If there is a job in the world that requires one of the highest levels of motivation, I would say it is doing a PhD. Pushing yourself out of bed daily to enter the lab ain’t an easy task, especially when your results are dodgy or you have unluckily found that your lab-mates or project colleagues are not the kind of people you really gel with. Anything from a tough project, elusive results to not-so-helpful colleagues can bring your motivation down. But I have always believed that when the going gets tough, the tough gets going!

So on that Mantra, here I am, a PhD student, thinking about what can help me get a successful PhD after all these years of slogging and more importantly – how do I keep myself motivated all the time in the midst of clonings that did not work, proteins that would not express or simply people that are not the friendliest? Here is a list of things for mortals like me that could help:

1. Create Your Personalized Mentor Team

You might join a team in a lab that is awesome and you are completely satisfied with the guidance and support. But there is also a chance that you might join a lab where you are not guided the way you want or need to be. Do not stick around feeling miserable – this is your project so take control! I believe that for success in any team, it is crucial that we work with like-minded positive people. However, if they are not in the team, look further afield to find them and go talk to them.

2. Learn How to Take Criticism and Advice

For improvement in any area of life or work, we must be open to constructive criticism. So when you encounter people who want to help you do better by correcting your flaws, you must take their advice and criticism positively. It will go a long way in helping you develop into a budding scientist and not just a run-of-the-mill graduate. It is better if these mentors come from a similar field but they could also be scientists or postdocs from neighboring labs or other institutes. It never hurts to have some honest assessment and support during your PhD.

3. Make a 3 Month Plan of Your Goals

Sometimes during research, we get so lost in the minor experiments that we lose track of the major goals of our project. I must confess it happened to me. To help you get away from the distraction, make a list of the major things you need to achieve within a particular time frame, say 3 months and try to get them done. After 3 months, go to you supervisor and discuss your progress and hurdles. It shows that you are motivated and concerned about the project and for sure your Prof. will appreciate that!

4. Learn When to Let Go

This is one of the most painful, yet most important lessons. If you get stuck with a zombie project, and all it does is suck the energy out of you and gives you no happiness [by the way happiness often equals results in a PhD 😉 ]. STOP. Working on projects with dead ends is uninspiring. Trust your gut feelings and your results and stop wasting your time. It will only make you feel miserable and demotivated.

If this happens go ahead and talk to your PI or the professor, taking the results, your theory or whatever you need to support your point and discuss it with them. I have seen many a bright minds struggle through insane projects that won’t work and getting supremely frustrated along the way. I know it is not an easy task telling a Professor “Your idea isn’t going to work” but if you can explain it well with constructive points that are backed up with evidence you may well get the point across and get a more interesting topic to work on!

Better still, go prepared with new ideas and data on how to improve the current project or an alternative that you might want to work on instead.

5. Develop a Healthy Professional Relationship with Your Colleagues

Finding supportive colleagues at work is like finding the surprise chocolate chips inside a frosted vanilla cake. They lift us up when we are having a stressful time and can also help with experiments and provide motivating suggestions. Try to recognize which are the ones you click with and then make sure you take some time out for a coffee or tea break with them or just grab a beer together. Make it a point to stay connected with them. Interesting scientific discussions with them can be insightful and random talks can be heartening. Moreover, even on not so good work days, you’d still want to get up and meet these lovely people at work.

6. Learn to Work with the Difficult Colleagues

In life, so in research dear folks, we come across people that, for one reason or another, we don’t get on with. If you are extremely unlucky, you will come across difficult people who no one really likes in the team but the divine plan has chosen you to work with them in that particular project. You might even be unlucky enough to encounter people who try to hinder your work rather than help or even steal ideas, reagents and protocols.

Now you may scream and curse all you want at the Gods of Science but that does not help. Yes harsh stuff but this happens too in the world of science. Don’t be quiet. Communicate and communicate immediately. First talk to the colleague in question and please do that nicely. Put your points across and see if you can work out a solution together; maybe he or she still is open to change and if that works then problem solved! If that doesn’t and the problem keeps on rising, talk to the team leader. Do not sit there pondering ‘why me?’ Strategize, make a plan and take action to improve things for yourself.

7. Be Punctual

Well, you might think just how being punctual helps you stay motivated but I tell you folks it really does. Getting into a good routine will keep you focused and motivated. In fact it’s a sign that you are motivated already to be at work on time and raring to go and do out of the world experiments!

8. Read the Literature

My parents are both science professors and the one piece of advice that I constantly and unfailingly get from them is: Read THE PAPERS! And honestly despite this I often groan thinking about the idea, but it is the crux of research. I mean how would we ever “re-search” something when we haven’t looked it up in the first place? Hmmm? Right? So you must do your reading. It will make you feel confident and knowledgeable and gives you cool new ideas for your thesis!

9. Take Time off from Work for Your Passions!

It may sound like life advice rather than motivation advice but for a creative mind it is the most needed stimulant! Travel, play an instrument, learn a new language or just chill with your friends!! But please do take time out for your life, the things you love to do and for your loved ones. Do not let the degree take control of your whole life! A nice vacation is also a great motivation to come back to work with recharged batteries.

10. Read Bitesize Bio!

We’ve got a wealth of information to help you when it comes to getting through your PhD in one piece including: How To Start Your PhD The Right WayCoping With a Quarter Life Crisis, advice on if you should switch labs, and for when you make it to the end Top 10 Tips for Viva Success.

So dear fellow brethren, I’d be happy if even one of these tips helps you guys get closer to that title before your names. And now I must scoot to my lab to work on my own. All the best! And if you have any tips yourself, why not leave them for us in the comments section below?

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  1. Hi Shoa, this article is very much helpful for phd student. I have one question from you. If there is no one to check your problem what you are are doing whether you are right or wrong then in this case how can we do our phd?? In this situation we demotivate. please suggest how to make myself self motivated.

  2. I enjoyed the article. I have comment/question regarding taking a break. I took a week long break from my Phd, planned a nice trip with my hubby. I was expecting I would be back to lab with charged battery but I came back to lab feeling not so motivated to work. A week long of vacation made me feel I was wasting time in lab rather than enjoying the life, the nature’s beauty and having a fun life. I am currently confused am I not ready for PhD or is this just a vacation hangover?

    1. Dear Sofi, first of all I am so sorry for the delayed response. I had not checked my comment section, and somehow need to get a notification. So, I get what you are going through. And I hope by now, 😉 that feeling has subsided. It is natural to miss the fun and relaxing vacation days my dear. But it is so crucial you took them! You know, otherwise we end up having what we call a BREAKDOWN..or BURNOUT. Trust me, that missing vacay feeling will last a few days, but once you are back in the lab for a few days, you will be back into Science mode. It is definitely, as you put, a hangover, which is good for our souls. Hang in there. Regards.

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