The Silent Race in Graduate School
We wanted to be happy for Jay.
With two first author papers in progress, Jay deserved to graduate after four and a half years – first one in our class to get a PhD.
Yet, as we took our seats at his thesis defense in the crowded lecture hall, I could feel the tension among my classmates.
I am not sure why, but Jay’s defense made us all feel…inferior.
I knew we were all thinking the same thing: what did he do right, and what were we doing wrong?
None of us was even close to a final thesis committee meeting, and Jay was minutes away from being officially recognized as a “doctor.”
In just a few weeks he would start his new job at a cool start-up company.
Over the next 2 years, as other students in my class defended their thesis, the pressure increased on those of us who were still on the other side of the PhD degree.
Part of it was internal, as nobody wanted to seem like a slacker and be the last one to graduate.
But, there were external factors too, such as funding issues and strain on personal relationships, which increased the pressure even further.
Besides, we all thought it would look bad on our resumes if we took 2 or even 3 years longer to get our degrees than the norm in our field.
The pressure of trying to graduate quickly, publish papers, and find a job before graduating to pay the bills, took a toll on the health of many of us.
The worst part was that we were not sure if all this suffering was even worth it?
Did it make sense to invest 4,5,6,7 or more years into a journey with an uncertain destination?
What if you don’t finish?
Or, what if you do finish, but you can’t get a job because you are “overqualified” for everything? (These were the horror stories from our peers who had graduated but were unemployed)
With all of this uncertainty, health problems, money issues, and strain on relationships, how can you stay motivated?
Why Losing Motivation Is Not a Sign a Failure
Think back to a term paper you had to write in college or a small home project you had to do.
All projects start out the same way: you have a vision of where you want to go, but you don’t know all the steps to get you there.
You get started on your project with enthusiasm, but as you start working on it you realize that it may be more complex than you originally thought, or you make mistakes that set you back.
Either way, in the middle of a project you might feel confused, overwhelmed and not sure what step to take next.
At this point, many people give up, unless the project is mandatory for their work.
This is why so many self-improvement or weight-loss programs fail – people have trouble dealing with uncertainty.
However, if you can stomach this uncertainty (of whether you will get desired results), and keep taking action, your project will slowly come together.
It may not be exactly what you had originally planned, but an outcome will start to come into focus.
At this point, when you start seeing result, your motivation will pick up and you will get a burst of energy or adrenaline rush
The beginning and end of the projects are relatively straight-forward: in the beginning you are enthusiastic as you get ready for the journey ahead, and at the end you are relieved and proud of yourself that you were able to pull it all together.
The middle of the project, however, is tough, because the original enthusiasm has worn off, but you are too far from the end to be excited.
This is when you are most likely to lose motivation, but it is also your greatest opportunity for growth and learning.
When you lose motivation it is a sign that you are pushing the limits of comfort zone, and the only way to get your motivation back is to take action and keep moving forward.
Think of your thesis as a journey to get to the other side of a beautiful valley.
The problem is that there are no shortcuts.
The valley is so wide that you cannot leap over it.
You have to climb down and the way to the bottom, and then climb back up.
When you are in down there you feel alone, darkness, you don’t know which way to go.
You wish you had never started this hiking trip in the first place.
The climb back up is steep, slippery, and with one wrong move you fear you might fall back down into the deep dark pit.
How will you ever get out and climb back out?
And, is there anyone to help you?
I was in a deep dark hole for years in graduate school, and I felt like there was no one who could help me.
With each passing year the hole got seemed to get deeper as the pressure increased for me to graduate.
Finally, it dawned on me, that tens of thousands of graduate students get their PhDs in the US every year.
If they could do it, so could I.
That day I changed my story from “I would never graduate” to “I will find a way to graduate.”
I kept telling myself this new story every day, and I became certain that I would finish my PhD somehow.
5 Questions That Will Help You To Get Motivated and Finish Your Thesis
After I told myself that I would find a way to graduate, something interesting happened.
