PhD student low in motivation

#35: PhD motivation running low? Here’s the cure!

Is it getting harder to be excited about your PhD? Perhaps you struggle to find the enthusiasm to start another work day – especially when nothing seems to be going your way. You might be suffering from one of the most common syndromes among PhD students: a lack of motivation. Although it may feel like your work is coming to standstill, DON’T BE FOOLED! There are many ways to get your motivation to come out of hiding, if you know what caused it disappear in the first place! We’ll help you to understand the causes and the cures for the motivational slumps, so you can stay on track and keep smiling until your PhD is in the bag!

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Make no mistake, the PhD is a very demanding period of your life. You’re working on many difficult tasks, always aware that things can go wrong, with supervisors who all have high expectations, and dish out heavy criticism whenever they sense a momentary slip-up.  Many different tasks demand your attention at any given moment; like working out your research project, experimenting, analysing data, and apart from all of that, you still must attend your graduate courses, present at conferences, and publish your results! That’s a lot to tackle alongside a high workload. So it comes as no surprise if this adds up to you feeling demotivated every now and then. Rest assured, no PhD student is super motivated and happy all the time. The ups and downs are just a part of the entire PhD process. 

Motivation changes over time

It’s normal that motivational levels of PhD students naturally change over time. We see a lot of PhD students at the very beginning of our course “Completing your PhD successfully on time” that are walking on sunshine in the first weeks of their PhD! When they’re asked to rate their satisfaction with their PhD, they’re close to 100% because they’re just so happy that they got the chance to do a PhD, after receiving a grant or scholarship or successfully beat other competitors for a PhD position, that they feel a bit like they won the lottery!

Was it the same for you in the beginning? Well, then you also know that the feeling does not last. Because after a while, reality kicks in and you realise that not everything is as perfect as it seemed at first. This is often when one’s motivation starts to adjust to a normal level, but is still pretty stable. Later into the PhD, your motivation often continues to shrink. This is when there’s still an awful lot of work to do, with difficulties creeping up all around and no end in sight. But guess what? As the day of your submission approaches (even if it is still in the distant future), motivation often picks up again, once you start to gain confidence with the results of your research, or get your first papers published and a general feeling of – I’ll probably get through this one day – begins to sink in!

Don’t let low motivation drag you down

Apart from this usual fluctuation tendency in a PhD, low motivation is always a warning sign from your psyche telling you ‘uh oh something’s wrong here’ – so don’t ignore it. 

It is very important to spot the early signs of low motivation, because at this stage, you can do a lot to get out of it quickly! And the sooner you take the necessary steps to get out of it, the better. In contrast, if you wait too long to act, then you might become really depressed and the situation is much more difficult to tackle. 

With this blog post, we want to help you reflect on the reasons you might be feeling de-motivated – as this is often the key for improvement. As we put our heads together,  to try and help you understand the problem, we also put together great tips on how to get out of a motivational low – all specific to the underlying reasons! Check out or free worksheet “How to get out of low PhD motivation?” So here’s the message: You don’t have to accept low motivation – it’s all within your power to change! 

How to spot low motivation?

These are the typical signs of a PhD student who is at a motivational low:

  1. You’re not as excited as usual to come to work, or when you think about your PhD.
  2. It takes you a long time to get started and when you do, you postpone difficult or important tasks related to your project. 
  3. It takes you longer than usual and feels more difficult to finish something. You’re not happy with what you produce and your overall progress slows down. 
  4. You deliberately look for distractions. This might take shape as aimlessly browsing the web or social media platforms (for more on combatting social media addition, see our post #14 “Social media/www distractions at work: 5-step cure!” You might also distract yourself with work-related tasks that are not challenging but still give you the feeling of doing something, e.g. getting involved in the organisation of scientific events at your institute, or busying yourself cleaning up, sorting through emails or reorganising your workspace …

Whatever form it takes, we know that this behaviour always has a root cause. So we’ve broken down for you the five main reasons for low motivation that we see time and time again with PhD students:

Reason 1: Stuck in a boring routine 

You may be in a situation where you have to do a tedious or boring task for a considerable amount of time. We know the typical routines: Maybe you are coding and you have nothing to do but coding for whole days, and you know it’ll go on like this for weeks on end. Or you’re spending seemingly endless hours in the lab, running gels, so your day is sliced into 15 or 20 min slots. Or you’re working with antibodies and have 2-3 h incubation times, which is not much better. Or you’re sorting through data to  find a few meaningful correlations that will prove your PhD work as worthwhile … It’s no wonder that your motivation plummets and you can hardly pull yourself together to continue the slog. 

