Within each of us there is a silence – a silence as vast as the universe. And when we experience that silence, we remember who we are – Gunilla Norris (Author)
Why are students frustrated in graduate school?
As a junior in college I had already researched all the graduate programs that I would apply to. I knew which programs were the best in the country, which professors did the most interesting research, which schools offered fellowships, and what the weather was like at each university. In spite of doing so much research on graduate programs, I missed a very important detail: the attrition rate in PhD programs is a staggering 50%!
Would I have enrolled in a PhD program knowing that only 1 out of 2 students graduate? Of course, the number varies according to the field of study. In sciences and engineering, where many students receive proper funding, the attrition rate is lower than in the humanities and social sciences where students have to find their own funding. In our department most students received proper funding – but still a significant number of students left the program. I did not take note of the attrition until I was more than mid-way through my program – too late to turn back, without feeling like I gave up rather than just changed my mind about my career goals.
Earlier in the summer we sent out a survey asking our subscribers to describe the three biggest challenges they face (or faced) in graduate school. First of all, we would like to thank all of you who responded to our survey – the turnout was great! As some of you might know, we are launching a comprehensive “Finish Your Thesis” program soon and we are using the feedback we have received to optimize our content.
After reviewing the results of our survey, we noticed that current and previous graduate students in different fields faced the same types of challenges. We divided these challenges into the following five categories:
1) Lack of motivation (procrastination)
2) Time management
3) Lack of support from supervisor
4) Writing thesis/papers
5) Stress from uncertainty of graduation date and job opportunities
If I had to put a common theme to all these challenges, it would be that graduate students are frustrated because they lack an organized support network. In college, support networks were built into the educational system in form of office hours, recitations, and study groups. I knew exactly what I had to do to graduate, and all I needed to do was the same that thousands of other college students had done before me: solve problem sets and pass exams from a well-defined curriculum.
While some programs offer support networks, many graduate students are on their own trying to motivate themselves to work on a project with no clear direction or milestones. The reason we decided to put this program together is to offer specific strategies and success stories from previous PhD students who are now professionals in industry and academia. We will also provide you with a supportive online community where you can share challenges and solutions.
What are your biggest frustrations and challenges?
Feeling like you are stuck, with no way out except to admit failure and quit graduate school, is one of the worst feelings in the world. I certainly felt like I was in a black hole up until the day I defended my thesis. As I wrote in my earlier blogs, I had only 20 days between my final committee meeting and my defense day. Twenty days to complete the writing of a 150 page thesis and putting together a 50 slide presentation for my defense, while suffering from chronic pain in my arms due to excessive typing, was one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome in graduate school.
The reality (which I did not know at that time) was that there were thousands of other graduate students worldwide trying to finish their theses at the same time that I was, working around the clock to make the graduation deadline. Perhaps they did not have chronic pain in their arms (or maybe they did), but they had other challenges such as working at part-time (or full-time) jobs to make ends meet or balancing graduate school with the responsibilities of parenthood. I was not alone in this battle, and had I known that other students had already solved the same problems that I was facing, the journey would have been a lot easier.
How One Student Went From Chronic Procrastination to Peak Focus – in a Heartbeat
I have a firm belief that nobody is inherently lazy – if you have a strong enough drive (or purpose) you will find a way to get things done. A friend of mine suffered from a type of procrastination called “Everyone’s Friendly Helper.” She was in her seventh year, and her thesis was not coming together despite long hours in the lab. What did she do during those long hours? She did work – but she also helped everyone else to do their research, shop for reagents, resolve personal problems, and plan group events.
There is nothing wrong with helping others, but when it is done to the extent that it hurts your own research, then it needs to be addressed. My friend was so frustrated with her thesis and her relationship with her supervisor, that she subconsciously procrastinated her work so she would not have to deal with inconclusive data and a hostile supervisor (and she got instant gratification from helping everyone else.)
However, one day she transformed her procrastination into laser focus– in one heartbeat. In her quest to help others, she went to the supermarket during work hours to buy snacks for a group event. She ran into an acquaintance who had just joined a start-up and was looking for someone with her skills. They arranged for an interview and a week later they offered her the job – contingent upon her finishing her thesis in a few months.
After this offer, do you think her focus was on helping others or finishing her own thesis? Sure, her data was still confusing and the meetings with her supervisor were unpleasant. But she was so driven by her job offer that she found a way to pull her thesis together in just a few weeks. She had all the parts of her story already-it was just a matter of putting her focus on it 100% to write it up into a cohesive thesis. Even she admitted that she had never been that productive before in her life. Now as a scientist in industry, she is still known for helping others do their work.
My Favorite Strategies for Jumpstarting Motivation and Productivity
Of course, we cannot all count on a job offer to get us motivated. Most of the time, you need to find your own drive, even when the direction of your thesis is not clear, your results are inconclusive or you are not getting support from your supervisor. How can you go from procrastination to peak focus in just one heartbeat?
