Staying Motivated Throughout Your PhD

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With PhD projects averaging around 4 or more years to complete, it can be difficult to sustain the motivation that first inspired you to start the project in the first place.

A lack of motivation can show up in many different ways. Whether it’s procrastination, feeling low, getting distracted by other tasks, feeling incapacitated and unable to move forward – it’s often a vicious cycle. When we don’t feel motivated, we end up accomplishing very little and this results in us feeling even less motivated than before! And so, the cycle continues.

Whenever you find your motivation waning, it’s important to be gentle with yourself as you work through this and to know there are steps you can take to move forward.

When it comes to addressing this issue, there are two distinct, yet related levels of motivation: (1) Underlying motivation and (2) day-to-day motivation.

The first level, underlying motivation, is about reconnecting with your passion and excitement – the thing that inspired you to pursue a PhD in the first instance. The second level, day-to-day motivation, concerns the more immediate task of maintaining momentum on a daily basis.

While these two levels of motivation can be viewed as mutually reinforcing, the steps I would recommend for addressing each are slightly different. Moreover, while both levels are equally important, I would suggest concentrating on underlying motivation first. This is because even if we arm ourselves with the best tips relating to daily motivation, these tips can only be a temporary fix if we’ve lost our deeper motivation and can no longer identify why we are doing something.

So how can we begin to reconnect with our underlying motivation? Let’s try the following exercise.

Exercise: Finding Your ‘Why’

Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without distractions. Gently take a few deep breaths in and out.  When you are ready, start to write down all of the things that are worrying you about your PhD on a few sheets of paper. It could be things like: ‘I’m not working fast enough,’ ‘I’ll never get this done,’ ‘my work isn’t good enough,’ ‘what if I can’t find a job when I finish?’. All of the things that are worrying you about the PhD, just write them down.

Now, I’d like you to roll up each scrap of paper into a ball and throw them into a bin, one by one. Imagine yourself feeling lighter and lighter as you throw each piece of paper away. By going through this process, you are opening up space and quieting that critical voice in your head. If you find that more worried or anxious thoughts are coming to you, continue to repeat this part of the exercise.

Next, when you are ready, I want you to begin to ask yourself the following questions and be as honest with yourself as possible: why do I want to do this? What first inspired me to pursue a PhD? Was it a person I met, a place I visited or a book I read? And why did I choose this particular topic? What excited me about this field and this research topic? What can I do with the PhD that I couldn’t do without it? What doors will the PhD open up for me?

Take a few minutes to reflect on your answers. What has come up for you? Was there anything unexpected or surprising in your answers? Many of the students that have gone through this process are able to find their ‘why’ – that kernel of inspiration or passion that first inspired them to pursue a PhD. The thing that so often gets in our way and blocks us from connecting to that passion are our own thoughts, anxieties and worries. But what if you were able to sit in the place of inspiration more regularly? How would it feel to work on your research more regularly from this place of excitement?

As you go forward, can you identify whether there are things that remind you of your ‘Why’? Something that you can glance at that will automatically enable you to reconnect to why you are doing this. It could be a photo of someone, a book, a painting, an image on your desktop or some other object that that reminds you of your why. If you are able to identify something, perhaps you can keep this item in your work space as a way to tap into your underlying motivation more frequently.

Now that we’ve discussed how to reconnect to your underlying motivation Sign up for your free guide ‘8 Steps for Sustaining Motivation During Your PhD’where I address how to sustain day-to-day motivation.

 

Defending Your Work

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I’ve often found the terminology that we use for examining PhD theses slightly misleading. At most universities, the examination is referred to as a viva, drawn from the latin ‘viva voce’ meaning oral examination. Yet, most students and staff refer to the examination as a ‘defence’.

While there is some truth to this description insofar as the viva is an opportunity to defend your project – there is also something profoundly unhelpful and counterproductive about this language. It sets people up to go into their viva voce in a defensive mode. The insinuation of this description is that the examiners will be aggressive and on the offensive. They will attack your work and the best way to prepare yourself is to put on your armour and get ready to fight back.

Approaching the viva as a defence of your work not only puts you into fight or flight mode as you prepare, the feeling of being under attack may also inhibit your performance on the day.

Subtle shifts can make a world of difference. Instead of approaching your viva in a fear-based way, my advice is to reframe it as more of a conversation about your project. This will help release some of the pressure surrounding the viva and allow you to tap into what first inspired you about your research area. A conversation does not have to be unpleasant or uncomfortable, and in fact, it can even be enjoyable.

Reframing the viva as a conversation will allow you to show up differently on the day. It will influence how you carry yourself, how you respond to questions and ultimately, how much you are able to get out of the experience. Considering how hard you’ve worked and how many years you’ve put into this, you owe that to yourself.

