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

Doug Baumann is a PhD student in the department of statistics at Purdue University. His research is under the direction of R. W. Doerge and focuses on the annotation-informed integration of ‘omic’ data in next-generation sequencing. Baumann is interested in curriculum design in undergraduate education and plans to have an academic career at a liberal arts college after graduating.


Jeff Nisen is a fourth-year PhD student in the department of statistics at Purdue University. His research focuses on the development of novel estimation and calibration procedures for stochastic models used in the financial engineering, risk management, and econometrics fields. Upon graduation, Nisen plans to work as a quantitative analyst in the financial services industry.

Earning an advanced degree can sometimes feel like running a gauntlet full of tests, research reports, deadlines, and—at times—very little sleep. There is little doubt that even the most energetic and passionate students will at some time feel overwhelmed by how much work they must complete, become unmotivated to finish their tasks, or—in the most extreme case—contemplate giving up on graduate school altogether and start looking for a job.

A quick Google search for “graduate school tips” will yield an abundance of information from a variety of sources, most of which seem to more or less offer the same common set of suggestions about how to stay motivated. Rather than add another chapter to this same old story, we aim to take an alternative approach by examining five common suggestions and then investigating potential failed motivation antecedents. Additionally, we offer some less common advice accrued from our own experiences and those of graduate students in our program.

Get Organized

“A place for everything, and everything in its place.” ~ Isabella Mary Beeton

Often, the first recommendation we receive when we’ve hit a motivation wall is to create a to-do list. For many of us, just listing each of the tasks we need to complete each day or week is enough to get working again. These lists not only serve to clearly lay out what we need to do, but also what we’ve accomplished.

Why is it effective?

Simply stated, classes can be overwhelming and research seemingly insurmountable. Large (or difficult) projects can have a paralyzing effect on our motivation, and breaking the project down into manageable tasks can help us make quick work of an otherwise unapproachable assignment or research endeavor. Creative organization, such as ranking each task based on deadlines or degree of difficulty, can elucidate connections between tasks that previously were unclear. The level of detail and structure included involve a bit of personal taste; the best system for you may take some trial and error, but in the end, your motivation will thank you.

Trust Yourself

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.” ~ Henry Ford

It is common to hear words of encouragement throughout our graduate careers, and sometimes the kind assurances are difficult to believe. There are the times when your self-confidence will be challenged the most and you may start to doubt yourself and your abilities. We may often feel insufficiently intelligent to produce quality research, especially when we compare ourselves to our peers, our professors, and the greater scientific community. At this time, you must remind yourself that many smart people gave you the chance to succeed in their program because they believe in you and your abilities. Use this fact as an excuse to be proud of yourself and your accomplishments.

Why is it effective?

Confidence is often our greatest motivator. It is human nature to compare ourselves to those around us, and doing so can certainly have negative consequences. Rather than evaluating ourselves based on our peers, taking an introspective approach can be a great boon to our confidence. Take time to seriously consider the skills you have, and even those you don’t. You might find that while your peers have better research skills than you do, you may be a better communicator or teacher. Perhaps your skills lie more in the ability to understand a wide variety of topics and their interconnections rather than in your ability to prove complex theorems. Creating a list of your abilities can serve as a reminder that you are unique, intelligent, and deserve to be in graduate school. Such lists also can be great motivators; by clearly outlining your strengths and weaknesses, you can be proactive in honing your skills.

Trust the Process

“Doubt is the vestibule which all must pass before they can enter the temple of wisdom.” ~ C. C. Colton

Part of what makes dissertations so difficult to create is that they typically do not come with instructions. In addition to trusting yourself, graduate life requires a substantial amount of trust in the experience and guidance of your major adviser. It is likely that many students have graduated from your program already, and if not, each of your professors has been through the graduate school process themselves. The system is designed to help you accomplish your goals, and it works.

Why is it effective?

Completing a graduate degree can be daunting, even more so when the measure of success is unknown. The standards for degree completion, both at the master’s and doctorate levels, are often perceived as almost entirely ambiguous. By placing trust in the process, some of the onus feels lifted from our shoulders; the path forward may not be entirely clear, but each step can be made with a bit more confidence. Admittedly, trusting the process can be quite difficult. It can be hard to let go of the uncertainty, but there are ways to actively clear some of the fog. Reading the dissertations produced by former students, or even those written by your major adviser and committee members, can go a long way toward helping you understand exactly what is expected of you. Although it may be uncomfortable, communicating your feelings to your peers and your adviser can be cathartic, even if they are unable to offer advice beyond “trust the process.”

Develop a Broad Set of Interests

“The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well.” ~ Horace Walpole

Although somewhat counterintuitive, one of the most effective ways to stay motivated in coursework and research is to take time to have fun. Having something enjoyable to look forward to at the end of the day, like watching the big game or working on a new artistic endeavor, can help keep you focused and motivated. These hobbies can even be related to statistics; side projects, national data analysis competitions, or coursework not directly related to your research can help you maintain a high level of excitement and enjoyment in your daily routine.

Why is it effective?

If excelling in coursework and research was always easy, staying motivated wouldn’t be an issue. In reality, however, graduate studies can be a bit of a ‘progress rollercoaster,’ with peaks of high success and productivity and valleys of accomplishment doldrums. It is easy to become disillusioned when an extensive analysis doesn’t run as expected (or worse, doesn’t run at all), or when a homework problem gets the best of us. Hobbies can help us stay at least somewhat sane in the face of these challenges, perhaps because they help us stay positive. In lieu of hobbies, though, it is still possible to remain optimistic and energetic when the going gets rough. With a bit of practice, failures or roadblocks can be seen as small successes or even opportunities. After all, even a failed experiment can teach us quite a bit, especially what doesn’t work.

Everyone Goes Through It

“The difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is how you use them.” ~ Unknown

When all else fails, we might be advised that feeling insecure and unmotivated is entirely normal or that these feelings are just a fact of graduate student life. While, on the surface, this might not be the most comforting advice, there is a fair amount of truth in it. To quote a cliché, “Misery loves company.” We often find solace in knowing that our experiences and emotions, especially the negative ones, are not unique.

Why is it effective?

It is easy to have a negative attitude toward side projects, collaborations, or even your own research. At the heart of our lack of motivation may be a sense that the work we are doing is something we do not want to do, either because we do not find it interesting or we do not fully understand its importance. It is useful to take a moment to remind yourself of the big picture. Why are you working on the project? The work you are doing is important to someone, whether that person is you, your adviser, or your collaborators, and you’re working on the project because you have the skills needed to make a significant contribution.