Tips for staying motivated in Grad School
February 1, 2013 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Two years into a Ph.D. program in the biological science (in the US) and I am in a lab doing research. The lab I'm in takes a hand-off approach to our research, so much of the motivation to do projects must come from me. Unfortunately I'm the kind of person who needs deadlines and strong guidance, and without these two things I've begun to drift a little. Any tips for keeping my eyes on the prize and staying immersed in my field?

I've tried instituting 'do nothing but read literature Friday' and 'new experiment Monday' but I quickly revert to doing the bare minimum. I care about what I'm doing, but if I'm not working hard on something I start to care less about it. I don't want to be here for seven years! My PI is supportive and relatively easy to get a hold of, but he's also very busy with other things.
posted by Archibald Edmund Binns to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I don’t think it would be unreasonable to ask your “supportive and easy to get a hold of” PI for guidelines, expectations, and suggestions.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:55 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One book that has a lot of good strategies for getting through grad school (especially in the sciences) is The Smart Way to Your Ph.D. One of the strategies they talk about in the book (which I adapted using the 'reverse scheduling' technique from the Now Habit, also a great book) for staying on track with a publication is to plan out the figures, experiments, methods etc for the publication you want to publish. You can extrapolate this to your research by imagining that you need, say, 4 first paper authors to graduate.

1st step) Right now, what questions will those 4 papers seek to ask and answer?
2nd step) What experiments / figures do you want for the first paper?
3rd step) What planning / pre-work do you need to do for each of those experiments?
4th step) What can you do today to start making it a reality?

And then work on the first experiment for the first paper, always keeping in mind the end goal, which is to publish each paper and then graduate. I think part of what makes grad school a slog sometimes is that it's hard to see the end goal. In this you can try to set focused, achievable goals for your research that directly tie in to your main goal, which is presumably to graduate.
posted by permiechickie at 9:06 AM on February 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, it might help to create/utilize a thesis advisory committee. I found my meetings (every six months) very useful in summarizing what I'd been up to, refocusing my efforts when I'd gotten bogged down, and setting some more medium-term goals/questions. It helps if your program encourages/requires such a committee, but even on your own you could probably find 4-6 faculty with interests that abut your thesis project and ask them to meet with you on a regular basis for advice and guidance.

Good luck! These skills together with the kind of thought process described by permiechickie are the things you are in graduate school to learn, so that you can conceptualize and execute your own work in the future.
posted by acm at 9:18 AM on February 1, 2013

Get together with a couple other like-minded students and hold regular meetups where you discuss goals and plans for the short-term (eg weekly), mid-term (monthly or thereabouts), and long-term (2+ years). Being accountable to other people will help keep you on track.

Also, check out the IDP (Individual Deveopment Plan) on the FASEB website:
Although it's geared more toward postdocs, it can easily be adapted for grad school too.
posted by phoenix_rising at 9:30 AM on February 1, 2013

I found that going to a lot of seminars helped a lot. Even talks about unrelated topics were often interesting and motivating if alone for understanding the logic and approach they took. Of course, a large part of the Ph.D. candidate's skill lies in self-motivation and independence, but it's very reasonable to ask your mentor for help in the best strategies along the way, so take the opportunity now because once you become a post-doc the PIs expect you to do most if not everything on your own volition. It's surprising to me how many people leave science after their first post-doc.
posted by waving at 9:52 AM on February 1, 2013

Seconding getting hold of some other grad students and having weekly or biweekly meetings where you talk about your progress. Someone keeps a log of progress made and plans formed. I've found that just having someone say, "OK, at our last meeting, you planned to do X. Where are you with that?" is enough to nudge me into getting stuff accomplished. Actually, this is generally a good idea for the lab as a whole so it wouldn't be a bad idea to pitch it to your PI as something to do once a month so that people keep abreast of each other's research and ongoing issues.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 9:58 AM on February 1, 2013

This book is awesome. I didn't do a PhD, but an MS, and I read it as I was beginning to write. It was almost painful, because I felt that so much of the advice would have done me so much good had I heard it at an earlier stage of the process. Now would be a perfect time for you to dive into it, I think.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 10:13 AM on February 1, 2013

Do you have regular lab meetings? In both of the labs I did my post-docs in, all of the grad students were required to report on what they had done the previous week and what they were planning for the week ahead. Granted, quite often it was "all of my experiments failed" but at least that meant they were working.

If you don't have any of that sort of system set up, maybe you can ask your advisor if you can email her or him a weekly plan by every Monday morning and ask if they can hold you accountable?
posted by gaspode at 10:16 AM on February 1, 2013

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