How to Stay Motivated During Your PhD Programme

Motivation is a tricky thing. Even if you are committed to your goals, it can be acting as a roller coaster at times due to accumulating stress or losing faith in the result. With PhD thesis writing, such terms as ‘second-year blues’ as well as statistics of academic dropouts and mental health issues strongly suggest that staying on track may be much more difficult than you might think. The best solution here is to understand the existence of motivation problems, accept their inevitability, and plan your journey in a way minimising them. In this article, we will discuss a number of ways to stay motivated during your PhD programme.

1. Start Small

As noted by multiple experts, a PhD programme is a marathon rather than a sprint. If you choose to follow the same mentality used by Undergraduate and Master’s students, this will lead to inevitable burnout down the road. The infamous second-year blues usually occur because practitioners take more obligations than they can possibly meet. Unfortunately, this approach is actively promoted in academia:

  • Most supervisors expect you to invest all your spare time and resources into your PhD project.
  • Other students discuss the importance of ‘giving it all that you have’ during your first year.
  • Everyone is certain that ‘sacrificing something’ is the key to getting good things in life.

Surprisingly, the optimal strategy for staying motivated and productive throughout your PhD programme is the direct opposite of this approach. Do not be mistaken, you will definitely have some ‘crunch’ periods caused by unexpected circumstances while writing your thesis. However, going slow and steady is the best long-term strategy to follow most of the time due to the following reasons:

  • Motivation stems from overall satisfaction and good physical and mental health.
  • Balancing your work and social life is a good way of achieving this state.
  • The duration of your PhD project implies that you will not have time to recuperate.

The last thought is especially important. The length of your PhD project means that you will have to maintain your current productivity levels for several years without any breaks. If you intend to end a marathon successfully, you may choose to not exhaust yourself in the beginning.

stay motivated during phd

2. Be Humble

If you have ever been to a gym, you have probably seen people coming to do some weightlifting exercises for the first time. In many cases, they use too much weight to ‘not look wimpy’. Unfortunately, this decision effectively ruins their technique and future progress. Any personal trainer will tell you to start with the smallest weights possible and add more as you progress. In line with the previous recommendation, this means that your PhD journey should proceed in accordance with the following routine:

  • Start with a minimal daily workload and experiment with several daily and weekly schedules.
  • Proceed with this arrangement and always maintain a leeway for emergencies.
  • Increase your daily/weekly workload if you feel that you can successfully maintain optimal work/life balance with the previous ‘setting’ for several weeks at a time.

While trying to ‘lift as much weight as you can’ may look ‘cool’ at first glance, this is simply not sustainable in a marathon setting. If you feel that you cannot manage your current workload while staying motivated and productive, this is a clear sign that you need to negotiate a more reasonable schedule with your supervisor. No athlete will continue lifting excessive weight after feeling chronic pain in their body. However, many PhD students see this as a viable long-term strategy for avoiding the necessary PhD programme extensions and end up losing more time due to stress accumulation and burnout.

Staying humble can also be compared with speeding up in your car. Most vehicles cannot start running at 100 miles per hour in a single second. You need to start slow and gradually ‘change gears’ while also observing the road situation. In many cases, you simply cannot proceed at the desired speed due to unexpected turns, pedestrians, and other obstacles. Driving slowly is always preferable to crashing your car and making a very long stop in your academic journey as a result.

3. Have a Plan

Progressing in small steps means that you should carefully plan each one of them to maximise your outputs. Motivation stems from measurable and manageable tasks that you complete successfully. Here are some ideas on how you can maintain it:

  • Set small and manageable tasks for each day (e.g. reading 5 articles or writing 300 words of your thesis);
  • If a task cannot be quantified, set it as ‘working on … for … minutes’;
  • Focus on the formal completion of the task rather than specific outputs or deliverables;
  • Keep track of your progress over time.

Keeping a diary is a must for staying motivated and productive during your PhD programme. Make sure to record the completion of individual tasks and your overall progress. This allows you to remind yourself about the substantial results you have already achieved in moments of doubt. A lack of such a diary leaves you one-on-one with your fears of underperforming and pushes you into the dreadful ‘sprinter’s mentality’ leading to burnout and academic failures.

Additionally, try to record non-quantifiable tasks as ‘time spent working on it’ instead of results. If you are looking for quality references in a particular field, you have no control over the actual existence of recent peer-reviewed articles in it. Hence, ending an hour of work with no quantitative results should still be recorded as progress and not a failure if you are willing to stay motivated and maintain an internal locus of control.

4. Stay Focused on the Bigger Picture

When you decided to enter a PhD programme, you were motivated by some long-term goals. They could include better employment perspectives, your in-depth interest in a certain field or your willingness to build a career in academia. Losing track of these objectives is one of the main reasons leading to poor productivity and low motivation. While your daily routine is probably filled with smaller tasks as suggested earlier, sticking a printed list of your long-term goals on your fridge may be a good way of reminding yourself why you are doing this in the first place.

In some cases, this ‘bigger picture’ needs to be adjusted over time. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many PhD journeys and has substantially decreased the number of positions available in academia. If a certain student saw their long-term goal as a career in this sphere, this inevitably decreases their motivation at the moment. Effectively, their actions and progress are leading them nowhere according to the opinions of multiple experts and practitioners that they read.

If you find yourself involved in a disruptive trend like this one, you may need to make some hard decisions and reconsider your overall direction. The same is true for problems with a certain supervisor or not making progress with your initial topic. Biologically speaking, the loss of motivation is a physiological sign of not achieving your goals and losing interest in them. Reconsidering your objectives can be a better option than ignoring this increasing resistance.

5. Talk with Others

Networking is a powerful instrument for getting relevant information and minimising the amount of wasted effort. Make sure to ask a lot of questions during your meetings with your supervisor. This way, you can clarify their expectations and make sure that all your activities are rewarded with favourable outcomes afterwards. Not getting positive reinforcement for your efforts is a very short road to the loss of motivation.

Similarly, peer communication opens new opportunities for being productive and making better decisions. This can include writing articles with other PhD students, exchanging valuable information about your thesis-writing activities, and sharing your feelings and insights about your academic journeys. In many cases, this knowledge will help you set realistic goals and expectations and avoid a feeling of lagging behind your peers.

A good strategy here is to start up accounts on several popular online PhD forums. As opposed to social media, you can stay more or less anonymous, which protects you from your supervisor or your peers discovering your questions to community members. Such forums usually have hundreds of persons who lived through their PhD programmes and can share their stories or confirm your doubts. This will provide additional ‘reality checks’ for your ambitious plans and help you set realistic goals.

Staying motivated and focused for 3+ years of PhD writing is a challenging task. As stated earlier, some motivation problems in this sphere may stem from incorrect strategic choices made early on. Try to obtain multiple opinions and seek PhD help before you start your PhD programme. This way, you will know that you are working with a promising topic and a high-quality long-term plan for completing your PhD dissertation. If you feel like you are losing your overall direction and your supervisor is not providing sufficient help and support, contacting a reputable PhD writing service may be a good idea to get things under control. They can help ease the workload and help you stay motivated during your PhD programme.