Why is it so hard to keep your motivation to get your PhD Degree?
Doubts about finishing your PhD Degree start out innocently…
You check your email and catch up on social media before you sit down to work on your Dissertation.
Fifteen minutes won’t make a difference in writing something as big as your Dissertation, will it?
After all, once your take care of your email, you can usually write for an hour before you go to work.
But…tomorrow is a different day.
Once again (out of habit), you begin the day by checking your email.
This time, however, you get an upsetting email that your abstract was rejected from a conference in Hawaii!
How can that be? This was the trip you had been looking forward to all year! You spent weeks writing that abstract and everyone approved it.
Demoralized, you are not sure what to do next.
You had planned to write a section of your Dissertation for an hour that morning.
You scroll through your Facebook feed looking for something to inspire you, but all you see are pictures of happy people on the beach while you are stuck behind your desk.
The hour flew by and now you have to leave for work.
Next morning it is tougher to get out of bed. Now you only have 30 minutes to write before you need to leave for work.
Is it even worth starting to write when you don’t even have an hour? Maybe you can read a paper and take some notes.
While reading the paper you discover that another group has done similar research, and you print out their papers to read the following morning.
For the next few days you spend your mornings reading papers. But you never feel quite ready to start writing again.
First a week goes by without writing, and then another.
With all this new information you feel too overwhelmed to start writing again.
Is your research even worthy when so others have already published something similar?
You feel paralyzed. Stuck. Overwhelmed.
Suddenly, you realize:
You are just not motivated to write your Dissertation anymore.
In fact, you are wondering if it’s even worth getting a PhD Degree.
5 Subtle Traps That Suck Away Your Motivation to Get Your PhD Degree
You started graduate school with the best intentions. What could stop you from getting your PhD Degree if you work hard?
The problem is that hard work is not well-defined in graduate school.
You work, work, work, and you don’t feel any closer to your PhD that you did on your first day of graduate school.
If anything, you feel burnt out. The worst part is that you don’t even know how you got yourself into this situation.
You have already invested too much to quit, but you aren’t motivated to do the writing or research that is required for you to get your PhD Degree.
There is some good news:
But first, let’s look at the most common ways that you lose your motivation:
Trap #1: Distractions
Just like in the example above, if you don’t have a solid writing routine in place, one irritating email can throw off your whole schedule.
You can also be distracted by other people, and even your own thoughts! (More on this below)
Over time, your motivation can be reduced to -100 on a scale of 1-10; I know, I’ve been there, and it’s a tough place!
Unless you have a system to ward off distractions, it will be impossible to finish your Dissertation. (I say this with the most kindness, after 10 years of working with PhD students.)
Trap #2: Infobesity – Yes that is a real word!
Back in the good old days, when you wanted to read an article you had to go to the library and photocopy it page-by-page from the hard copy of the journal (assuming your school library even subscribed to that journal).
Now it is delightfully easy (albeit dangerous) to access almost any journal article you want instantaneously.
You know how it goes: you read one article, which references another article. You then search for that article and discover another exciting article to read.
The cycle goes on until you are caught in information overwhelm, also known as infobesity. It is a paralyzing feeling caused by having so much information about a topic that you don’t even know how to start.
You must have a way to manage the information that comes your way (whether it is related to your work or not) to have the motivation and mental bandwidth to do the work necessary for PhD Degre.
Trap #3: Comparing yourself to others
There is no shame in it, we’ve all done this: we see someone who has achieved something spectacular and we wonder: “How come I can’t do that?”
The problem with this way of thinking is that it never ends!
Students in grad school envy those who already got a PhD Degree.
PhD’s wonder how they can ever get a job when everyone else has a better resume. Once employed, you might wonder, why you haven’t been promoted yet? Or, why others are “ahead of you in life”, whether it’s about a house, car, family, or career?
Each time you compare yourself to anyone else, you lower your self-esteem and your motivation suffers.
I know how hard it is to not compare yourself to others. However, I have known students who were the last in their class to graduate (by many, many years), and went on to have very successful careers.
Trap #4: Not receiving feedback
You might be in a lucky situation where you get regular and helpful feedback from your supervisor. As long as you have this type of relationship with your supervisor, you are not going to fall into this trap (although the student-advisor relationship does change throughout the years).
But you might be in a situation where you get no feedback, or you get discouraging (possibly even harsh) feedback.
Out of all the traps this is the one that can make you feel most powerless, because you have no control over your supervisor’s behavior.
The truth is that you are not powerless.
As nice as it would be to have your supervisor guide you step-by-step through the process of getting your PhD Degree, you need to be one to initiate conversations when you need help. Even supervisors who are busy eventually respond when you ask for a phone or in-person meeting.
The other extreme is when you get feedback, but it is discouraging (i.e. your self-esteem plummets after every interaction).
I had this experience with one of my committee members. While the feedback was harsh, I chose to receive only the helpful comments. Despite being frustrated about this relationship, I asked myself “How can I use this professor’s feedback to move my Dissertation forward?”
Remember, it is your responsibility to initiate the conversation with your supervisor when you feel stuck (and unmotivated), and be specific about what kind of guidance you need from them to move forward with your Dissertation.
Trap #5: No external accountability
Did you ever have a day when you were busy, but you had no tangible progress to show for it?
When you work on your own (which is unavoidable if you are writing your Dissertation), it is challenging to figure out how to measure your progress.
Should you track the number of hours we wrote? The number of words? The papers you read? The data you analyzed? The number of possible things you could measure is enough to make anyone dizzy.
Eventually, you might get to a point where you feel so fed up with not being able to follow through on your commitments that you stop trusting yourself. This is where your motivation meets its ultimate demise. How can you feel motivated to work on your Dissertation if you cannot trust yourself?
This is where external accountability comes in.
When you are accountable to someone else, you have to verbalize your goals, and show how these goals move your closer to getting a PhD Degree.
You also need to explain what happened if you didn’t follow through, and how you will reprioritize so that you can accomplish that goal.
With external accountability you are also less likely to get distracted.
If you committed to writing part of your literature review, you know you need to write instead of immersing yourself in reading.
Even better, when you do accomplish your goals, external accountability will reinforce your self-confidence and motivation.
When it comes to finding external accountability the most important factor is that the person (or group) is committed to keeping you accountable.
I have seen successful accountability partnerships among students in different fields. Some students even credit their PhD Degrees to a virtual accountability partnership with another student in a different country whom they never even met in person!
Whether external accountability comes from an individual or a group, it is one of the fastest ways to regain your motivation to finish your Dissertation, and (finally) graduate with a PhD Degree.