Define Success Differently

Reframe what you see as success. Instead of defining success by the achievement of a long term goal instead define success by the consistent actions taken to progress towards it.

For instance, if you’re nearing the end of your PhD then completing your PhD thesis may be months away. But, if you commit to working on your thesis for at least one hour a day (and achieve it) you’re already on a successful path.

I’d suggest giving the intro to this newsletter by Andrew Ng a read to learn more about process goals versus outcome goals.

Avoid Comparisons to Other PhD Students

We all know this one but it can be easy to forget. Looking at what others have achieved can sometimes be motivating, but it can also leave you feeling inferior.

No two PhD journeys will ever be the same so all you can do is aim to achieve the “best” version of your own journey.

Top Tips to Boost PhD Motivation

  • Focus on the big picture
  • Set achievable short term goals
  • Recognise what you’ve already achieved
  • Reward your accomplishments
  • Build better habits
  • Prioritise self-care
  • Define success differently
  • Avoid comparisons to other PhD students

I hope you found these suggestions on how to boost PhD motivation helpful. Do you have any advice of your own to share? Let me know in the comments section below.

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