So drop the shield and the sword. Leave the fear behind and get ready for a fruitful and productive conversation about your work. Here are a few other things to keep in mind as you start to prepare for your viva:

Get Excited

Don’t lose sight of what you find exciting and enjoyable about the project. Given that you dedicated so much of your time to working on your PhD, the opportunity to have colleagues engage with your work is actually something to look forward to and be excited about. Tapping into your excitement is one of the best antidotes to fear and anxiety.

Failure is Unlikely

The prospect of failure may be your greatest fear – yet statistics reveal that this fear is often overblown in our minds. Very few students actually fail the viva and so it’s very unlikely you will be confronted with this result. The truth is, you wouldn’t have made it this far and your supervisor is unlikely to have let you reach this stage if a fail was likely. Remember, their reputation is on the line as much as yours is and in that sense your fear of failure is likely unfounded.

Your Thesis Isn’t Going to Be Perfect – And it Doesn’t Need to Be

For many, the weight surrounding the viva has a lot to do with the expectation that their thesis must be perfect. After all, this is the culmination of years of research and endless hours of work. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that the PhD isn’t going to be perfect. Now the good news is that it doesn’t need to be. PhD theses are rarely published as is and the majority will require some form of revision or updating before publication. This is your first major piece of research and not your life’s work. So, try approaching the viva as an opportunity to get helpful feedback on the project and let go of the expectation that it must be perfect.

It’s just the beginning

A lot of the pressure associated with completing the thesis comes from viewing it as the end of a journey. In actuality, this is just the beginning. If you decide to stay in academia, it’ll be the first of many research projects. Likewise, if you decide to go on and do something different, it’ll be the first step on a new path. Even if you end up going into a completely different field, you will have learned a valuable set of life skills that you can draw upon as you go forward. So, however you look at it, it’s certainly not the end

Keep Fight vs Flight Symptoms in Check

While it’s understandable that you may be nervous, remember to pay attention to how that stress shows up in your body. To help keep fight/flight symptoms at bay, take long deep breaths whenever you need to. Have water on hand and drink it regularly. It can also be useful to bring in a notebook with you in order to make a note of key points/questions. Taking notes will enable you to gather your thoughts before responding to questions. This can be a particularly useful technique if you don’t enjoy being put on the spot!

Dress for the Occasion

Rather than picking something standard from your wardrobe for the day, spend some time selecting an outfit. Not only will dressing for the occasion help you exude confidence, it will convey a sense of professionalism to your examiners. If it isn’t feasible for you to buy a new outfit, remember that little flourishes can also go a long way towards boosting your confidence.

As you go into your viva, keep these factors in mind. This will hopefully alleviate the enormity and overwhelm surrounding the task and allow your fears about the viva to dissipate.

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Track Your Progress and Not Your Word Count

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One of the most challenging aspects of completing a PhD is the difficulty of knowing whether you are on track. When you are pursuing a degree that lasts for several years, how do you really know if you are moving forward, particularly when you are working independently? For most students, the default mode for measuring progress is to either compare yourself to others or to add up the number of words you have written.

Although your word count may seem like the most obvious and reliable way to measure progress, there is so much more that goes into completing a thesis than simply producing a set number of words. There are days when you might not write very much, or anything at all, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress.

The setbacks, challenges, and frustrating days when you feel like you are going in circles are, to a certain extent, inevitable and something that every student will experience. In order to keep yourself moving forward, it’s important to allow for the fact that this is all part of the process. Even when you feel like you aren’t progressing, chances are you probably are.

So rather than tracking your progress on the basis of the words you write and how much closer you are to reaching your final word limit, try alternative strategies for tracking progress – like journaling or a time-management tool called the Pomodoro Technique. Another option to track your progress is to find an accountability partner– someone you can regularly check in with as you work towards your goals.

Alternative techniques such as these not only help you to acknowledge the progress you have made, they also serve as an important reminder that the PhD journey does not always follow a straight path.

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Managing Your Relationship with Your PhD Supervisor

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The relationship we have with our academic supervisors can make or break the experience of a PhD. So it is no surprise that supervisor relationships are often the number one issue students highlight to me when I ask them to identify their top frustrations with the PhD. There seems to be something in the nature of the supervisor-supervisee relationship that can feel inherently disempowering.

In the years that I’ve worked with PhD students, I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories ranging from unresponsive supervisors to those who micromanage their students or give insulting feedback. But I’ve also heard more promising stories about supervisors who are available, encouraging and completely supportive of their students.

While it may seem as though it’s just the luck of the draw, I wouldn’t leave everything up to chance. There are things you can do to foster a better relationship with your academic supervisor. Below I will share some top tips for enhancing the supervisor-supervisee relationship.

