How to Maintain Motivation in the Lab During an Existential Crisis
Have you been facing restlessness, depression, or anxiety lately? More often than not, we ignore these feelings, expecting them to disappear by sleeping on it. The underperformance in turn drives you to lose motivation and you get trapped in a vicious circle of existential crisis.
The rates of anxiety and depression in doctoral students are moderate to severe, and are 6 times higher than the rates in the general population.  Work and organizational context (which includes factors such as participative management strategies, flexible work arrangements, and teamwork) play a significant role in the mental health of PhD students. 
So how does one maintain the motivation to get out of the bed, do all the lab work, bear the supervisor and the colleagues one doesn’t gel with, and also maintain personal life? Here are a few ways to deal with stress and maintain motivation.
Recognizing There Is an Issue
It is important to understand that everyone has different levels of sensitivity towards stress-inducing events and, thus, their own way of dealing with stress. Some people might handle it with ease, while for others it could result in feeling loss of control, severe anxiety, and existential crisis. Some people may deal with stress by being active mentally and/or physically, while others may deal with it by not doing anything at all. There is no right or wrong way to deal with your emotions.
As much as we like to think that it is easy to compartmentalize your personal and professional lives, this is unrealistic. Your professional life can be greatly impacted by the life-altering events taking place in your personal life. For some of us, the “I’m really in my 30s” moment could be a life-altering event, where you see your friends growing professionally and personally, you compare your achievements with theirs (especially if you are a PhD student), and before you know it, you are on the road to Anxiety Town. For others, a life-altering event such as moving to a new city for studies/work and leaving family and friends could trigger an emotional response.
Take It Step by Step
1. Take a Deep Breath (Or Maybe Don’t)
It can be tough for some people to accept the way they feel. If you wish to change your state and feel better, it is crucial that you recognize your feelings and honor them. Take a deep breath, relax, and meditate. Let your mind tell you the cause of your stress.
If deep breaths and meditation do not help, try being physically active. The most useful thing that helped me maintain motivation during my PhD was regularly hitting the gym. Exercising regularly not only helps you stay fit physically, but also helps improve anxiety, stress, and depression.  Once you know what the root cause of your stress is, the next step will be to address it and find a solution.
2. Communicate With Your PI and/or Colleagues
We often keep our thoughts to ourselves due to the fear of being judged. However, someone like your PI, who has definitely dealt with work-related stress a zillion times, can be really motivating and might help you find a solution. By discussing the stress of your experimental workload or the timeline you have set in your mind for your PhD or a research project, you can make things clearer to your PI. For all you know, you might end up establishing a good rapport with your PI, which might help you feel more confident and motivated towards your work.
You may also approach your labmates/seasoned PhD students to discuss your work-related stress. Chances are they have faced similar issues and might have a good piece of advice on tackling the problems. I have personally experienced a great deal of help and support from my colleagues which made my PhD easier.
3. Focus on What You Can Control
The reality is, not everything that is going wrong is under your control. Focusing on controlling and trying to make everything right would only lead to panicking. My PI always said to me ‘take baby steps’. It assures you that you only need to worry about what is required at the very moment and helps you stay calm. Once you have completed the task in hand and achieved some results, you can gradually work your way up.
Start with answering the piled-up emails, or by cleaning your workbench. Catch up on those articles you’ve been meaning to read. Jot down a plan for your approach to complete the pending tasks (side note: if this has you stuck, try reaching out to your peers and/or PI. A fresh set of eyes is incredibly valuable). If you have been saturated with your work or had recurring failures with experiments, take your mind off it by helping a labmate with their project for a while. This might also help you learn new skills and improve your professional relationships, ultimately adding to your confidence and motivation.
4. Re-Evaluate the Situation
If meditating, exercising, and discussing your problems isn’t helping, it may be time to re-evaluate the situation and the cause of stress. There is a possibility that what you once thought was the best career choice for you isn’t something you wish to pursue anymore. There could be various reasons for this: unpromising career prospects, lack of inspirational leadership from the PI, weakened psychological contract with the research team, and/or loss of interest in the subject . Assess the possibility of switching to other PI/organization. I have personally known PhD students who have chosen this option since they no longer felt motivated.
If you have lost interest in your research topic, discuss with your PI the possibility of exploring other aspects of the study. Re-structuring the study might help you regain interest in the subject and maintain motivation.
5. If Nothing Helps, Take a Break
It is possible that none of the above suggestions will be helpful. In that case, consider hitting the “pause” button. Taking a break has been my last resort when nothing works. Go hiking, camping, or canoeing. Or simply visit your family or friends on a weekend. Whatever you choose, be sure to eliminate any obvious stressors (lab work, classwork, etc.). This will help to take your mind off the work stress and provide you a better perspective to tackle stressful situations.
We also have more tips for you for dealing with research failures and for being a motivated PhD. Do give them a read and let us know in the comments section your own ways of dealing with stress and staying motivated.
- Y. Peterse, J., et al. Addressing the mental health crisis among doctoral researchers, Elephant Lab. (2018) 1–11. doi:10.5281/zenodo.1402423.
- K. Levecque, F. et al. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students, Res. Policy. (2017). doi:10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008.
- K. Mikkelsen, L., et al. Exercise and mental health, Maturitas. (2017). doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2017.09.003.
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