"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com
Erin Bedford is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program. You can find her on Twitter at @erinellyse .
Everyone in research knows how frustrating it can be to lose motivation. Sometimes it’s due to an outside event, other times, it just seems to happen. How do we get out of these motivational holes?
Robert Pirsig’s well-known novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , offers some suggestions. The story describes a father and son’s motorcycle trip across the U.S., using an interest in motorcycle maintenance to discuss practical life philosophy along the way. “Gumption Traps I have Known” is the narrator’s soliloquy on some of the events or attitudes that cause him to lose motivation while fixing his motorcycle.
Here is a version of “Gumption Traps I have Known” for the laboratory researcher and some suggestions on how to get past them.
Setbacks – external circumstances that cause us to lose motivation
The “Oops…” Setback
You’ve almost finished your experiment when you realize that you forgot a critical step early on, or your computer crashed and deleted all of your data before you could back it up, or maybe your pump was on the wrong setting and you ended up sucking up your product instead of purifying it. You’ve screwed up – all it took was a momentary mental lapse – and there’s nothing to do now but start over.
How to deal
First, step away from the bench. Take a break, have a cup of tea, go for a jog. Rushing into starting over will mean working with zero motivation and will probably not end well. After you’ve taken some time to accept what has to be done, you’ll find it much easier to get going again. And keep in mind that the second time around will be faster! Second, prevent these kinds of setbacks through careful planning. Write out your procedure ahead of time and even make a checklist if this helps you (if it can help save lives , it can probably help save your experiments).
The “But it worked last time!” Setback
Your last experiment gave you amazing results. You’re going to save the world! Win a Nobel Prize! Or at the very least, publish a nice paper. If only you could repeat the results…
How to deal
Now is the time for very careful experimentation. There may be some variable that you’re not controlling that has a big effect on your results, so think about everything that it could possibly be, then test for it. If you’re not already familiar with the concept, read about the statistical design of experiments  to minimize the number of experiments needed and maximize the information gained. To avoid future instances, document your experiments well, maybe with the help of an electronic lab notebook .
The Waiting Setback
In an ideal world, everything you need to do your experiments would be at your fingertips, but sadly, this is rarely the case. Materials take time to be delivered, equipment has waiting lists, and people can be hard to get ahold of. That period of waiting can really kill motivation – if you let it.
How to deal
First, look harder. You’d be surprised what you can find by trying other suppliers, asking around, or making new friends in other labs. If you’ve exhausted these sources and still find yourself with no option but to wait, take the opportunity to pursue a side project. This can keep your motivation up and maybe lead to something very interesting.
Hangups – internal demotivators
The Tunnel Vision Hangup
Your latest results are confusing. They don’t fit well with the theory you’ve been basing your research on. You decide the undergrad student who did the experiment for you must have made a mistake. You repeat the experiment yourself, but get the same results. There must be a problem with the reagents, so you order new ones. You try again and again but nothing seems to work; the results are always the same.
How to deal
At some point, it’s time to try looking in another direction. As researchers, we try to be as objective as possible, but there are far too many facts available to observe them all; we have to decide what’s worth observing. What we decide to observe is determined by what we value, which in research, is based on our hypotheses. Pirsig’s suggestion: staring. Look at your experiments, look at your results, and let your mind wander. Think creatively . By giving your thoughts some freedom, you can venture off into new directions (maybe this is why our best ideas seem to occur in the strangest places ).
The Fear of Failure Hangup
You have an idea (yay!), but you’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong, you’re afraid to do anything at all. Instead, you sit at your desk meta-dissertating  and compulsively checking facebook. This hangup is especially common for new grad students and, from what I hear, those writing their dissertations. Procrastination is often the result of a low expectancy of success , so to get working, you need to get over this fear.
How to deal
Plan and visualize your experiments carefully to work through your anxiety. When needed, do the relevant reading – the key word being “relevant.” But there will come a time when you just have to jump in and do it. You will make mistakes, but pay attention and you’ll learn from them. Eventually, you’ll become more comfortable with the experiments (and watching them fail), and this hangup should fade.
The Bored and Impatient Hangup
Your experiments are boring. Mind-numbingly dull, really. Your mind starts to drift, you lose focus and… oops, now you have to start over. The next day, you repeat the experiment and not only is it boring, it also takes longer than you expected. You’re supposed to meet your friends for drinks, so rather than waiting, you get impatient and end it early – a choice that shows itself in the results.
How to deal
My favourite way to deal with this type of boredom is to put on music. It keeps the part of my mind that needs to be interested busy while the rest of it can focus on what needs to be done. Also, get a good night’s sleep  (but should that fail, there’s always coffee – a grad student’s best friend). Try slowing down and focusing on the details of the experiment. A great sense of accomplishment can come from doing a simple job well. To avoid getting impatient, schedule extra time for your experiments and either you’ll be pleasantly surprised when they finish early or you’ll have enough time to get them done properly.
The list of gumption traps in research is practically endless, but so is the list of ways we get over them. What are your strategies for dealing with low motivation?