How do I Motivate Myself to Finish my Thesis or Dissertation? Tips for Getting Motivated When You Want to Quit


Some graduate or doctoral students who are in the incredibly challenging thesis or dissertation phase of their degree program have had thoughts about quitting. Doctoral students, in particular, who are moving into their third, fourth, or even tenth (yes, I’ve heard those stories too) year of doctoral studies may begin to lose hope that they will ever finish. They may have aspired to a career in academia as a researcher or professor since college, and now are on the precipice of finishing their program, but the motivation is gone; or life has simply encroached upon their ability to finish the journey they embarked on so many years ago. If you are one of the many graduate or doctoral students who have had thoughts about quitting, do not despair because you are not alone.   

It may not even be that you are concretely thinking about quitting, rather it simply may be that life has slowed you down. It has become more and more difficult to close the deal as family and work responsibilities grow. Your thesis or dissertation is hanging over you like a never-ending whisper …” you have to do it, it’s not done, do it…….” You want to get it done but just cannot seem to find the time, and yes, sometimes the motivation.

The director of the doctoral program at my school said that generally one third of doctoral students never complete their dissertation, mainly because life has gotten in the way. I think about all the talented students I completed coursework with, and it makes me sad that some of them will not get the recognition they deserve because they were no longer able to fit doctoral studies, and specifically writing their dissertation, into their life.

Another reason some graduate and doctoral students lose motivation is they simply feel they no longer need the degree. Perhaps another professional opportunity has come along that is something they have always wanted to do or is particularly promising in terms of career advancement and pay. These folks may say to themselves, “this is what I have always wanted, so why do I need this degree? I have a new position or career that is rewarding and does not require this degree, so why spend any more time pursing it?”

There are many reasons why you may lack motivation or the ability to write or complete your thesis or dissertation so you can earn your degree, whether it be burnout, lack of continued interest in your topic, suddenly realizing you do not need the degree, or that life has simply gotten in the way (read more about these specific reasons below). But there are things you can do to get back on track, get your motivation back, and come to the realization that it is worth it to round the final curve and graduate.

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

The following are some reasons students lose their motivation to finish their thesis or dissertation and some tips for how they can get back on track.

Find a bit of time each day to work on your project

The first tip is less about motivation and more about simply finding the time to get started, keep moving forward, and to complete your thesis or dissertation. Find at least fifteen to twenty minutes a day reading, researching, outlining, or doing other small tasks that will help you move toward the critical task of writing your thesis or dissertation. There is so much to do before writing such as reviewing articles for your literature review, developing survey instruments, outlining your project, or collecting data, so try to get these tasks done in small increments.

Taking the time to do the smaller tasks of preparing to write your thesis or dissertation can be snuck in at odd times such as while waiting to see a doctor, while you are on hold with someone, while you are using public transportation, at the very end or beginning of each day, while the kids are finally amusing themselves for fifteen minutes, while you are waiting for the casserole to finish baking, etc. There are fifteen to twenty minutes in each day that you can find to do something to move your project forward.

Develop a plan

As you get more and more done with your fifteen to twenty minutes each day you will have broken the ice, the logjam, the writer’s block, the resistance -whatever you want to call it. You are THINKING and PLANNING and that makes whatever comes next easier. You will find yourself on a roll at times and spending more than your allotted fifteen to twenty minutes a day doing these smaller tasks or even writing. You may get less sleep a few nights due to the momentum you find yourself experiencing, but that is ok, it will not kill you. As you get more and more preparation for writing done, develop a plan for moving into the heavier writing phase. Think about whether you can take a day off her and there to work on your project. Having a straight 7 or 8 hours a day to write uninterrupted, here and there, will really get you going. Also, perhaps develop a goal for when you want to get each chapter of your project done by.

Do not catastrophize

Everyone gets stuck or stumped along the way of writing their thesis or dissertation. Do not make it into this insurmountable hurdle that you cannot get past. When you are feeling frustrated, do not know which direction to go in next, or feel that you have taken a wrong turn, put your work away for a few days. You will calm down; THEN contact your chair or a mentor and talk through what is challenging you. They will help you move forward productively.

Find supportive peers and ignore the naysayers

Talking to others in the same boat as you can help you feel like you are not alone in your lack of motivation, and as a group of colleagues, you can come up with ways to motivate each other. My doctoral program’s director setup a writing challenge where students work on their dissertation for half hour each day and share their accomplishments on a discussion board with others in the group. A group like this can help you keep a routine and find the inspiration and motivation to keep going.

