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Staying Motivated in STEM

Suggestions for ways to stay motivated when research hits a rough patch.

September 7, 2014

Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Sciences at the KU Leuven. You can find her on Twitter @hannapeacock or at her website.

Spending hours on the microscope counting cells, having a failed experiment, or getting brutally honest feedback can bruise your confidence and blunt your excitement for science. Making sure you’ve built up a reserve of positive feelings about your research will help you power through some of the low points. Below are a few tricks that I’ve found helpful to spur me on when I was frustrated, tired, or even scared. While these tips might help manage minor dips in motivation, if you are experiencing crippling self doubt or a total absence of motivation, please talk with someone you trust!

Keep a Victory List

As grad students striving to be our best, we tend to be very hard on ourselves and focus heavily on our perceived errors. Take the time to consciously face down your inner critic. Record anything you accomplish that gives you that “good job” rush. Write down challenges you’ve overcome, awards you’ve won, times when you were able to help someone you respect, positive feedback you receive, or anything that made you feel smart and productive. Be generous with yourself. These can be silly victories, like getting an R2=0.999 on a Bradford assay standard curve (nice pipette work, my friend!); personal bests, like giving a talk without panicking; or very tangible achievements, like having a paper accepted. You don’t have to show anyone this list. Just make sure to keep it handy so that you can update it often with the great things you’ve done.

When the bad things happen or when you’re facing a big challenge, it’s easy to forget all about your awesome accomplishments. You might start experiencing impostor syndrome, thinking that maybe you’re a fraud and don’t belong in grad school. Looking back at your victory list can help remind you that you are smart and successful, and you are supposed to be here. Because you are.

Re-visit Your Goals

While the victory list looks back at your past successes, revisiting your goals looks forward to your next achievements. Ideally, you will have a few big dream goals. Each big goal should then be broken down into medium-sized ambitious goals. Finally these medium-sized goals should be broken down into achievable stepping-stone goals. When you see that those frustrating experiments you have to run are part of achieving your big goals, it’s a lot easier to convince yourself to stop looking at Facebook, walk to the lab, and get going.

Make sure you have a hierarchy of goals for both your personal and professional life. It may be hard to find a motivating starting point in your professional life, so if you can attack a goal in your personal life, go after that for a time. Once you get some momentum in working on your personal goals, you’ll be better able to keep rolling forward toward your professional ones.

Re-visiting your goals also might help you realize why your motivation is dipping. It could be that what you are struggling to get working on isn’t aligned with your big dream goals anymore. It may be time to re-assess things more seriously, with the help of your mentors and trusted friends.

Listen to Inspiring People

There are many great (free!) podcasts featuring scientists talking about their work. Oftentimes, they talk about not only their successes, but also the challenges they’ve overcome. The passion these scientists have is highly infectious. Hearing that they’ve faced down similar challenges is a good reminder that discouragement is normal and can be overcome in many ways. You can listen on your computer or load podcasts onto your mobile device.

Four of my favorite podcasts are:

  • The People Behind The Science. Dr. Marie McNeely asks established professors about their research, hobbies, favorite books, biggest failures, motivating forces, and advice for young scientists.
  • The Life Scientific. In this BBC podcast, Jim al-Khalili interviews eminent British scientists and learns the stories behind their greatest findings.
  • Breaking Bio. This podcast is hosted by a crew of graduate students and post-docs. It often has interviews or discussions with other graduate students, researchers, or science communicators. It’s much less formal than the other podcasts mentioned here, but has some of the funniest and most relatable discussions.
  • Quirks and Quarks. Bob McDonald hosts this science news radio show on CBC. Three or four researchers are interviewed in each episode about their new papers. This podcast is focused on understanding the implications of their findings, but also delves into how difficulties were overcome to obtain important data.

Do Outreach

Getting involved in outreach can help re-kindle your love for your research. The work you do every day, which feels mundane and boring, will seem very exciting when you explain it to the public. There are lots of on-campus opportunities to volunteer in formal science outreach organizations (e.g., Let’s Talk Science in Canada). Off campus, volunteering at a museum, zoo, or conservation area related to your research might also be an option. Don’t shy away from working with little kids, either. They are often the most enthusiastic about science. You can do outreach in a less structured manner by explaining your work to your non-sciencey family and friends. Hearing yourself talk about your research and how it fits into the bigger picture will also remind you that your work is important.

Actively show yourself that you are working toward your dreams, and that you are successful. Realize that everyone has ups and downs with research, but remember that your research, and science in general, are exciting and inspiring. In doing this, hopefully you will be able to push through some of the low points with a little less struggle.

How do you keep motivated through the tough times? What keeps you passionate and inspired about science?

[Image by Flickr user Ed Suominen and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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Hanna Peacock

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