  1. OWN YOUR PROJECT

Many students approach the relationship with their supervisors through the lens of an employer/employee dynamic. In reality, your supervisor should be working for you! Even though your supervisor is more senior than you, this is your project and it is highly likely that you are more of an expert on your specific topic than they are. Supervisors are there to guide you through the process, but at the end of the day, this is your project and it’s up to you to shape it the way that you want.

  1. COMMUNICATE YOUR NEEDS

Whether it’s more frequent contact, clearer feedback, or joint meetings if you have multiple supervisors, don’t hesitate to ask for what you need. While it’s not uncommon to hear students complaining about their supervisors, the truth is that your supervisor can’t read your mind and if something isn’t working well, it’s up to us to communicate what your needs are. This will first involve identifying your needs and then making a clear and direct request to your supervisor.

  1. SET EXPECTATIONS IN ADVANCE

Unfortunately, there is no guidebook on how supervisors and supervisees should interact. It is often down to the individuals involved to determine how this important relationship will function. As with any relationship, we have an opportunity to establish what the expectations are and set out how those expectations are going to be fulfilled. For instance, when it comes to constructing a timetable for completion, you might wish to jointly work on this with your supervisor. In setting out the timetable, you commit to specific dates for submitting individual chapters to your supervisor, while your supervisor commits to specific dates for returning their feedback to you. In this way, you set a mutually workable timetable that establishes what work needs to be done by each person and by what date.

  1. ADMIT WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

If there is something you don’t understand, don’t shy away from admitting to your supervisor that you are confused or unsure about it. Pursuing research at the doctoral level will necessarily involve probing into unfamiliar territory or even a particular methodology that is brand new for you. You don’t need to have all the answers, so let go of the expectation that you should be an expert on everything that is related to your research area.

  1. DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

As I mentioned in my previous post, ‘Coping With Academic Criticism’ receiving a lot of negative feedback from a supervisor can feel extremely demoralising. Remember that it’s your supervisor’s job to spot potential holes in your research so try not to take it personally. Of course, it can be challenging not to take negative feedback to heart. What I encourage students to do is to sift through the feedback and ask yourself: ‘will this feedback ultimately strengthen the project?’ If the answer is yes, it may help you to view it more constructively.

  1. ASK FOR CLARITY

It could be that your supervisors’ feedback or comments to you are unclear or contradictory to something else they said to you previously. Not only does this often lead students to feel stuck and uncertain about how to proceed, it can also be incredibly frustrating. Don’t hesitate to ask your supervisor for more clarity. It could be that they have overlooked their previous advice to you or that they need to explain their feedback to you more fully. However awkward it may feel to ask for clarity on something, you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the end by having this conversation.

  1. BROADEN YOUR NETWORK

It is not uncommon to see students becoming overly reliant on their supervisors throughout the PhD – depending on them not only for advice about their thesis, but advice more generally relating to job applications, publishing, teaching, funding opportunities and much more. While it’s great to draw on the experience and wisdom of your supervisor, it’s also important to broaden your circle of support throughout the PhD, beyond the tiny bubble of you and your supervisor. For this reason, I encourage students to make their own contacts and connections throughout the PhD, and to take advantage of opportunities to share their work with others. Expanding your connections in the field will not only enrich your research by exposing you to other viewpoints, it will also put less pressure on the relationship with your supervisor.

  1. REMEMBER THEIR EXPERIENCE IS NOT YOUR EXPERIENCE

Another reason to seek other avenues of support beyond your supervisor is because their experience is not your experience. The world may have changed a lot since they did their PhD and as a consequence, the advice they may be able to offer you about – for instance – job applications, may be quite limited. So graciously accept their advice when it is offered, but don’t treat everything they say as gospel. Talk to others and, above all, follow your own instincts.

 

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Coping With Academic Criticism

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Compliments can be hard to come by in the academic arena. This is particularly the case for PhD students. Criticism can come from a variety of differently places – your supervisor, colleagues, or other faculty members in your department.

Endless criticism can feel exhausting and become a major de-motivator. It can also be difficult not to take the criticism personally, particularly if you are used to excelling academically, as many doctoral students are. In this post I want to address how to cope with academic criticism throughout your PhD.

The first thing is to simply realize that the criticism of your project is normal and even to be expected. While you may have grown accustomed to receiving compliments on your work, it’s important to appreciate that the PhD is an entirely different ballgame and by its very nature, subject to a higher level of scrutiny. So as strange as it may sound, it is actually an indication of the more demanding level you are working at.

Since a higher amount of criticism is to be expected during the PhD, it’s also important to understand that it’s meant to help you. It may feel awful in the moment, but whenever I ask a student I’m coaching to reflect on the criticism they receive, they almost always acknowledge that it will make their project better in the long-term. The key question to ask yourself is – is this criticism constructive? If the answer is yes, try viewing the criticism as an opportunity to enhance or improve your project.