The answer came to me when I went to a senior student’s thesis defense. I had seen this student struggle for years, collecting data and troubleshooting experiments. What struck me was that on the day of her defense, she was so excited about her research and the impact it had on her field. That’s when I realized that I was “Missing the forest from the trees.” I was so caught up in the busyness of putting out daily fires, that I forgot why I came to graduate school in the first place. Once, I came to this realization, I was able to develop a strategy to keep me motivated daily.
1. Determine your purpose
Why are you doing this? Sometimes it is a lofty goal, such as identifying a gene for a rare disease. Other times your purpose is very simple: you want to graduate so you can get a job. You know you found your purpose when it gets you excited. If nothing gets you excited, think about why you were excited about coming to graduate school in the first place. Was it to contribute to a field you were very passionate about? Or, are you hoping to get a position that requires a PhD degree?
In my case, my purpose was to contribute to the field of safety testing for pharmaceuticals. The interesting thing was that whenever I talked to friends and family about my thesis, I got very excited. Clearly, I was passionate about this field – I just had to remind myself of it daily. Once you define your purpose (whether it is contribution to your field, a specific career path, or a desired income level), write it out and put it on your desk or calendar where you can see it daily.
2. Define what you need to do to achieve your goal or be in alignment with this purpose.
Most students need to complete their coursework, do a literature search, complete a study and write papers. Many of these will be long-term milestones, but the important thing is to get them on paper first. It is tough to be motivated unless you know what actions you need to take to in order to reach your purpose.
Be sure that you and your PI are in alignment regarding the milestones you need to reach and your timeline. You might need to have several discussions over the course of many months, and perhaps you will need to get the support of your committee members before moving forward. (In our program we will cover how to get support from your PI and thesis committee even if they are very difficult to get along with).
3. Break it down into manageable chunks
I gave a presentation a few months ago, and a student asked me how she could motivate herself when a deadline is 6 months away. I know this is a major challenge for graduate students, because the timelines are so long compared to those in college or a workplace.
The way to get yourself motivated when you have a major milestone far in the future is to break it down into bite-size pieces. A good example would be a conference poster that you need to present in 6 months. The amount of work that needs to be completed for a conference poster can seem daunting, especially if it is your first poster ever.
You can lessen the load by breaking this major project down into smaller, more manageable pieces: e.g. develop strategy with PI, design your studies, collect your data, analyze data, and make charts and graphs for your poster. Some of these pieces might need to be broken down even further. The aim is to break down a 6-month milestone into weekly stages. It is much easier to be motivated if you know what you need to do to be motivated by this Friday, then 6 months from now.
4. Block out time in your calendar
Now that you know what you need to do this week, schedule time for it in your calendar. I always found this piece to be the most gratifying, because this was the step when a goal started to become a reality. I finally had a plan to take that first step and I knew when I would do it.
Blocking out time in your calendar will also help you to determine whether you are spending your time wisely. Are you involved in too many extracurriculars? Are your job responsibilities or family commitments taking up too much of your time? If so, there might be creative ways to give you more time.
A friend of mine gave up a part-time job in his last year of graduate school, because he knew he needed the extra time for writing. As a result he had to be extra frugal, but he did finish his thesis in a year.
Another graduate student with a toddler borrowed money from her parents to pay for extra daycare and babysitting, so she could put in the necessary time to wrap up her thesis. It is not an ideal situation (being in debt and spending less time with your child), but in the end she was able to graduate and find a job that allowed her to pay her parents back, and establish better work-life balance to spend more time with her daughter.
5. Finally, take action.
Did you ever set aside time to do something, and then did not even get started on it during the allotted time? Remember that procrastination is sometimes due to a project seeming so overwhelming that you do not even know where to start. So, instead of working on something big and unpleasant, you might do something else such as checking your email or running and errand.
The toughest part of completing any project is the beginning. You just need an initial momentum to get you started and then continue on your trajectory. If you don’t know where to start set a timer for 15 minutes and try to take a step, no matter how small, to get you started. Be sure to do nothing else during these 15 minutes than think about how you can make some progress. Try journaling, jotting down ideas, or perhaps approach another student who could help you.
Some final thoughts
A PhD thesis is like a marathon – you need to pace yourself well to finish. Many students get try to do too at once, which leads to a burnout, and falling behind on your milestones despite long hours at work! If you want to increase your productivity, pick one area where you would like to see some major progress in the next month.
Perhaps you want to complete a literature search or publish a paper. Try some of the suggestions above, and let me know the results. Did you notice that you were more productive and did you achieve some of your goals? Or, are you facing a unique challenge that is preventing you from making progress?
What are your biggest challenges in graduate school and how are you trying to resolve them? Please be specific because we have readers from all over the world looking for inspiration!