Motivation is one of the crucial points in the doctoral process. Not only one’s own attitude plays a role, but also external factors. There are mental ups and downs throughout the entire process. We have summarized ten challenges for you and give you a few tips on how you can overcome them or at least show you other ways of looking at things.

1.intrinsic interest vs. external motivation

Or: Why do I want to get this PhD?

It starts even before you start the doctoral process. Whether writing the dissertation will be a constant struggle or relatively easy depends on the initial motivation. Do you want to become a doctor because scientific work excites you and you have always wanted to work on a completely new topic in depth? Or have professors recommended this path to you because it seems to suit you quite well? Do you have to do a doctorate because it is indispensable for your planned career? Is everyone in your family a doctor or no one and you urgently need to be the first? Whatever your reasons may be, ask yourself the question: Why do I want to be a doctor? If you follow an intrinsic interest, you will enjoy doing a doctorate.

2.own narcissism vs. reality

Or: What expectations do I have of myself?

A doctoral thesis is a doctoral thesis and will usually not change the world, but will contribute to a larger whole. If it weren’t for one’s own narcissism… Because in one’s mind, every doctoral student is just working on the big picture and expects absolute perfection from oneself. When the ideal and the reality collide during the doctoral process, the motivation dwindles. Ideally, your initial motivation should not be the Nobel Prize, which would be very ambitious. Be clear about what it means to do a doctorate.

3. What you can do today…

Or: What is procrastination?

Many PhD students work on the side or lack the right toolbox to proceed in a structured way. Apart from that, a dissertation is written over three to five years. As a result, you have to keep familiarizing yourself with the individual work packages, such as the state of the art. This can be tedious and requires constant re-motivation. Not without reason there is a technical word for it: procrastination. People like to put off to-dos until tomorrow, next week or next month. Especially when it comes to work packages that are rather dry or “Sisyphus work”, like literature references. The mountain gets bigger and bigger and the motivation dwindles.

Just do it. Bite your way through. This increases the motivation immensely. You feel good because it is done.

4. self-perception vs. external perception

Or: How do I deal with feedback and criticism from the supervisor?

The doctoral supervisor or the doctoral mother have an influence on motivation. The interpersonal plays an important role. You present your interim results, are proud of yourself and receive rather mediocre feedback? That’s it for motivation. Your doctoral advisor is also your boss? Well, then it is clear that your work performance is also included in the evaluation of your research project? Your supervisor asks you to take on additional tasks? Yes, of course, you are happy to do that, because you don’t want to upset him. There is pressure and uncertainty. How far are you allowed to go? What has what influence? Are you allowed to ask for support?

It is like with any other person. Doctoral advisors are only human. Sometimes they are in a better mood, sometimes in a worse mood. They are sometimes better and sometimes worse prepared. Are in some topics more than in others. Pick up your counterpart at the beginning of every conversation. Give a short summary and an agenda, so that everyone has the opportunity to get involved. Be as specific as possible and articulate your ideas for the conversation. With the proper preparation, the conversation should go well. If the conclusion is not satisfactory, address your disappointment openly and factually and resolve the disagreement right away; this will also create better interpersonal relations and understanding on both sides.

5. climb a mountain

Or: Which way is it?

You see the goal – at the top, on the mountain, it is far away. Especially at the beginning, the goal sometimes seems unreachably big and far away. That’s why it’s important to set milestones right at the beginning and celebrate reaching them. Otherwise, you quickly get the impression that there is still an infinite amount ahead of you and easily fall into panic. Panic, however, is a killer for motivation. Because of biochemical processes in the body, fear paralyzes creativity and performance – you fall into a low.

6. serpentine lines and courses

Or: Does this path really lead to the goal?

Unfortunately, the path to the top is not a straight one. How could it be? After all, you are the first to walk it. There are many dead ends, crossings, muddy paths and sometimes unnecessary turns waiting for you. It can happen that you get lost and then? – Back to start. Quite depressing. Critically question the paths you have taken. Ask yourself the following question: Does this path really lead to the goal? This way you can unmask wrong paths at an early stage.

7.the classic

Or: Why is everything else more exciting right now?

Even without panic, with a roadmap, milestones and the right initial motivation, every doctoral student has to struggle with the classic motivational difficulties. Actually, the sun is shining, actually I want to see friends, actually I want to go to the lake, … Excuses are quickly made. The desk has to be tidied up first, there’s an important meeting to be held and perhaps the spam folder should be emptied first. The doctorate places the highest demands on self-discipline and self-organization. Set fixed working hours and create a pleasant working atmosphere. Clean up your workspace when you’re done and avoid distractions like phone calls, messages and emails.

8. writer’s block

Or: Writing down is the smallest problem – isn’t it?

PhD theses are too large to simply write down after you’ve gathered all the findings. Rather, writing should be part of the research process. Therefore, one should start writing down one’s research findings as early as possible and continue the process of writing continuously. In this way, one avoids one day being confronted with a huge collection of material that then, in its abundance, is so seemingly impossible to put down on paper. Moreover, many underestimate the act of writing. Formulation, grammar and a common thread are often greater challenges than expected.

9. abundance of knowledge

Or: This can still go in, right?

The goal seems clear and so does the path. But the doctorate is also a learning process. You acquire knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more obvious the lack of knowledge becomes. Again and again you become aware of the gaps in your knowledge – not only your own, but also those of others, those of science. One doctoral topic quickly becomes three. Because somehow everything has to be included. Consciously limit yourself to a sensible scope. A dissertation covers a gap in research and can give an outlook on others. However, you cannot answer all open research questions in this one thesis, otherwise your doctorate will become a nerver ending story.

10.grow personally

Or: Why is it still so hard?

Tips and other perspectives are all well and good, but in the end, the work still sticks to you. That’s right. A doctorate is not only about developing yourself in an academic field, but also about growing personally through this challenge. You develop your own strategies for dealing with frustration and reluctance and overcoming fears of failure. No one can take this job off your hands. Try to see it in a positive light. What you learn during the process, no one can take away from you. It’s a tough school that will help you grow personally.

No one said it would be easy. Our experience shows that every PhD student reaches his or her personal limits during the dissertation – several times. Motivation depends on so many factors. With the right intrinsic motivation, it won’t be easy either, but it will be easier.