When the criticism isn’t particularly constructive or delivered in a respectful manner, it usually says more about the person delivering the criticism than you. Part of navigating the criticism surrounding your work is to decide which criticisms you want to take on board and which ones to disregard. It’s all part of taking ownership of your project.

If you are feeling weighed down by the volume of criticism you have received and are starting to seriously question the value of your project, don’t hesitate to request more balanced feedback. This may be something along the lines of: ‘thanks for your helpful feedback. I now have a sense of what the gaps are and what can be improved. To make sure I’m on the right track, it would be great to hear what aspects of the project you think are promising.’ People don’t always realize how their feedback is coming across, so there’s nothing to lose by asking for what you need.

The next point is to remember that the PhD is what you are doing and not who you are. With that in mind, try your best not to overidentify with your research or with the criticisms you receive of it. This can be challenging, as our projects are often deeply personal to us, but at the end of the day, the criticism of your work isn’t an attack on you or a reflection of your worth.

Finally, rather than seeking approval externally, remember that the main person who really needs to buy into your project is not your supervisor, your colleagues or anyone else – it’s you! What you think matters more than anything else. So instead of waiting to hear that you are doing ok, start to give yourself the validation you are seeking by keeping track of what aspects of the project you find valuable. Begin writing them down and come back to this list whenever you need a boost.

In my next post I’ll address a related topic of how to manage your relationship with your supervisor.

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Setting Goals and Shifting Expectations

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For many people, the start of January is a time for taking stock and setting goals for the year ahead. So, what are your goals for 2019?

I’ve come to learn what a powerful role our words play when it comes to setting goals. For instance, whenever I set the goal of writing a ‘chapter’, my inner perfectionist automatically goes into high gear and starts to take over. I instantly feel the weight of what I’m working on and the expectations surrounding it. Who is going to read it? What if it isn’t any good? Why am I bothering with this in the first place? This is how I talk myself out of doing things before I’ve even started.

In order to quiet my inner perfectionist, one technique I’ve started to employ is to soften the language I use surrounding a specific task. So, whether it’s a lecture I’m preparing or a chapter I’m writing, I almost always refer to it as a ‘sketch’, outline’ or even a ‘blueprint’ and I preface whatever I produce as ‘preliminary.’ While it can feel heavy to expect myself to produce a full chapter, writing a preliminary sketch is something I can do.

With this very subtle shift in language, I begin to alleviate any pressure and anxiety associated with the task. It’s a way of tricking my mind into relaxing while I move closer to reaching my goal and in this way, the seemingly impossible task I would otherwise worry about gets completed without me really noticing.

As you start to plan for 2019, ask yourself whether you can shift the language around any of your goals for the year ahead.

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Process versus Outcome

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One of the biggest challenges I faced as a doctoral student was a tendency to view the PhD as an outcome, rather than a process. In my mind, it was one enormous piece of work and unless I was done, or close to being done, I found it difficult to relax or rest. Even in those moments when I was not actively working on it, I felt like I couldn’t properly switch off. It was on my mind constantly. It was an exhausting way to spend four years, but somehow it seemed justified and I didn’t know of any other way to approach my work.

One of the consequences of viewing the PhD as an outcome was the feeling that I had nothing to show for entire days, weeks or months of work. Research often requires us to sift through articles and books in order to determine which ones are relevant, and undoubtedly some will not be. This is the equivalent of a scientist having to do countless experiments that fail before one succeeds. Even though I knew on some level that this is what my research would entail, I still held on to the expectation that it should be a simple and direct path; in actuality it is a series of uneven steps that – by its very nature – required me to go in fits and starts, and sometimes in circles, before I got to where I wanted to go. This is something I didn’t appreciate at all, and as a result I felt incredibly frustrated throughout.

Having met several doctoral students who have fallen into the same trap that I was once in, it seems clear to me that we need a better benchmark for assessing our progress when it comes to completing longer-term projects – a way where we can stop attaching to the outcome. So I started to think about strategies for how we might begin to approach big tasks as a process instead of focusing on the intended outcome.

The main tool that I’ve found to be quite useful is journaling. At the end of my work day, I spend a few moments writing out what I did that day. Not as a way to police or berate myself for not having done more, but specifically as a way to remind myself of the nature of the project, which cannot be completed in one day, but in a series of smaller baby steps. It allows me to feel forward movement, even on days when I get stuck and go in circles, because I can then start to acknowledge that this is just part of the process. What this does is build up some positive momentum and put me in a better space to recognize that I am on my way. It allows for the fact that it’s a messy road and not a straight one.

While we all know this on some level, I feel like it hasn’t been properly articulated, and hence I see so many students and colleagues frustrated with how they approach their work. It’s nice to know that something as simple as a journal can make all the difference in the world to our mindset. Adopting this technique can allow us to relax and leave greater space for the excitement and passion that drove us to dedicate years of our life and mental energy to such a big project in the first place.