Finding Motivation to Complete Your PhD

Finding Motivation to Complete Your PhD

A PhD is one of, if not the biggest, single pieces of work an individual will ever undertake. It takes an extreme amount of dedication, perseverance and naivety to start and then finish one. It can also be a time of your life full of other big decisions such as getting your first home (or building it), getting married (or making a similar long-term commitment to a relationship) and having children.

For many it is also their first major employment commitment. Until that point, they have held part time jobs. Although they have had a boss or supervisor, their interaction has been interspersed with other social and educational activities. Now, as a PhD student you’re getting used to behaving like an employee, but often treated like a student.

For some, it all becomes too much. They take the tough decision to discontinue. Depending on who or what you read, as much as 35% of all enrolees will discontinue their PhD.

For those who make it towards the end of their PhD – say within 12 to 18 months of completion – two thirds are still uncertain about what they will do beyond their PhD. Once again, the data are helpful here – two thirds end up in a post-doc the other third move into non-research roles. And, after ten years, only 10% of all PhD graduates will end up as academics.

So, if the majority are uncertain about what they want to do after their PhD. And 90% aren’t academics in ten years, how do you keep your motivation up for so long?

For me, it was three things:

  1. Understand why –I did not start my PhD with an altruistic goal of curing cancer, or saving the world/environment, helping those in need or fixing a wicked problem. Thus, for me, the motivation was mostly about having fun. Enjoying gathering new knowledge. Exploring the art of science. The former is one of the things that I loved most about research. The idea that you might be the only person, or one of a handful of people in the entire world that knows what it is you have just discovered (significant or not). If I ever felt like things were getting tough, I could often go back to that.
  2. Accountability – I told key people in my life that I wanted to complete a PhD and why. Thus, when the going got tough, they reminded me of what I was doing and why. A key part of this was being true to myself and my supervisor, being clear that the academic path was not going to be my end game.
  3. Keep it fun – As researchers we take ourselves pretty seriously. Our work is serious. The problems we are researching are serious. The solutions are serious. But there are moments when you have to make it fun. So, we would have races to get the most amount of work done in a day. Work could be anything; words written, journal articles read, dishes cleaned, tip-boxes filled, data points or samples analysed. Anything could be turned into a race. The stakes were high; the winner could allocate their lab chores to the looser, a round of coffee (or beer), or even lunch.

Even now, I use these three things to propel me forward when I’m finding work tough.


Raven Consulting Group specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His strategic approach to collaboration and research translation has been making the impossible possible for more than seven years. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality. To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email ( or subscribe to our newsletter.

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