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5 Phases of PhD Motivation Explained: The Roller Coaster Curve

5 Phases of PhD Motivation Explained: The Roller Coaster Curve

Photo by Tim Ferriss

The motivation during your PhD is not constant, and it resembles the phases that entrepreneurs experience and that Tim Ferriss describes in his post Harnessing Entrepreneurial Manic Depression: Making The Rollercoaster Work for You. Tim provides great advice for entrepreneurs, but this can easily be adapted to research and PhD life.

Phase 1: Uninformed optimism

You start your PhD, everything is new and you find your project really cool. It feels like you are going to solve a big problem and you might get a big prize if you are ambitious and work well, maybe a patent, maybe a paper in a high impact journal. Sounds familiar? It is a similar feeling to starting in a new job, everybody is nicer than in the previous job and it is by far better organized. Well, give it some months, you’ll realize it is not that great.

Phase 2: Informed Pessimism

You have been working for some time on your project, you understand the field better, but unfortunately you are still lost. You don’t see any good results in the near future and you start to realize that this project might be a bit too big for you. This phase is more severe if the content of your PhD is not a continuation from a previous work, if you switched fields.

Phase 3: Crisis of Meaning

You are more or less in the middle of your PhD and you have a crisis like 40 year old guys have. Since you don’t have money to buy you a Porsche, you just cry in silence in a corner. You think “Is this all? Am I a failure?” The project is not as pinkful as you dreamt it, in fact, you are going to struggle and work your ass off to finish a minimally decent body of work. You feel that you have wasted a lot of time, that you did a lot of useless little projects. Now they seem useless, but you never know, maybe sometime later you connect the dots and they were the starting points of something great.

Phase 4: Crash and Burn (optional)

While at Phase 3, if you don’t step aside fast from your negative feelings you are going to be screwed. Negativity might take over, leading you a mini depression. At this stage, many people think they have been wasting their time and they give up. They walk away with an unfinished PhD. Needless to say, we want to avoid this.

Phase 5: Informed Optimism

Slowly you start to realize that your PhD thesis is not going to be as awesome as you thought. Whatever. At least you’ll get some publications, enough to graduate. Maybe the Nature paper has to wait for your post-doc. Who cares. You’d better finish a half-ass Phd than nothing. You are getting the grip of your field, you can contribute (something) to the state of the art. It should be enough. Good enough, you don’t need perfect.

This curve is fitted to PhD data collected during many years. This means everybody will experience a certain deviation from the values here predicted. Some phases will be mild while others can be extreme. At any stage, don’t be carried away by  over-optimism/pessimism. Stay cool, be water my friend.

UPDATED: Check the Next Scientist

I have started a new blog to help PhD students and young scientist to do better science, get exposure and grow their academic footprint. All using digital hacks, blogging and social media. Check these blog posts, I think you might find them interesting:

Interested in becoming a Scientist 2.0? Then visit my blog

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  • Katarzyna Kulma

    Well summarized – i think I’m just recovering from Phase 4 – and must say that your website helps getting a motivation kick right where it should go :)

  • Julio E. Peironcely

    I went through that phase as well. It helped to go talk with a coach for PhDs. Two other ideas contributed to the recovery:
    – I was half way the PhD, closer to the end than to the beginning.
    – Things start making sense at the end, when the results and publications start popping up.

    Keep it up, we need scientists in this world.

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  • daniel

    Thank you! During the past weeks i have been thinking what the meaning of my project, it seems like meaningless, that terrific feelings kill me! And I can’t find anything i am interested in, really really want to give up.After read your blog, i just realized i am exactly going through the phase 3, and it is not only me but many guys have the same situation. i think it’s time for me to past the phase 3, and i hope i won’t experience the pahse 4.

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  • Mr.Spock

    Just keep swimming .. :)

  • Jijo

    As a PhD, I must say this is slap bang accurate!
    I dont comment online, but I had to comment on this one because the memories came flooding back.

  • Oldman

    Wow. I am doing a part time PhD and am not your typical student (I am in my 50s) and have hit the valley at phase 3. Am searching for help in deciding whether to give up or continue and found this. Your piece here has opened my eyes! Inspirational. Thank you.

  • Flarn Buckholter

    There are two or three students who take data from techs and package as their own. There are a couple who are on Easy Street with cushy, simple projects…and then there is me. Slogging through endless Western blots and RTPCR runs to get….nothing after 3 days of culturing and sampling.
    Every step of my degree-seeking process has been the MOST painful as it can be. I’m 40lbs heavier, low T, low D, anxiety, depression, OCD and blemish-ridden skin. My parents are horrified at what this has done to me and all I can think is that if I can just get ONE good Western blot, that would be wonderful.
    The best thing for me is to quit, but I won’t. I think I can graduate in another year or so (4.5 to 5 years total) with ONE good IF 6 or 7 journal articles and several second author papers.
    When you’re in your 30s and you start graduate school, you are condemining yourself to ruined health in exchange for a degree no one cares about. If you are 30 and want a PhD, go to Pharmacy school instead.

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