Keeping motivated on a PhD

I’ve been a bit lax with my blogging of late, though I’m fairly certain that since my readership consists of a handful of friends, one or two very nice random people and my dad, news of this has probably not yet reached major media outlets.  Truth be told, I’ve been a bit lax with a lot of aspects of my life in the last month or two, including my PhD.  I’ve suffered with something we were warned about at the start of my endeavour; a serious and chronic lack of motivation.  We were briefed beforehand that there will be moments when you feel lonely or fed up with work, and I just nodded along and thought, “Yeah, I’ve been doing this university thing for 4 years now, I think I know how to cope with this.” Oh, poor, naïve little me…

You see, I’ve come to realise (and what they didn’t tell us at the start) is that a PhD is a very selfish creature that enjoys being the centre of attention.  It demands all your time, all your attention, and makes you feel guilty for socialising, or enjoying yourself instead of catering to its every unreasonable whim.  It wakes you up in the middle of the night to gnaw on your brain and fill you with an anxiousness that isn’t directed at anything in particular, but just never goes away.  It constantly makes you question yourself, and wonder if you’re really good enough to be doing this.  Whenever you decide to have time away from work, you can still feel it there in the room, sitting in the dark corner behind you, silently staring at you.  Then it whispers, “Why aren’t you working?”

This kind of constant pressure can eventually lead you to resent your PhD, and you end up not caring about it anymore and just neglect it.  And just like that little house plant you bought at the start of the year and inevitably ended up forgetting to water, your enthusiasm starts to wither.  All the data you were working on goes untouched for a week, that literature review stalls and you end up just trying to rewrite one sentence over and over again.  The PhD has successfully drained you of all your motivation.

This makes the PhD a pretty poor parasite, since any parasite worth its weight in tape worms knows you need to keep your host alive in order to survive.  So to prevent the PhD itself from going belly up, you need to get back to work… but you can’t, since to get yourself back on course requires some amount of motivation, which, if you recall, you have been sucked dry of.  This makes you feel even worse, and takes away any scrap of enthusiasm or focus you may have reclaimed, and even less work gets done.  It’s a vicious, deadly circle.

It was at this point that I found out what the most valuable resources are when embarking on a PhD.  Forget textbooks, page dividers, post-it notes or any other kind of stationery that I’m sad to say makes me excited these days; the most important thing you need for surviving your PhD are people.  And I’m talking the kind of people you can always talk to, the kind who will always welcome your silly little problems, and go the distance with the bigger ones.  I have found these people to be the key to me getting back into working properly.

First there is my boyfriend.  My poor, poor boyfriend.  He has endured my stress-induced rages for a while now, but since starting the PhD, he also has to put up with regular “I don’t want to do this anymoooooore!” crying fits and my “I am not going to do any work ever again, I just can’t” bouts of lethargy (which can be worse than any amount of rage or crying).  He is always there to offer a hug and some comforting words, and most of all, will often just say, “Tell me everything.  Tell me everything that’s bothering you.”  And I’ll have a rant about someone stealing my filters, or how much I hate diatoms right now and hope they all die, or that I don’t feel like I’m good enough to be doing this PhD.  Usually, once I blow off whatever steam has built up, I feel a lot better.  If I’m upset because of confidence issues, he usually reassures me and makes me feel better about myself.  In all honesty, I have no idea why he’s still with me, apart from the fact that I cook food.  But I am so very glad he’s there, and don’t know what I’d do without him.

Another important person is my dad.  My dad has always been the kind of parent who really pushed me to challenge myself, and encouraged me to be ambitious (as opposed to forcing your child to be ambitious, a key distinction).  I’m pretty certain he’s the reason I got this far.  So if I ever doubt myself, or feel I can’t do this PhD thing, I know I can turn to dad for the world’s greatest pep talk.  He will remind me that, actually, I am pretty smart, and they wouldn’t have even offered me the PhD if they didn’t think that.  He will remind me that ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist, and that he was always impressed with how self-motivated and focused I was.  He will remind me that I’m doing the thing that is perfect for me, and that I can do this, and most importantly, that I know I can do it.  The great thing about dads is that they have to be your dad, forever.  It’s non-negotiable.  So I can cry and shout all I want and not wonder why he still wants to be my dad.  He is bound by a genetic contract.  Sorry, dad.  Sucka!