The second part of this tip is to ignore the naysayers and those who would question why you are pursing this degree. Do not listen to those would urge you to quit. Quit only if you really want to, not because others want you to. If you do not have the strength to reject the negativity and naysayers, quitting may be the best thing for your to do, but most of you will keep going despite what others say because you truly care about your research, your field, and accomplishing what you set out to do. Listen to Dave talking for a few minutes about how easy it is, and important, to reject the negativity and keep going.  

Think about the money

You really should, because you have spent a lot of money on courses and you really should get the degree to make the investment worthwhile. Why spend so much money only to be ABD the rest of your life? Also, if you think you already have the promotion or career opportunity that you want and do not need the degree (especially a graduate degree) think twice. Down the line the degree could open even more doors, help you increase your earning, and gain more respect in the field. With a PhD you will be viewed as someone who can do research and who is an independent worker and thinker.

Think about how far you have come

This gets to some of the core principles of motivation. You have accomplished so much in completing your coursework and getting through the comprehensive exam process if your program has one. There is one more step toward earning your degree, and it is critical and important step toward earning that degree. Completing a thesis or dissertation shows that you can work independently on a major research project and contribute knowledge to your field. It is key display of your adherence to the scientific process and that you have master of specific research methods. Do not accept the attitude that completing a thesis or dissertation does not matter and that having the coursework on your resume is what counts. When you complete a thesis or dissertation you have then truly earned your degree, and people will respect you for the work you have put into your venture.   

Do it for the love of your discipline

If you truly find your area of study fascinating you should have a lot of the natural motivation to complete your degree. Some students in this phase may realize they are simply not that interested in their field of study, or specific research topic, anymore. That is a problem, but not insurmountable. If you have decided you want to completely abandon the field you are in because you are skeptical that it truly makes a difference or matters, talk to colleagues, mentors, and professors. Everyone has some doubt now and then about giving so much to such a narrow topic or field of study, but experienced professionals in the field can help you see the big picture of why your work matters. Also, remember that you are not wedded to your thesis or dissertation topic forever. Many graduates move away from the topic they studied for their capstone project towards a different area of study they are more interested in, after graduating, and do so with ease and satisfaction.

Choose a new research topic/question if you need to

If you are really not that into the research question you originally chose for your thesis or dissertation, choose a different one. It’s best to choose a new research question under the same general subject area so you can use some of your literature review, but by all means, go in a different direction with the research question. You are not too far along in the process if still in the proposal phase and choosing a new topic may be just the thing to help you get motivated again.

Get a writing coach

Others might call it tutoring, but what coaching or tutoring can do for you is provide you with the support you need to keep going. A good coach can help you through writing blocks and research problems. You may not have the spare change to meet with them as frequently as you would like to, but even a meeting here and there can help you gain clarity and get moving. Personally, I have helped several students who would have otherwise given up if not for the support I provided them. You can find writing tutors/coaches through tutoring website, freelancing sites, or by searching for writing/dissertation coaches.

Stay involved with the r3ciprocity community  

Dave has established a wonderful community where people can get writing support, share ideas, get motived, view informative videos, and read blogs like this one. The blog and vlog sites truly have a wealth of information and advice about academia, being a student, choosing the right direction, how to deal with challenges as a student, getting motivated, solving research challenges and obstacles, etc. Personally, I have benefited greatly from watching and viewing vlogs and blogs produced by Dave and his team of writers, and from writing some posts myself.

Stick with r3ciprocity community to get your motivation back. Check out these other short motivational vlogs Dave recorded for the community:

Today Is The Right Day. | #motivation To Get Started. – YouTube

The bottom line

There are many ways recapture the motivation you need to finish your thesis or dissertation. You may even want to talk to your committee about the challenges you are facing in making progress or finding motivation. They are not there to check in on you regularly and make sure you are making progress, but they do care and may be able to help you with creating a plan for moving forward. Some schools set deadlines for completing a thesis or dissertation, while others may let students take as much time as they need (one piece of advice – don’t take ten years). If you are charged for each semester that you are working on your dissertation, this could be a motivator to get it done as well!

The keys to motivation are to look at how far you have come and how much you have already invested in terms of time and money and to ask yourself if the benefits of quitting really outweigh the rewards of finishing. Also, seek the support and encouragement of peers if your program is not so competitive that people are hesitant to do so (quite unfortunate if that is the case). Also, stick with the r3ciprocity community for extra motivation and support!

If you enjoyed this blog, you may want to check out some of these other posts on blog.r3ciprocity.com  

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