Losing Hope During Your PhD: Finding Motivation to Do Your Research


Many of us have been there, or almost there: you’ve finished your coursework, you feel a sense of accomplishment about finishing your coursework, then you probably have exams and you struggle a bit to prepare for those……then when those are done you have to begin your research. It may seem like the current sense of accomplishment is jarred by the next phase of the process coming at you. You start to feel like this odyssey is dragging out longer, and longer, and you are growing older – more gray hairs, you are gaining a few extra pounds, and you are feeling the pressure of time to just get this thing done!  (You might want to check out this great post on meeting your goals during your PhD once you are done reading. It will be perfect for you!)

You choose a dissertation topic and start doing a literature review. You may think you have a good research question, then you discover your question has been examined thoroughly by other researchers. You are thinking you should find a new research question. You run your research question by your committee chair, and they want you to make some major changes. So you are back to drawing board again. Before long, you are exhausted, sometime even before you have completed your first chapter, and you want to put it aside for a while; then “for a while” becomes months and you dread restarting the process again.

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. This is part of 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.

Of course, this is not the sequence of events for every PhD student, but almost all PhD students have had those moments when they ask “is this really worth it?” Quitting may cross their mind at any stage, but it is at that ABD (all but dissertation) stage that a good percentage of PhD students give up; and this is a crying shame because they have gotten so far. Why quit when you have invested so much into this project of getting your PhD? ABD is not PhD.

This post will provide some suggestions Dave and I have for getting your research done and it will recommend things you can do to avoid losing hope during the dissertation phase of your doctoral program. We hope these tips will convince you that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that, yes, it is worth it!

Here is Dave’s vlog on finding hope and motivation during your dissertation process. A lot of what he discusses has to do with emotions and feeling more connected with others facing the same challenges and frustrations.  

Write something each day

It is so important to just write something each day. In the beginning of the dissertation proposal process this may mean putting together an annotated reference list for your literature review or writing an outline for the first chapter. It might also mean just rambling in writing. Start writing your thoughts and ideas about your research question and hypotheses. You can even write about what you think the literature will establish and not establish, then shape up this material after you have more fully reviewed the literature.

Here is a great video about how to complete your thesis: A page a day is a book a year

Write down some preliminary research questions and hypotheses. You can always change them later after you decide what kind of research design to use or learn more about what other researchers have found on this topic. Just down some ideas for a research study design. Talk to your dissertation chair or another faculty member about your design ideas Just write something at the beginning of the process, and throughout, and you will feel a release. The mental blockage will loosen, and your fingers will start moving across the keyboard.

Talk to your dissertation committee

When you are in the dissertation phase you will have a committee of faculty charged with reviewing and approving your proposal and then the writeup and discussion of your research findings. Ideally, the committee is there to guide and support you. If you are hitting a roadblock talk to your chair about what it is you are unable to get past or think through clearly. They should be able to help you. If you do not feel comfortable talking to your chair, you may want to find a new chair. You may actually feel more comfortable talking to one of the other committee members or an outside reader. Go to them with your challenges and talk it through over coffee.

Get a tutor or coach

Do not spend an obscene amount of money that you do not have on an academic tutor or coach, but meeting with someone a few times could help. If you feel are you are at a standstill with your committee and the advice faculty are giving does not make sense to you or is difficult to implement, have someone help you organize your next steps and your thoughts. I have provided tutoring services to doctoral students and they have said how my help was the difference between getting their dissertation done and not getting it done. They just needed a sounding board to move forward with their ideas and help them formulate their thoughts about conclusions that can or cannot be drawn from the literature. Some students needed some technical help in running their analyses and understanding what the data was telling them. A tutor or coach is not there to write anyone for you, but to guide you, help you organized your thoughts, and or some light editing. Of course, if you hire someone to do some of your writing for you that is unethical and could get you kicked out of your program (and it should).

Write down what you are feeling

Dave recommends writing down what you are feeling or the blockage you are dealing with. Write about any personal problems you are having that are impacting your research and writing. This will help you understand what is holding you back and what issues in your personal life you may need to resolve before moving forward with your research. This can be a kind of diary or a recording of what you were feeling as you moved through the last phase of your PhD program. What doubts did you have? What gave you anxiety or made you feel anxious? This type of written reflection can help you identify emotional blocks, doubts, and worries so you can work on moving past these doubts and blockages and confidently move toward completing your dissertation.

