How to get past desperate dips in motivation in your PhD?

Everyone feels despair and desperate dips in motivation during their PhD or during other important projects. I felt like giving up a  several of times during my PhD. Here are two examples from my experience.

During the early phase I wanted to quit because I could not understand all the papers I was reading. They seemed very complicated and written by geniuses or aliens.  I felt that I was not intelligent enough to a PhD, I could not understand the mathematical models being used or experimental details. My confidence was very low until a final year PhD student admitted that he doesn’t understand many papers in his field and he was handing in his PhD soon. He advised me, “keep reading and with time you will begin to understand more and more”. I felt  inspired.I started a routine of going to the library every day at lunch time to read all the related journals on the shelves. I spent a minimum of 1 hour a day. Within a short time I was contributing to research discussions in a detailed way,I could rattle off research findings, titles, authors and dates of publications earning respect from my peers. Complements from colleagues and supervisor boosted my confidence massively, so I continued my reading routine indefinitely durating my PhD.

I had another shock, just as I felt I had started to make progress my supervisor announced that he was moving to take up a chair at Strathclyde University. My world seemed to fall apart. I had never previously lived away from home and assisted my father after university in his shop which opened 7 days a week and 12 hours a day ever since I was a little boy. I also felt that this development would knock my project back by about a year and told my supervisor that I was not going to Strathclyde and was preparing myself to sell potatoes in my dad’s shop. Eventually I moved to Glasgow. I was not a quitter.

It took a year to get the equipment built, tested and running. I was using industrial scale equipment so it was a huge undertaking to dismantle the equipment and then put back together. I decided that I would delay the dismantling process until the very last minute and work 24 hours a day in the meantime doing experiments and complete the practical work before moving, I kept this a secret but continued to take massive action and doing experiments in parallel and staggering them. This strategy worked like a dream and I had tons of research data from sustained efforts so that I could focus on analysis, writing and in parallel setting up equipment in Glasgow. It took about a year before the system was fully operational due to services that needed to be installed.

Everyone experiences dips in motivation and challenges that threatens to destroy their dream  getting their PhD. Having supervised dozens of PhD students none have completed without some kind of desperation or issues they felt they could not resolve.

What can you do if you hit a dip in your PhD?

Here are 10 techniques to try out.

1. Talk to someone who has been there before. It maybe someone who is in the final phases of their PhD or your supervisor.

2. Keep moving forward and take massive action.

3. Get a workable plan that you can execute.

4. Focus on what you can do or the solution and not on what you can’t do or the problem.

5. Celebrate the smallest progress in the right direction and make yourself feel great.

6. Remember you successes from the past constantly.

7. Work with someone you respect and admire to help you through the terrifying dip.

8. Remember the dip is temporary and will not last long.

9. Focus on enjoying the process of overcoming the challenge and rewards of success.

10. Before you go to bed and as soon as you wake up and throughout the day focus on walking onto stage and getting your PhD from the Vice Chancellor.


2 responses

  1. This article that is written by prof Waqar is very valuable, honest and encouraging. I don’t like the people who tell lies and say that EVERYTHING was always going well in their PhD etc. because that is not true or real. It is very rare when ” everything go well”. Even if it does it would be boring. You need to have the element of challenge and difficulties otherwise it will not a PhD.
    Brother Waqar, thank you for all the interesting articles you always write. I think you are the “energy drink” that every phd student needs. Wish you all the best of health for the new year and for the 100 years to come.

    1. Prof Waqar Ahmed | Reply

      Life always gives you contrast. You cannot appreciate light if you haven’t experienced darkness. With the dips comes the highs. However, you must cultivate an attitude of taking more action when you have your dips and get to the highs as quickly as possible.

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