I started seeing opportunities to finish my thesis.
Up until that point my thesis was nebulous.
I had a general area of research, but no publishable data as each of my projects were dead-end.
It was the beginning of my sixth year and I had no clearly defined question or hypothesis.
I remember very clearly the day when I was walking down the hallway and I had a “vision” of my table of contents.
In my mind’s eye I saw 5 chapters and several sub-chapters.
I didn’t have data to fill out all the sections yet, but I consider that day a turning point in graduate school because I learned that:
If you want to move forward you have to keep your eye on the destination.
Until that point I was focusing on all of the obstacles, and all the “what-ifs” that would turn my current project to another dead-end fiasco.
After that day I focused on the table of contents and what I could do each day to fill up the sections and subsections.
When you focus on your final destination, you suddenly see ways to get there.
The pressure decreases, or at least it is more tolerable.
But, how do you write your story?
Here are 5 questions that will help you get a reality-check about where you are in your studies and what you can do to move forward.
Question #1: What is your destination?
This is the most important question.
Without a well-defined direction for your thesis you will be stuck in a dark pit.
You can only climb out if you see where you are going or at least have a general direction.
If you are still searching for your thesis topic, you can use this question to think about career paths that will be possible once you get your degree.
Even if you don’t have your thesis clearly outlined, knowing why you are in graduate school, will motivate you to keep working.
Question #2: How can you break your project down into smaller more manageable chunks?
The thought of writing an entire thesis is overwhelming.
Who wants to review hundreds of papers, or run thousands of experiments?
Some students lose motivation when they realize how much work is involved in writing a thesis.
Once you define your destination, ask yourself what are the intermediary milestones you need to reach?
What are realistic timelines for these milestone?
You probably need to meet with your supervisor to clarify your milestones and timelines, and keep in mind that your research direction will probably change.
Due to the uncertainty in research and life, you will need to change your milestones and timelines as you gather more data.
However, setting milestones along the way will make you feel like you are making progress, and will motivate to continue to take action.
Question #3: What is the next step you can take?
You may not know exactly how to get your milestone, but you can probably figure out your next step.
What can you do today to make at least a little bit of progress?
Can you run an experiment, organize your data or write a few paragraphs?
The only way to get out of the dark pit is to take action, no matter how small in the right direction.
In fact, when you take action daily, it will help you to get motivated faster than you had anticipated.
If you feel completely lost, go to question #4
Question #4: Who can help you?
There is always someone who can help you.
Hopefully your thesis supervisor will support you, but if he/she cannot for some reason you can still get help.
Nobody does research in a vacuum.
In my experience, it is not hard to find someone to help you.
The challenging part is defining what you need help with.
Once you know where you are stuck (confusing part of the literature, malfunctioning instruments, problems with your data set) it will be easier to find people who can help you.
In fact, you don’t even need to limit yourself to your department or university.
You can email authors of papers that are important for your research, and ask them to clarify their work if needed.
Nowadays, it is easy to find anyone’s email and most people will be flattered that you have read their paper.
Question #5: What helps you to reduce your stress?
Less stress => more productivity =>more motivation
Unfortunately, many students think that the harder you work, the more productive you will be.
Even if you get results in the short-run when you put in long hours, on the long run this approach can lead to a burnout and loss of motivation (sometimes for weeks or months).
Exercise and socializing with positive people are the most common ways that students reduce stress.
But, you need to find what helps you to relax?
Do you have hobbies, such as art or music?
Or do you like to go out of town and take day trips?
If you don’t have a sure-fire way to reduce your stress, try different hobbies, sports, and social groups.
Remember, that the more you enjoy your experience in graduate school, the more motivated you will be to keep taking action and finish your thesis.
Would you like to be more organized and enjoy life in graduate school? Check out this week’s Q&A video for tips to help you reduce stress and become more productive while working on your thesis.
What is your favorite activity to reduce stress? Looking forward to your comments below the video:)