However, I think there was one crucial part of my getting back into a working habit.  One of the wonderful things to come from my PhD are my many and varied friends.  We have lunch together, and sometimes meet up when we don’t feel too guilty about not working.  You become close very quickly, which I think is some kind of survival technique that is triggered by the immense pressure you’re all under.  While I have friends I have known longer, and can of course talk to about a lot of things, your PhD friends are the ones that will understand your work-related stresses.  Everyone copes with it in different ways, and while it may seem that everyone else is just carrying on and apparently unfazed by the PhD, if you actually talk to them about it, you’ll find everyone feels the way you do.  In fact, you realise that everyone else thought they were the only ones having trouble as well because it looked like you were just getting on with it too.  It helps to put yourself into perspective, to see that you were just focussing on all the negatives without realising that you were actually doing a lot of work.  Most of all, you can help each other to stay motivated, even if it’s just a friendly, encouraging text in the morning.  Your PhD friends are invaluable, and a lifeline in terms of surviving the experience.  They are there to complain about lab work with, to moan about annual reports with, and to help you think of more expletives when using Excel.  They are also there to encourage you when you feel inadequate, make sure you don’t forget how to have a sense of humour, and help capitalise on any occasion to celebrate and have a few hours away from the PhD beast.  Without a doubt, my friends are what make sure I don’t just completely lose my sanity and throw my laptop out the window.

A PhD is incredibly overwhelming.  When I started, I had this constant feeling that I was moving into the deep end, but that when I got there, the pool just opened up into the ocean.  Nothing will prepare you for it fully.  But nothing will prepare you for the friendships that will come out of it, either.  Surrounding yourself with people you can trust and lean on in a time of need is by far the biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone considering starting their own PhD.  Be prepared for a bumpy emotional ride.  That parasite will always be feeding on your motivation, but your friends can make sure you always have some there.

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11 thoughts on “Keeping motivated on a PhD

  1. Ah Laura that was a very well written appreciation; it made me thankful for your boyfriend, dad and friends too! Good luck with the PhD, I hope you find some motivation to give the beast what for!

  2. I have to say that is spot on, i have thought about quitting mine so many times but if it was not for my fiancée and my family and friends i would not have got this far. Just finished my first year report so that’s good but my kit has been broken for nearing 10 months so i am just about to get it working. I hope is all going well and i am glad someone else understands!!!

    • Andy, hiii! I’m so glad to hear that people can relate to this, I think it helps everyone when you know that you’re not alone in how you feel! Sucks about your kit, my equipment was broken for a month, and that was frustrating enough! Hope your PhD is coming along well 🙂 It’s been ages, great to hear about your fiancee!

  3. Wow, this post rings with honesty and emotion! Having dropped out of a Masters program I don’t know what you’re going through, but hang in there and visualize how it will be when it’s all over and done with- best of luck!

  4. Hey Laura, just browsing your older posts I stumbled about this neat little piece. I daresay that motivation is the single most important reason why I didn’t want to take the next step after we had finished our masters. I can’t but agree though that a supportive partner (who himself isn’t exactly leading the most stress-less life) and great friends who will listen to your rants are key to successfully finishing anything bigger than a shopping list.
    However, dear, you are forgetting another crucial reason why you will tackle that PhD beast: you are AWESOME! I admire you!

  5. Pingback: Is a PhD For You? | phytoplanktonic

  6. A friend forwarded me this lovely blog post honestly voicing the feelings most of us go through during a PhD. (well, he has recently been hit by the sucked-out-dry phase)

    Another big mood-saviour i’ve seen in my phd-ing friends circle, is ‘underground research’. Stuff that you havent told your prof about yet because (s)he might turn down the idea. And this is extra fun if you have a partner in crime 🙂 For me, the biggest driving factor was to think and try building contraptions to automate the work i was doing, or at least make it easier. Sometimes its some DIY project unrelated to your work that keeps you up and running

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