Grad School Got You Feeling Burnt Out? Here’s How to Stay Motivated

Let’s be honest here, grad school is HARD. Whether you’re working on a master’s degree or a Ph.D., or whether you’re writing a thesis, a term paper, or a dissertation, finishing your program can feel like a slog sometimes. Staying motivated is something that many of us struggle with. But luckily, there are ways for grad students to push past the many pressures they face and to stay motivated.

Why do we struggle with motivation?

Grad school isn’t just school, it’s work. It’s where many of us start our careers. It’s stressful and can be overwhelming. There can be lots of upsides to working and studying in academia, like the freedom to explore new research topics, access to journals and other publications, funding opportunities, and a community of supportive colleagues.

But there are a few downsides too. Academia is competitive; colleagues are sometimes pitted against one another for opportunities, prestige, or funding. In some departments, graduate students are not funded for their work or even have to compete for funding.

Finances are a major stressor for many graduate students, particularly for those without outside financial support or for those who have families to support. Some universities enforce strict deadlines for program completion, which are not necessarily realistic or at the very least don’t encourage a healthy work-life balance. There is also a lot of pressure in academic departments to produce results regularly and to publish in prestigious journals. Many departments also expect graduate students to publish their work at some point, particularly Ph.D. candidates.

This focus on productivity, publication, and prestige can be very stressful for faculty members and graduate students alike. While faculty mentoring is a huge advantage of grad school, it can be draining at times. Graduate students, as novice researchers, are criticized constantly. This constant criticism can impact self-esteem, foster feelings of inadequacy, and exacerbate imposter syndrome.

Productivity barriers

On top of all of these pressures, as well as the pressures of life in general (e.g. bills, health, family, etc.), productivity barriers often cause us to struggle with maintaining momentum in our work. Most of these “barriers” are not separate from one another as they often interact and overlap.

For instance, imposter syndrome or low self-esteem can surface as perfectionism, which in turn causes procrastination, which is exacerbated by poor time management skills, poor work habits, and poorly designed or distracting work environments. Sometimes “multitasking” just makes it impossible to focus on anything in particular, which impacts the quality of our work and feeds into feelings of inadequacy all over again.

Sometimes the task at hand is much too large and becomes overwhelming or we haven’t learned to break up large unpleasant tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. If you are struggling with any or all of these issues, it can sometimes feel like grad school is a mountain which you have very little motivation to climb. Ana Swanson of the Washington Post talks about some of the reasons why we procrastinate and how to stop.

How to Build Momentum

When we lose momentum in our work, it gets even harder to stay motivated. But just a little bit of momentum will create more momentum, which in turn will help to fuel your motivation. So how do we do that? Sometimes getting started is the hardest part.

Start Small

We often get stuck when we feel overwhelmed or when we can only see the bigger picture. Breaking down these larger tasks into more manageable chunks can be very helpful. For instance, if I say “this week, I am going to write my literature review,” do you think I will actually achieve my goal? Probably not. This is a massive goal, and it may not be realistic, in my situation.

It would be all too easy to procrastinate on this task, since it’s overwhelming and because I may not even know where to start. To get past this, I could break down the larger goal of “completing my literature review” into smaller chunks, as follows:

  • conduct literature research for section 1 to find relevant sources;
  • read and make notes on these sources;
  • identify my main points in this section from the literature;
  • write my notes into a draft with full sentences;
  • revise this section to make sure it flows well;
  • conduct literature research for section 2;

…and so on, for all sections of the literature review.

Even within these goals, I can make smaller ones (e.g. read and make notes on source 1, read and make notes on source 2, etc.), depending on how specific I want to get with assigning my time. Sometimes, I make weekly goals with daily and even hourly goals set within them.

When you are setting out your goals, it is important to be realistic. Be honest with yourself about how much you can get done in a given time and set deadlines you actually believe you can meet. Make sure your goals are “SMART,” that is: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. Finishing a task gives such a sense of accomplishment, it will help motivate you to continue.

Establish Structure

Meeting your goals gets even harder when you haven’t set aside time to work on them. Without structure, we can fall into a burnout cycle, where we set unreasonable goals, work too hard, procrastinate, and fall behind.

Often in graduate school, we have to set our own deadlines, which is a new experience for many of us. Getting into a routine can help create structure. Many professional writers and academics recommend setting aside time to write every day. Research by Robert Boice has shown that faculty members who write every day end up writing almost ten times more than their colleagues who do not write every day.

