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  • Gillian O'Neill

In a PhD Slump? 5 Tips to Help You Stay Motivated and Get Your Mojo Back


Doing a PhD provides the opportunity to work at the frontiers of scientific innovation by contributing to ground breaking research. As such, the over-arching aim of a PhD is to lead (directly or indirectly) to impactful outcomes on human life and the world we live in. However, working to discover and understand the unknown by enhancing knowledge, practices and technologies, is inevitably coupled with a degree of uncertainty.

A PhD is a journey of learning and personal growth.

On the one hand, this uncertainty can provide self-fulfilment by being exciting and challenging. However uncertainty can also become confusing and anxiety-provoking, leading you to feel disheartened about your research. As such, I see the PhD as a journey in which you navigate through a series of expected and unexpected twists and turns, ups and downs, breakthroughs and setbacks – it’s a journey of learning and personal growth.

The humanist perspective, which encompasses the works of for example Maslow [1] and Rogers [2], views learning as a process of self-initiated discovery, driven by the innate need for meaning making and bettering oneself. This sense of ownership and drive for self-actualization emphasises the central role of intrinsic motivation in accomplishing one’s needs and goals. But what happens when the element of uncertainty leads you to re-evaluate whether that PhD is still within reach?

When faced with a setback, it can be hard to stay motivated but there are things you can do to get back on track with your PhD.

While not intended to be either exhaustive or prescriptive, here are my top 5 tips I have found helpful in getting me passed that slump and re-focussed on achieving my PhD goals.

1) Acknowledge both the Highs and the Lows

The first thing I would say is to not bury your head in the sand. While avoidance strategies for coping can provide short-term relief, ignoring the problem does not make it go away. In fact, by not dealing with the problem, you are depriving yourself from the opportunity to learn how best to manage and overcome that type situation. As a result, it can give you a real knock to your confidence by reinforcing personal beliefs that “I cannot do this”, which in reality you have no proof of!

The process of learning and acquiring new skills is in fact a process of change from where one finds oneself (Point A- “PhD Student”), to where one is aiming to be (Point B – “PhD completed”). The transition from points A to B has popularly been characterized by many as the “learning curve”, illustrating how a person deals with the process of change through a variety of emotions and feelings, both positive and negative. For example, Fisher’s (2012) model of the process of transition, highlights 8 stages one can go through from anxiety to gradual acceptance and moving forward. His work also highlights potential risks of deviating from the curve as a result of denial, disillusionment and hostility.

Experiencing negative emotions is therefore a normal part of the learning process. How long these are experienced for however will depend on one’s ability to adequately cope with the challenge. Therefore while successes should be celebrated, setbacks should also be acknowledged. It is important to recognise when you are having a tough day. A PhD can be an isolating experience and you can spend a lot of time thinking over the challenges you are facing, but try to avoid ruminating over something that worries you. Instead write them down on a piece of paper, or talk to someone about them. This will allow you to free up your mind to start looking forward.

2) A Fresh Perspective

“This is rubbish.” “Why are you taking so long to complete a simple task?”

It is easy to criticise your own work. But would you say the same thing and in the same way to one of your peers? I would like to think that this is unlikely. It is important to take the time to reflect on your emotions and ask yourself, “What is really upsetting me here?”, in order to take some perspective on your thoughts and feelings. Perhaps your work isn’t as “rubbish” as you think. Once you start considering your work in a broader context, you can take a step back and re-evaluate all that you have already achieved.

3) Take some Time Out

Make yourself a priority - It’s important to regularly take some time out from your PhD to do the things you enjoy or even try new things. By discovering new places, going for a run or catching-up with friends you are allowing your brain to take a break. You will be able to come back to your work motivated and re-energised.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the physical and psycho-social benefits of social contact and regular physical activity. When you are feeling overwhelmed, it is easy to feel you do not have the time to devote to leisure activities. Do not over-commit yourself - start with small manageable plans and work your way up.

Regularly engaging in simple relaxation exercises can also help relieve tension in the body and help you feel better able to cope with challenging situations. These exercises can include deep breathing, meditation, visualisation, or progressive muscle relaxation for example.

4) Watch for Warning Signs

When you feel overwhelmed by your work, you might notice that your behaviour is changing. Perhaps you are also thinking or seeing things differently. Diet, sleep and exercise are often impacted by feelings of stress. If you notice that you’re not sleeping well or skipping meals for example, this might alert you to the fact that something is wrong and you can then act on resolving the situation.

Once you know what your own warning signs are, you can put strategies in place in advance to better cope with challenging situations you may face in the future.

5) WOOP it!

So you’ve nipped the warning signs in the bud, taken a step back and are feeling ready again to take-on the PhD. However positive thinking alone does not lead to goal attainment. If anything, researchers have found that wishful thinking can hinder goal pursuit by impairing self-regulatory and motivation processes. People also tend to under-estimate barriers to goal achievement, resulting in the development of plans that simply are never acted upon or that need to be regularly re-evaluated and adapted.

A solution put forward by Professor of Psychology Gabriele Oettingen, from New York University and University of Hamburg, is WOOP (which stands for: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan), a strategy involving the use of mental contrasting alongside implementation intentions. In other words, this technique advocates the detailed visualisation of the positive aspects of reaching your goal (wish and outcome) followed by the visualisation of all the potential obstacles that might prevent you from reaching your goal. This then supports the development of a realistic and considered actionable plan. Using WOOP has been found to enhance motivation for goal achievement, and reduce workplace stress

If you want to find out more about WOOP, the science behind it, or if you just want to try it out for yourself, go to : www.woopmylife.org (There’s even an app!)

Innovation and motivation go hand-in-hand – by considering what can help you stay motivated during your PhD you will be able to enhance your experiences of the PhD and the research you do.

[1] Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.doi: 10.1037/h0054346

[2] Rogers, C.R. (1969). Freedom to Learn. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Unless stated otherwise, the pictures used in this blog were downloaded from the freestock images websites: www.pixabay.com and www.pexels.com.

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© 2016 CATCH. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement 
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