Some people experience impostor syndrome throughout their doctoral program or especially when working on their dissertation. They feel that they are somehow faking their way through the program, are not as smart as others in the program, and truly do not belong there. They ask themselves “am I really worthy of this degree…. those other people are smarter and the true intellects and I’m just faking it.” These feelings could be in part the result of conditioned thinking about what people in the group you identify with (e.g. ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation) can or cannot achieve. If you recognize patterns in your doubts or feelings of anxiety talking to a friend or therapist about these deep seated, perhaps unconscious until now, blocks could really help you break through and move forward in your program and with your research.

Join a support group

You may feel very alone during the research and writing process because no one else or very people have investigated your research question before. Dave said he had a lot of negative emotions such as frustration when working on his dissertation and often felt alone because no one else had studies his research question. He even felt anger at times. He said what gave him hope was knowing there were others around the world who were going through the same process and experiencing some of the same emotions.

Watch this video about developing PhD colleagues: Growing a group of academic coworkers during your PhD journey

Connect with others who are in the same place as you in their doctoral program, especially those who are at the beginning of the dissertation phase. This may mean joining an online group or organization for PhD students in your field, or joining a writing support group, or forming one, for PhD students in your field at your university. In such a group you can meet online, or even in person if possible, to share your concerns, challenges, and fears. You might even share ideas or get feedback on your writing.  

Don’t let your emotions get in the way

Dave says, “The biggest reason why people lose hope that they can complete a research project is because they let their emotions get in the way of completing the project. Just keep doing the work, and your PhD project will finish itself.” This is so true. During many different types of writing projects many of us have experience emotional writer’s block. It is not just that you do not know how to get started with your writing, or what to write, but your emotions hijack the entire process. Your emotions start to tell you that it is not worth the effort, you will never break through, you will never get this done, and so forth.

Depression may set in because these emotions are bullying your logical brain into thinking you just cannot do it. Push these emotions aside or try to harness them into a useful driving force for writing. Take a meditation break if your emotions get out of control. Go for a walk, play with your kids or pets, or listen to some music. Get out of that trap of emotions and return to a state of equilibrium. Emotions cannot rule in this process— your amazing logical mind and brain must take charge! Of course, if you cannot shake your feelings of sadness or hopelessness make an appointment with a mental health professional.

Go out and talk to people

Dave says just go out and talk to people. When you are working on research you can feel very isolated and your emotions and wandering thoughts can get the best of you. Go out and take a walk. Talk to neighbors. Talk to the grocery store cashier. Call a friend. Do on online meeting with friends or colleagues. Just talking and interacting with people can help you get out of your own head.

Keep your eye on the prize

Keep going, because there is a big prize at the end of this process and that is your PhD. Think about the knowledge that you will be adding to the field. It may seem like an obscure or very narrow area of research right now, and it may be, but you will be adding knowledge about this very narrow topic that would not have come to light if not for your research. The entire point of a dissertation is to add to the body of research. Once you do that, you deserve the recognition that should come with having a PhD.

I believe that the proposal phase can be the most difficult because you are narrowing your research question and making a hypothesis. You are anxious about whether you are choosing the right topic and whether you want to be wedded to this topic for a while – perhaps even your entire career. If you are stuck in choosing a research topic one thing you might do is look back at papers you completed during the coursework phase and see if you are interested in gaining more knowledge about a particular topic or were particularly stimulating in learning and writing about that topic.

After you defend your proposal all you have to do is run the analyses and interpret your findings. That does not sound like a small feat, but this phase brings everything else you have worked so hard on to a conclusion. The analysis is what you have been working toward for a while (maybe years) and whatever you find is what you report. It is as simple as that. If you need help with the technical part of your research, you can always hire a statistician. You can also hire a research assistant to help you compile data into tables.

Once you defend your proposal you are almost home free. DO NOT STOP THERE. Being ABD is not being a PhD. You have invested too much and time and money into the program. Get it done and move on! The awesome thing about getting past the proposal phase as well is that once you analyze the data you can move onto developing manuscripts for publication. Do not do this though until you are well into the process of analyzing the data and writing up findings. Do no get sidetracked with manuscripts until you are finished with a draft of your findings and discussion and well on your way to defending.

Watch Dave’s vlog on being ABD:

Watch more reciprocity.com videos and read our blog

Reciprocity.com is here to help you find hope during your graduate and doctoral student career. Dave says he is this random guy on the internet who talks about the process of getting a graduate or doctoral degree and his here for you. He does this so you know you are not crazy and that others are dealing with the same issues and challenges. Feel free to comment on his videos or on our blog posts, and Dave will find the time to reply. You might be interested in checking out the following blog posts if you are in the dissertation phase of your program:

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