Earlier this week I was driving on the highway and noticed that the traffic was much heavier than usual. When I mentioned this observation to a friend, she remarked, "Yeah, traffic is always heavy on the first day of school after Labor Day, but then it gets lighter later on. I guess people stop going to school or work." We both laughed, but I suddenly realized that this pattern was thoroughly familiar to me.
In my freshman year in college, I took Calculus in a 400 person lecture hall (I know many of you readers can relate) and it was packed on the first day of classes. The numbers dwindled gradually, as did the attention span of the remaining students. In graduate school it is a little more difficult to keep track of everyone's whereabouts, because students can be in classes, libraries or doing research in a laboratory. Yet, the gradual decrease in attendance is still noticeable.
Why does enthusiasm peak at the beginning of the semester and then die off gradually? I believe that one of the biggest challenges in graduate school is staying motivated, day after day, for many years. Graduate students often feel like victims, due to a lack of guidance and emotional support. What can you do to boost your motivation? There is an excellent book I read in graduate school called "The Now Habit" by Neil Fiore. The title is quite catchy as is, and Fiore summarizes how our self-talk can influence motivation. In essence, in order to be more productive (and graduate sooner), one needs to be move from a "victim" mentality to a "producer" mentality. If you can change the following five most common negative though patterns to positive ones, you will be much more effective and happier too.
"I have to": This is very typical of "victim-thinking" and will make you feel like you are forced to do something. It is true that you might not want to do every project, but going to graduate school was your choice. You decided to pursue a Ph.D. because you wanted to. Thus, while you might not enjoy every moment of it, replace "I have to" with "I choose to."
- "I must finish": For various reasons, many of us feel a rush to graduate. Some students really do need to graduate by a certain deadline due to financial issues or family obligations. Other students become fed up with disappointments and just want to "get out." When you encounter these negative feelings, think about the next project which needs to completed and ask yourself: "When can I start?"
- "This is so big": A doctoral dissertation is a big project, but to my knowledge nobody finished it in one day. A common reason that people procrastinate, is that perceive their project as too overwhelming to even start. Instead of focusing on how complicated your project is, brainstorm about how you can break it down into small parts (small accomplishments can be as simple as reading a paper, asking your advisor some questions, or organizing your lab notebook) and tell yourself: "I can take one small step."
- "It must be perfect": This type of thinking immediately sets you up for disappointment. Instead, determine realistic expectations. What are the important things that must be accomplished in your thesis? Can these goals be accomplished within a reasonable amount of time? If you accomplish them, will you satisfy the requirements for a Ph.D.? When you realize that you are driving yourself beyond your limits, remind yourself that: "I can be human"
- "I don't have time to play". The truth is thatthe best time to take a break is when you feel the most overwhelmed. I did not believe this advice initially, but later I realized that if I took some time to relax (a few minutes, maybe even an hour) during the busiest times, my minds would automatically come up with solutions to creatively resolve problems. Therefore, when you feel that you are too busy to take a break, remember that "I must take time to play."
My favorite one is #3, "I can take one small step". It is tempting to put off big projects, but once you make that first initial step, you will get the momentum going and possibly finish quicker than expected. Remember the Woody Allen quote, "80 percent of success is just showing up"? While he did not go to graduate school, he is a millionaire and a very successful film director. I too found this quote to be quite true in my academic and professional life, and I am reminded of it when I face challenging situations.
Wishing you the best,
Dora Farkas, PhD, Founder, PhDNet