On her blog, Get a Life, Ph.D., Tanya Maria Golash-Boza gives some excellent advice on how to structure and commit to writing every day and finishing your thesis or dissertation. You may be saying “that’s all well and good, but what if I don’t have time to commit to writing every day?” which is a completely legitimate concern. Ideally, writing at the same time every day is optimal for getting into a writing routine, but this is not always possible. Many of us have unpredictable schedules, which makes structuring our time extra challenging, but not impossible.

What works for me is taking a few minutes on Sunday night to look at my schedule for the week and figure out what days and times I will be able to work on my thesis, even if it’s just for an hour. Then, I write it in my day-planner along with my work commitments, making it clear to myself that this time will be used for writing and nothing else. If you work better in short bursts, try the Pomodoro Technique.

Follow Through

Whatever routine works best for your life, make sure that you really commit to the time you’ve set aside for writing. If you set aside an hour to work on a task, the only thing you should be doing in that time is working on that task. Try to eliminate distractors, if you can. Turn off your phone, block distracting websites, like Facebook or Instagram, so that you are less tempted to spend your time there, and ignore the pile of unwashed dishes in your kitchen and the laundry that’s waiting for you, etc.

It’s also important to set boundaries with yourself and with others so that you don’t overcommit or double-book yourself. It can be all too easy to set our work aside to spend time with friends and family or to drop everything when someone calls, but it’s important to set boundaries. Completing your thesis or dissertation should certainly not come at the expense of these important relationships but all too often we end up making excuses to procrastinate. You can even say “sorry, that’s the day/afternoon/hour I am working on my thesis, how about a different time instead?”

Treating your writing time like work time helps to establish these boundaries. Friends and family who support you and want to see you succeed will understand that this is an important time commitment. Be realistic about how many commitments you can make. It’s reasonable and necessary to say no when you feel that you can’t add any more to your plate.

Take Care of Yourself

Taking care of yourself is very important in graduate school. You might feel like you don’t have time to take breaks, but that is exactly what you should do. You can schedule these breaks into your work time. It’s also important to recognize when you need to take a break. Forcing yourself to continue working when you’re stuck is rarely the best course of action.

When you feel stuck on a task, sometimes the best thing you can do is step away from your work for a short time- go for a quick walk, eat something, etc. Resting and taking breaks is important for both mental and physical health. Not only are you more productive and focused when you are well-rested but you’re better able to cope with stress. On her blog Caffeinated Confidence, Krystal Vasquez talks about the importance of taking breaks and why we often feel guilty about it.

Recently, a faculty member in my department advised graduate students to take the time to do small things that make us feel like ourselves. This could really be anything: taking a bath or a shower, going for a walk, looking at cat videos, listening to a podcast, playing a videogame, etc. For me, this includes painting my fingernails, baking something, or walking to a nearby beach. Scheduling a short break to take care of myself means that I return to my work ready to focus on the next task.

Another significant barrier to staying motivated in grad school is imposter syndrome. In You’re not the only one: Thriving in the face of imposter syndrome, I talk about how the academic environment often fosters feelings of self-doubt by “endorsing criticism and rigorous evaluation, isolation, and fierce competition.” These feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome can have a huge impact on self-motivation. So how do we push past imposter syndrome and get motivated again? Try setting goals and intentions for your work, keeping track of your accomplishments (record the tasks you finish), and reaching out to others who are in the same situation. Also, remember to be patient with yourself.

Grad school can be very isolating. When you are stuck on a task or are losing motivation in your studies, it can be helpful to talk to people who are or have been in the same situation. Aside from fellow grad students and colleagues, you may have access to advisors or counseling services at your school. Your department advisor or supervisor may also be able to help.  

Talking to colleagues can also serve as a way to keep us accountable in our work. Try setting up a writing group or a support group where you can share goals, talk about what’s holding you back, and motivate each other. Even sharing your goals and accomplishments with one friend or colleague can help with motivation. Dr. Nabil Hassan El-Ghoroury from the American Psychological Association talks about self-care and stress management in grad school, and the Academic Mental Health Collective gives some great self-care tips for graduate students.

Whatever strategies work for you, remember that grad school isn’t forever. You are doing important work, and your well-being is vital. You got this!

Further reading on motivation in graduate school

Why You Lose Motivation in Graduate School and How to Get it Back

Using Rage to Stay Motivated, Part Two

When All Motivation Is Lost

Staying Motivated and Achieving Success in Graduate School: A Few Common and New Suggestions

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