This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

5 Motivation Strategies for the PhD Blues

Last weeks' #phdchat was on the subject: "Down in thesis dumps: sharing motivation strategies for the low points as a researcher". It was my first time participating in the weekly Wednesday evening debate, and I found it very interesting, so thought I'd briefly summarize 5 things that stood out to me from it.

Unfortunately, it is inevitable that during a PhD things will go wrong. Sometimes they go wrong quite badly, and time will tick by with little or nothing to show for it. I know, I've been there. It's all well and good saying 'make sure you have a good support network' or to say to seek the counsel of a good friend, but such advice is not hugely practical, and some people don't have those away from work to turn to. So, what can you do that is practical to lift yourself (and your project) out of the PhD blues?

1. Ask lots of questions, set targets

I don't mean soul-searching, should-I-throw-in-the-towel kinds of questions, but questions that incrementally lead you towards the story you are trying to tell with your project. If you've lost enthusiasm with your experiments, set out a question that you can realistically answer for every day of the next week.

For example, today I might ask: does this gene interact with this gene? I'd test this using the assay I've been working with, but never with these two genes, so lets see what happens. And tomorrow I might ask: what happens when I combine these two substances? All are small questions that will need answering along the way, pushing the project forward, so I will get there, bit by bit.

2. Stay flexible

That said, be realistic. There is no point asking a question or setting a target that is unrealistic and too rigid. Things have gone wrong in the past, and they're going wrong right now, so don't fixate yourself on one target and one outcome, because if you fail to reach it it will crush you even further. Accept that the targets you set are for the purpose of progressing, they're not an absolute. In general you ought always to be flexible. When things go wrong, accept defeat and try something else. it is all too easy to stay stuck on one failing experiment for too long - go, be a scientist: explore!

3. Keep in regular contact with your supervisor

A supervisor isn't your boss. Your science is their science too, so really a supervisor is your part-boss, part-mentor, part-teacher, part-friend and, crucially, your collaborator, all wrapped up into one overly-busy bundle. The following advice is utterly simple, and yet something so easily forgotten or shied away from: when things go wrong, talk to them. They want you to do well too, because your results go on their papers; and their names go on yours. A good supervisor might not know why what you are doing isn't working, but they'll be much more able to take a step back from it and find a new direction to try. Remember: they have been in your shoes. They know how hard it can be.

But how to stay motivated?

4. What you are doing is important

For me, it helps to remember that what I am doing is important and, crucially, novel. Nobody has ever done it before. That's what makes it hard, but it's what makes it so interesting and rewarding too. Think: you are the only person to have ever shown the small discoveries you've made so far.

5. Remember what you've done

For some, novelty isn't a motivator, but past achievements can be. So, if you're down in the thesis dumps, take a pause and think about all of the amazing things you've achieved so far. Good job! You've achieved all this....

... now think how many more amazing things you have yet to come!

Good luck everybody. Chin up, keep smiling, and prove to the world you've done something nobody has ever done before, however small or large.


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  2. Hi Para, thanks for your message. When you are just starting out it is difficult to know what is and what is not realistic, this tends to come with experience. For example, my supervisor would set targets for me when I started and I would regularly not be able to meet them, as I blindly accepted them without any real idea of how long the techniques took, and how likely they were to go wrong. For you at this stage it might be best to set an immediate question you want to answer and give yourself a set deadline to answer it by - for example, 1 month. In trying to meet that you'll learn a lot about time management, time planning, tools and techniques and start to appreciate how long everything you need takes. After that, you'll be much better at setting deadlines and become progressively more realistic at setting targets (and, should things go wrong, more realistic at changing those targets as you go on).

    You say you have no fixed long term goal but presumably you have short term goals or small questions you can tackle now - start with one of those and see how it goes :)

    Hope that helps and good luck!

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  4. I’m very thankful that you have posted this page. I badly need motivations for me to continue my PhD studies, especially now that I’m a bit challenged by the obstacles I’m encountering. I would definitely bear all these strategies into my mind. I just love to stay in school and learn a lot so I can share it to others.

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  5. Thanks very much for this, I really needed to read it! I am suffering my 2nd year PhD blues after being stuck with failing one experiment for almost 1 year, now I moved on to (explore). Reading this made me realized it (happens) and I am not alone.