Probably, you generally like working as a researcher, and most of the tasks come easy to you. But this type of routine would wear anyone down! So your motivation slips with certain repetitive tasks that you don’t like, are boing, or simply overwhelm you. 

Reason 2: There’s no end in sight

Your research is in full swing and you thought by now you’d have more clarity and confidence about your project, but instead you are getting more uncertain and confused by the day. You may have some results already, but you are unsure which aspects of it to use for your dissertation, or if you can use them at all. You’ve no clue whether you are making progress with your PhD or not. All you see are loose ends everywhere: ideas that you did not follow up on, half-finished paper-drafts, and incomplete side-projects. It seems like you’ve lost track of it all, you’re going around in circles, with your head spinning, and your motivation is way down. 

This type of motivation loss often hits home many months after you started the PhD. Your work gains complexity as you go, and not all results make sense. You may adjust and deviate from your original plan to follow different paths, but not all of them lead to success. Now you are in a phase where you are reading more and understanding better what others in your field did before you. But as you gain knowledge and insights, you also become much more critical of your own work and progress. For you, it feels like there is no clear win or breakthrough in sight that would give you the ‘green light’ so you finally know you’ll be able to manage it all and get your degree in the end. 

Reason 3: Unacknowledged work 

This has a lot to do with the nature of PhDs and the working culture in scientific institutes: Although you may be part of a team, most of what you do for your PhD in the end is done in isolation. That means you’re probably lacking positive feedback and stimulation. And because you’re still in research training and on a steep learning curve, you get the full brunt of criticism from colleagues. Your supervisors or PIs may be quick to point out any shortcomings or flaws in your work, but less practiced at giving out praise! Have you every heard anyone in your lab saying ‘Wow, you did an absolutely amazing job with this, congrats!’ Nope. This may lead you to think negatively of your own achievements, doubt your abilities, and be quite demotivating! 

We have all experienced how this works: If we get positive feedback or a praise, we’re super happy and look forward to continuing with our work or even work harder. But if we are heavily criticised or if critique dominates and nothing positive is mentioned, we are hurt and demotivated. Sometimes this is so extreme that we’d rather stop working on a task and take on something else entirely. 

Reason 4: Overworked and sleep deprived 

It can happen to anyone: Your recent experiment or field campaign was much more time intensive than expected, there was a deadline for a conference paper that you wanted to submit, and you were also desperate to work on a proposal that would give you more funding for your PhD. As a result, you got into a habit of working very long days, even on weekends,  and your last real break  was a long time ago …

It’s no surprise that after weeks or months in ‘emergency overdrive’, you feel drained and exhausted. And although you initially thought you’ll just put in some extra hours temporarily, this has in fact become your standard mode of working. You got used to that high-intensity schedule and you had little to no time to recover! Demotivation creeps in, because – after all – you may be a PhD student, but you’re also a human being! 

Reason 5: Uncertainty about the future

Do you get a funny feeling in your stomach when you  imagine the time after your PhD completed? Do you feel the anxiety creeping up and freezing you to the spot? You’ve probably heard rumours from other PhD students who had difficulty finding a position afterwards and in your worst nightmares you picture yourself unemployed and broke…! So the thought of your ‘life-after-the-PhD’ and all the questions that come along with it are hanging over you, deflating your energy and shrinking your motivation to push ahead with your PhD – because what use is it?

Uncertainty about the future is one of the big recurring worries of PhD students. (Max-Planck survey link). As a PhD student, you have been within a university for such a long time that life beyond the ivory-tower is virtually beyond your imagination. Everything outside academia may seem scary and you have no clue which of your skills will be valued by employers. And even something familiar like continuing with a post-doc seems intangible and remains in the very distant future. Not surprising that your motivation to move on stalled. . .!

How to get out of it?

Help is around. For all these five possible reasons for your motivational low we come up with hands-on advice, tips and suggestions what you can do to overcome the motivational low and get your PhD back on track. Check out our free worksheet “How to get out of low PhD motivation?” for all the help that you need. 

Conclusion:

 It is normal to lose motivation at critical parts of your PhD. But it is also easy to combat if you recognize the signs early and treat yourself properly. Consider yourself another working part of your project that you may need to adjust as things move forward. You can’t always expect to get your best quality work if you are running on empty. So slow down, take stock, break up your routine now and then with something you love, get input from the people who care about you and rest! 

If all our tips sound like we’re speaking a foreign language to you – you need to sit down and plan some changes in your week immediately! This time is always going to be a challenging one, so make it easier for yourself and take a moment of zen to see the past, present and future as part of an amazing journey that you can – no – will successfully finish! Our suggestions in our free worksheet “How to get out of low PhD motivation?” will definitely help you on your way! 

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