How to stay motivated during your PhD research

This week, resident blogger Garry McLaughlin discusses motivation in research, offering some suggestions for how to reignite that fire if you’re finding things tough.

Photo by LED Supermarket on

PhD research involves years of study (anything from 3 and a half to 7 years) and during that time, you’re required to self-direct that study. This means it’s on you as a researcher to find the motivation and energy to keep yourself working and maintain the energy you had when you first pitched your research.

There are a host of reasons why this might be tough. Motivation comes and goes at the best of times, but difficult life situations, health issues, exhaustion and the backdrop of unexpected world events like Covid-19 and the UK and world warming up can all add up to your energy, willpower and joy draining away.

However, re-igniting your passion for your research can not only keep you on track; it can give you a much needed lift when facing all these other issues. In this article, I’ll discuss some ways you can find your passion again and improve your motivation.

Celebrate your success

Photo by Nina Uhlu00edkovu00e1 on

Whatever point you’re at in your PhD journey, it’s highly likely you’ve already got some wins. It’s time to take stock of them, and remind yourself what you’ve achieved so far. Have you had a journal article published? Presented a paper at a conference? Found a new avenue of research that’s taken your thesis in an exciting new direction?

These are all wins, and should be celebrated. If you’re struggling with motivation, it’s a good idea to remind yourself of what you’ve already achieved. Even if you’re only in first year, celebrate the fact that your PhD proposal has been accepted! Enjoy the fact that you have been chosen to undertake your research, that your HEI and funding body found something innovative and exciting in your proposal and offered you one of those rare places.

Reminding yourself that, yes, you have already achieved any number of things is a good way to jolt yourself back into a state of excitement and energy which you can channel into the work you’re doing now.

Try a state change

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on

Psychologists and counsellors often talk about how useful ‘state change’ is when trying to overcome limiting beliefs or outmoded coping mechanisms. When you’re locked into a particular way of thinking, you’re often also locked into associated behaviours and/or ways of holding your body. For example, I find that rumination often takes hold when I’m not particularly active. I can get locked into spiralling thoughts when there’s nothing else occupying my attention. And it often comes with unhelpful body postures, like slumping on the couch. When that happens, I try to be aware, and force myself to change my state (for a more comprehensive description of the psychological benefits of state change as a therapeutic method, check out this article!).

In an instance like this, I tell myself to stand up, stretch, go for a walk, even if it’s around the flat. Anything that shifts my body out of the behaviours that I associate with this kind of unhelpful thinking. However, changing state can be as simple as changing what kind of work you’re doing at the moment.

If you’re sitting staring at the blank page that will, hopefully, surely, one day become your next thesis chapter and you’re feeling particularly demotivated, get up. Stand up from your chair, walk away. Stretch your arms above your head, in front of your chest. Get your body moving and encourage your posture to improve. That will release your nervous system and help to shift you out of the mental state you’re in.

Sometimes the brain has “performance anxiety” – when you sit down and instruct your brain to Do This Thing, it can freeze up. This is often called writer’s block, but it can occur in any kind of work we do. Moving away, changing posture, just doing something different and moving your focus away from the act you desperately wanted your brain to perform can remarkably shift your thought processes and, in my experience, often results in a kind of jolt in the brain, where the blockage seems to dissipate and new ideas start to emerge.

Focus on another creative activity

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

We’re not often encouraged to think of academic study, research and writing as a particularly creative act, because we focus on activities like data, information, citation, cataloguing and such. These feel dry to us at times and don’t seem to resemble creative acts like painting, playing music or doing creative writing. Yet, it is a creative activity. But when demotivation strikes, it’s tempting to go and chill, or watch a film or TV show. Something to take us away from this dry work that isn’t exciting us.

As a creative practitioner, my area of practice is, mainly, creative writing and illustration. However, I also play guitar and write songs, enjoy video editing, journaling, and a variety of other creative pursuits. One thing I find incredibly useful when I’m demotivated with my research is to go and do something else creative.

There is a state change here, of course, but changing to another creative practice forces the brain to adopt new strategies. Picking up the guitar and playing for half an hour is something for me alone, and is something I don’t need to consciously think about. Muscle memory takes over and I can usually just drop into that creative place, enjoying the fact of creative practice for it’s own sake.

What’s really useful to know, though, is that often once I’ve spent some time on this completely unrelated activity I’ll go back to my research with new insights and a renewed drive and motivation. The brain works in mysterious ways and will often solve problems for you when you are occupied with something else. Divergent thinking can happen when you “distract” the brain from its key task, allowing it to work in the background – ideas, propositions, new directions can all “pop” while you’re being creative in other ways.

If you don’t normally consider yourself a creative person, you probably have at least one creative thing you enjoy outside of your study. But if not, don’t fear – pick up a notebook and start doodling. Complete a page of a colouring in book. Do something crafty. This article is useful for some ideas if you’re not normally creatively inclined (although be warned that, like the vast majority of web content these days, the article is absolutely saturated with ads and requests to sign up for newsletters, so feel free to do a search for yourself!).

Now it’s your turn

Celebrate your successes so far. Change your state when you find yourself sinking into demotivation. Channel your creativity into something else for a while. Any of these can help you to find the energy and motivation you need, and using a combination of all three can be even better. There are countless other ways to achieve this too – if you have any suggestions, please feel free to add them in the comments or on Twitter!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s