Graduate school can be one of the most challenging experiences of your life. Not only are you working on multiple projects, putting in lab hours, or completing research, you may also be juggling additional roles as parents or caregivers, employees, leaders, or community volunteers. With everything you have to do, it’s no wonder that it can be difficult at times to stay motivated and on track. Below are just a few strategies to help you cultivate—and recuperate—motivation while you are in grad school.
Focus on what you can change. Losing motivation in graduate school can be a result of feeling like you have no control over your life. While it’s true that you can’t change things like a professor’s feedback on your assignments or internship and funding application deadlines, you do have agency over how you spend your time during the week. 1) Prioritize only the most important tasks you need to do throughout the day. 2) Break down large projects into smaller, manageable tasks. 3) Block out times of the day (or night) that you are most alert; use these 15 or 30 min. to free write, in order to chip away at a final paper draft. 4) Finally, work where you work best. Is this at your desk at home, in the library, or at a café with a study peer or two?
Recognize that you are not a failure. You are in graduate school because you are brilliant, intelligent, and have much to offer to your discipline or profession. At the same time, one of the biggest hurdles you can face in graduate school is the fear of failure. For some folks, this can be emotionally and psychologically taxing and reduces motivation. But there’s hope. You can acknowledge that failure is a result, not who you are as a person. Practice reframing failures as learning moments. As our colleague Gino Aisenberg (Associate Dean of Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity in The Graduate School) asserts, “You wouldn’t yell at a toddler for stumbling as they learn how to walk. So be gentle with yourself, while you learn, make mistakes, and grow in graduate school.” Read this article for additional tips on learning from failure.
Make time for you. Other times, lack of motivation can result from not getting your needs met as a whole person—because believe it or not—you are not just a graduate student. Also, it’s neither realistic nor healthy to be “constantly productive.” It’s important to invest time for wellness, hobbies, and connection. These may include a weekly chat with a friend or loved one, watching your favorite movie, making a nice meal for yourself, seeing your therapist, or individual time for self-reflection (e.g. journaling or practicing self-kindness and compassion). We do our best work, when we dedicate time in our lives to relax, recharge, and participate in non-work activities that engage our interests and bring us enjoyment.
See the bigger picture. Part of the challenge of completing a graduate degree is that incentives and rewards are delayed. This is why it’s especially important to stay focused on all the reasons you entered graduate school in the first place. Maybe you’re wanting to land that dream job in industry, interested in providing more financial stability for your family after completing your degree, or passionate about influencing policy that promotes social equity. All of these are valid reasons to stay motivated while working towards your degree. If you need to, jot down all the positive reasons why you are in graduate school. Revisit this list as a reminder of your bigger purpose, whenever you’re lacking motivation.
We hope these strategies resonate with you, and feel free to share with us your tips for staying motivated!
Core Programs—Office of Graduate Student Affairs
UW Graduate School