What Motivates Me to Do a PhD and How Do I Keep it Up?

Discover 13 different ways to find and maintain motivation throughout your PhD.

What Motivates Me to Do a PhD and How Do I Keep it Up?
Finding ways of keeping up positive feelings towards a PhD is a challenge.

Knowing that my application for a PhD had been approved was one of the best feelings in my life, but little did I know that the initial motivation and enthusiasm I had at the beginning would be rigorously tested every day I do my PhD.

In the first instance, my motivation to do a PhD was out of a desire to use my brain and interest in learning new things and then to put these to good use by giving back something useful to humanity. That 'something useful' is new knowledge; finding things that no-one else had ever understood before.

The motivation was never about getting to put 'Dr' in front of my name but instead was about solving problems. But problems by their very nature can be somewhat problematic. The challenge, therefore, isn't the initial motivation, it's the maintenance of motivation throughout and beyond your studies. Here I've put together a few resources to help understand what initially motivated you and how you can keep it up.

What motivates you to do a PhD?

Finding what motivates you to do a Ph.D. is a topic unto itself. Starting a Ph.D. for the right reasons will help a lot when it comes to finding the motivation down the line. Your own reasons will be very personal but a passion for your subject and curiosity are two of the most important things. Because the initial reasons you start a PhD are often connected to longer term life goals, they have a lot more momentum behind them. Connecting with these later on can help inspire motivation during a particularly challenging time.

13 Ideas on how to keep motivation up in a PhD

Doing a PhD is one of the most challenging things you will do in your life. Being constantly pulled in several directions at once in an environment that can be incredibly lonely, means that finding motivation is both essential but incredibly difficult. When I need to find motivation during my PhD, I try to find things that take me completely outside of the PhD. This is a bit like, I'm looking in on what I'm doing, rather than swarming around on the inside going through things over and over again. Here is a list of some things to try when motivation in your PhD drops.

Identify what initially motivated you to do a PhD

Connecting with back where you started can be a strong motivator. What was it that made you want to pursue a PhD in the first place? This can often reconnect you with how your PhD fits in with your longer life goals.

Take a break

Taking a proper, away-from-your-workspace break is a great idea to find motivation. Decide whether you want to take an hour, a day or a few weeks and stick to it. Do not be tempted to go back to your work, but do keep a notebook handy if inspiration strikes at an inconvenient moment.

Take a walk or other physical exercise in the outdoors

Getting moving is one of the best things you can do to release tension built up by a lack of motivation. Experiencing fresh air in the outdoors can rejuvenate the soul.

Man riding a bike through the park and holding a coffee cup
A bike ride is a great was to get some exercise and to get out into the real world for a little while.

Look for an opposite brain activity to what you're currently doing

What this means is if you are studying a science subject, then go find something arty to do, like visiting an art gallery or doing some painting. Conversely if you're struggling to get motivated in your art project, then do something with numbers or technical like reviewing your finances. If your doing something that requires a lot of sitting down, then get up and get active. The aim of the game is to engage the opposite side of the brain from what you are currently immersing yourself in. This will give your brain (and body) a break and hopefully allow the creative juices to begin flowing again!

Think about the bigger picture and how you connect to it

Understanding that you are solving problems much bigger than one scientist can answer can hinder motivation. We all start our PhD with grandiose dreams and quickly realise that our contribution is very small indeed. Try to think about your PhD as a piece in the puzzle.

Listen to the news and think how what you are doing connects to it. The link may be tangible but I'll bet you can come up with something. Also think about the bigger picture that your research links into. Climate change? Deforestation? Soil degradation? Yes, you'll have a small impact in that field at this stage, but it takes many little pieces of research to build a story. What line will yours have in this story?

Talk to someone out with your field about your subject

Sometimes getting a different perspective on something will help you reframe it and consider it differently. It could help identify the holes in your thinking. What makes sense and what doesn't? What did the other person think? Were they inspired? Seeing your research through the eyes of someone else can help take off those rose-tinted, smeary glasses you may have on.

This is a good approach if you're feeling out of depth with your subject. Connecting with someone out with your subject can rest your zero level.

Talking to someone else and getting some fresh air whilst walking can be a great way to find some motivation.

Four hands fitting puzzle pieces together as a figure watches on
Try to see the bigger picture, especially when you are working together as a research team

Speak to someone in your field but who is at a higher career level

Sometimes all it takes is a mentor or colleague up the career ladder to get you motivated and inspired. Do you want what they have? Are you willing to do what it takes to get there? They can also be filled with interesting takes on aspects of your work. Don't get too carried away though or you'll end up with even more things on your plate!

Try not to get bogged down in 'how much they know and you don't', the aim here is see what you could be. They'll have had a very different career trajectory to you so try not to get 'comparisonitus'.

Do some creative writing or reading

I find creative writing is one of the best ways to disconnect and reconnect with my PhD subject. I need to think about what I am writing but also consider the nuances of la Google and la Reader whilst I write. It takes the focus away from the actual topic of conversation for a while and help create more structured thoughts around a topic.

Reading a fictional novel, or even playing a game, can have a similar effect of giving your brain a rest from its current chain of thoughts. As can listening to some uplifting music.

A biweekly newsletter full of insight is also a nice treat to look forward to reading 😉:

Go to a conference or course

Attending events where other people are talking about the work that they do and the skills you can learn is a great way to keep up the motivation. Speaking to experts in your field who you may never speak to again might feel intimidating at first but spending an hour or two with them will have the positive benefit of some of that knowledge rubbing off on you. This can give you a motivational boost as you apply your new found skills.

Have exciting things in your calendar to look forwards to

Always have events in your calendar that you can look forwards to. These can be as simple as your Personal Weekly Review and coffee shop outing, a birthday, getting your hair cut or bigger holiday. Often times it is the coming back from these events that gives you the boost rather than the 'looking forwards' part. Keeping regular small things in your calendar is lots of little mini motivation boosts.

Three figures wait in an airport lounge
Book yourself a holiday to look forwards to. It doesn't need to be anything fancy.

Get someone else to give you a deadline

Giving yourself a deadline set by someone else who is then relying on you to get the work done can often give you the focus you need to get something done. There's nothing like a looming deadline to get into work mode. Don't give yourself too many otherwise they may well lead to stress.

Enjoy a fancy coffee or tea

Whilst I don't necessarily advocate the use of drugs to improve your motivation, I do find a really nice coffee can bring on a creative streak. The same goes for a nice glass of red wine or piece of cake. Don't be tempted to get into a vicious reward cycle though. Ensure you follow through with some work and don't then re-reward yourself at the end.

Try working at a different time of day or location

A new environment can sometimes work wonders for our motivation. Maybe try working in a coffee shop or library. You could even go all out for a workcation. Relax, listen to the sounds and inhale the smells and take on the vibe of the new place. Hopefully as you re exposed to different stimuli, motivation will follow.

Although you may have identified a time that you work best at (if not, check out this post to find your chronotype), you might benefit at least in the short term of trying out some different times of day to work. Although I'm part of the #5amwritersclub side of things, occasionally I'll have a burst of motivation to work on something in the evening. Make the most of it to work on something challenging!

Find the bigger picture

Overall motivation is intensely personal. Find something within you that you strongly associate with and that links to the work you are currently doing. I've given a list of ideas to help get you motivated and I'd love to know if any of them have inspired you!