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Five sneaky motivation killers to avoid in graduate school

By Paris H. Grey

Motivation in the lab can be fleeting, even when you’re excited about your thesis project, the data is flowing, your labmates are supportive, and your principal investigator (PI) is your advocate. As a molecular biologist and mentor with more than 23 years of experience navigating success and failure at the bench, I certainly understand the complicated relationship researchers have with motivation—and have experienced it firsthand. I’ve learned that the key is to make your lab routine work with who you are, not against. Doing so will help you maximize your efficiency in the lab, giving you more time to have a life outside of it. It will also help keep some subtle and often overlooked motivation killers at bay.

So this fall—whether you’re a new graduate student, tackling the distinctive challenges that start in your second or third year, or even further along—take a few minutes to consider whether a few seemingly trivial matters are quietly chipping away at your motivation. If they are, it’s time to make some changes to find what works for you.

1: Following a schedule that doesn’t work for you

I’ve always been a night owl. Early in my research career, I took full advantage of this by working the “night shift” during university holidays. Arranging my research schedule around my preferences (and when there was ample parking) made learning complicated techniques easier and gave me the freedom to test time-management strategies when I was most productive. Plus, only a few other labmates worked the same hours, so it was easy to negotiate when two of us wanted to use the PCR machine or turn up the stereo. As my career responsibilities and life have evolved, I rarely have the same opportunities to indulge my night-mode tendency, but I’m glad I took advantage of it when I was starting out because it gave me insight that I’ve used throughout my career.

As a graduate student, you probably have the opportunity to determine the research schedule that is right for you, both for your research productivity and your life outside the lab. How much flexibility you’ll have will be influenced by various factors, including your course load, whether you’re a teaching assistant, the types of experiments you do, and possibly your mentor’s availability and expectations. But within that framework, explore all your options. Listen to your brain and your body. Experiment to figure out when you do your best intellectual work, such as planning experiments and writing, and when your brain is uncooperative and best suited for mindless tasks, such as washing lab ware and racking pipette tips. Then use your talents when you’re the most effective.

For those who are most productive when only a few labmates are around, be sure to still make an effort to overlap with everyone on a regular basis. It’s the connections you build with them that will help carry you through the tougher challenges in graduate school.

2: Losing focus at the start of the day

We all have those days. You arrive at the lab ready to seize the day, but before you’ve had the chance to grab an ice bucket or set up a reaction, a labmate asks whether you’ve seen the video of that tiny hamster eating a tiny burrito. You haven’t. This of course leads to an internet search to watch the video, and a few others, followed by a quick Instagram check, then over to Twitter where you discover links to several must-read stories. The next thing you know, group meeting is about to start. After that, it’s time for lunch and a coffee run before meeting with the undergraduate you’re mentoring. Suddenly, it’s late afternoon—too late to start an experiment because you’d be in the lab all night—so it makes more sense to call it a day and start fresh tomorrow.

Occasionally losing focus at the start of the day like this is nothing to worry about. But even the most dedicated researcher can struggle with maintaining consistency if they are regularly, immediately distracted upon arriving at the lab.

If you have trouble getting your work day started, try planning tasks that allow you to be productive within the first hour of arriving at the lab—even if what you accomplish is a small thing. You might prefer to design an experiment, write, read a journal article, or head straight to the bench. My approach is to wait to check email or social media until my first experiment is underway. One PI told me that her strategy when she was a graduate student was to routinely set up overnight experiments that required her attention at the start of the next work day. Another colleague no longer schedules early morning meetings because doing so quashes her motivation for the rest of the day.

Once you’ve developed the habit of getting to work as soon as you arrive at the lab, on most days, the momentum should help you move forward until it’s time for a break. (For more on the importance of taking breaks, see motivation killer No. 4.) However, if you find yourself stuck in a pattern of having trouble getting started, it probably indicates that you’re overdue for a vacation, or that you might need to discuss your career plans or mental health with a counselor.

3: Including too many—or too few—details on your to-do list

It seems simple enough: Write down what you need to get done and then do it. But there is an art to creating useful to-do lists. When done correctly, they help you stay organized and provide satisfaction when crossing off a finished task. But when done improperly, to-do lists will continually make you feel as if you’re behind—which will absolutely destroy your motivation.

Effectively managing a to-do list starts with learning how much information you need to stay organized without becoming overwhelmed by the volume of it. I learned this at the start of my research career, when I followed the example of a researcher down the hall and made highly detailed to-do lists. The system worked for her. But for me, staring at a list that included every research detail, from making media to setting the temperature on an incubator, felt overwhelming. Since then, I’ve learned through trial and error that a short list representing broad tasks helps me get work done without sabotaging my motivation. Others might benefit the most from lists that land somewhere in between. If you’re not sure about what will work best for you, you can experiment with different approaches to home in on the answer.

As you’re discovering what level of detail helps you stay on track, also consider the type of reminder system that you need. If it’s helpful, enable push notifications on your devices for deadlines, target dates, and tasks. If your blood pressure rises each time your phone pings with another reminder of something you haven’t yet accomplished, try a low-tech solution such as a whiteboard or bullet journal.

4: Working without breaks

If the only reasons you stop lab work are to attend a seminar, troubleshoot a labmate’s technical woes, or read a journal article, you won’t achieve the daily renewal that is essential for taking care of yourself. You should take breaks during your research day, and those breaks should leave you feeling energized.

To ensure that your breaks support your well-being, you need to understand how you recharge. If chatting with labmates about an upcoming vacation or connecting with others online brings fresh motivation, daily renewal in the lab can be relatively easy to achieve. For some, myself included, the better choice is to unplug from the internet and remove all the demands on my time by taking a short walk or savoring a cup of coffee. If what you’re currently doing isn’t bringing you some sense of renewal during your research day, then repurpose your breaks until you find something that does.

5: Focusing on minor negative details

I used to detest preparing antibiotic stocks. It’s not difficult or time intensive, yet I would put it off until it couldn’t wait any longer. By focusing on how much I disliked this particular task, I wasted emotional energy and made finding the motivation to get it done more difficult. Then, spurred by an Instagram post I wrote asking others what lab chore they disliked most, I realized that I should change my perspective. I acknowledged that making the stocks was never going to be fun, but my labmates relied on me to do it and I just needed to get it done. With this mindset adjustment, the chore immediately became less annoying. I still don’t look forward to preparing the stocks, but it’s now easier to prioritize.

If your mantra about a lab chore, updating your notebook, or doing the prep work for an experiment has become, “This is so boring; I hate doing it,” stop reinforcing that negativity. Embrace the fact that some tasks are annoying, and start thinking of them as steppingstones to interesting experiments. You can also try listening to music or podcasts while tackling a boring task or rewarding yourself after it’s done. That way you’ll save your energy for managing the major frustrations, such as failed projects and rejected manuscripts, that are inevitably a part of research.

As a graduate student, you carefully select your adviser, research project, and committee members. It’s equally important to carefully select work strategies that will not only help you achieve your research goals, but also support your well-being. Determining how you work best isn’t self-indulgent; it’s an essential part of being an advocate for yourself. Learn what works best for you, and you’ll get the most out of your graduate school experience

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