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Finding motivation to study

Ask yourself why you want a grad degree, and tell your supervisor why.

You may or may not have the knowledge of academia and the job market to judge whether your reasons for wanting a graduate degree are "the right reasons." Your potential supervisor or other experienced academics can help you to put your motivation, character, and experience in the context of successful grad students. Defining your motivation can help you and your supervisor to work together.


In some ways, differentiating the motivation to undertake the PhD with the motivational factors required to complete the degree should begin before you begin your graduate studies. You and your potential or future supervisor, or other experienced academics who are willing to help, should consider the following questions about your motivation:

  • What has led to your application?
  • What do you view as the personal characteristics that will be critical to success?
  • What differences can you articulate between your previous educational experience and the PhD?
  • Will a PhD help you to achieve their long-term goals?

Talk with your supervisor to help define goals, because it is not easy to be motivated when your goals are ambiguous or seemingly all-inclusive. Your supervisor is also more likely to be helpful for you if she or he understands how your motivation might differ from the typical motivations of graduate students.

You could also read the relevant parts of this Ministerial statement on quality assurance of degree education in Canada [pdf]. It characterizes the major differences between the Bachelors, the Master’s, and the PhD, and could also be used as the basis for a discussion with your supervisor. See also Discussing expectations and Skills and development.

How do others explain their motivation to do research?

Is it the project that is so appealing? You might also need to consider whether you are motivated strongly enough to persist if your funding levels are low, and for how long. Although supervisors are almost always willing to be helpful, they cannot be or supply your only motivation. Most graduate students and postdoctoral fellows must learn to become more and more self-directed.


Why undertake a doctorate? While there is no recent quantitative information on doctoral students' motivation to study at McGill, qualitative information provides some insights. Students often characterized the purpose for doing the degree as intrinsically meaningful – addressing personal intellectual interests or to advance in their chosen field. Less frequently were the reasons extrinsically or economically driven, for example, getting a job or having a better salary. For instance, this student applied to her PhD program mostly because she was attracted by an ongoing research project:

I really decided to do this PhD because I saw an advertisement about a project that just really caught me.  Like I read the project and I was like, “Oh, I really want [to work on] that project.”  … This project is really for me; … it would fit my background and it would really fit the kind of thing I would love to do and I really decided to do it as … a five-year contract.  I was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do after [it] but this sounds really interesting and I’m going to take the next five years to do something I really enjoy.” 

While students usually bring intrinsic interest, some may not realize that doing doctoral research is distinct from their previous educational experience. That is, they do not understand that doing a PhD requires a long period of independent work on a project whose purpose and outcomes can be initially uncertain. As a result, some may feel under-motivated and aimless after completing the coursework. This student was reflecting on how he learned to be self-motivated:

One of the biggest things that I had to learn during my PhD was how to motivate myself to work and how to find directions for myself because my supervisor wasn’t telling me what to do …. [W]hile I was taking courses I felt … more of a routine and I knew each week what I had to do so I was used to that and then I found myself, especially doing my PhD, with just … a whole year when I didn’t have … a clear deadline. So…for somebody in my situation it is really important to learn how to get yourself motivated and working [independently].

There are many factors that influence students’ motivation. A recent university-wide survey has revealed, for example, that supervisors’ expectations and funding influence students’ motivation to work on the PhD.

I felt my supervisor's expectations were too high and because of this my motivation levels and desire to learn dropped dramatically since I saw no end in sight. I felt more like a robot forced to work all of the time instead of a student who wanted to learn new techniques.

The lack of funding seriously affected my work and motivation to do a good job. If one is worried about how to feed oneself, he will not produce quality research.

Therefore, it is a good idea that, at the very beginning of the graduate study, supervisors and students sit together to clarify expectations and discuss issues about funding.

Grad school as stalling tactic or career change

Although some students enrol in graduate school and seek to find or discover facts and truths in the process, others are motivated by an unwillingness to confront the uncertainty of the job market or by a desire to find a different kind or quality of job. Some prospective students are also unaware of typical requirements (especially the details of the thesis) and outcomes of PhD graduation.


Motivation is clearly a major factor in the progress, supervisory relationship, and outcome of the doctorate. So, why do students enrol in a research degree? Dux (2006) describes a number of reasons why students undertake doctorates. Some do it as a stalling tactic. With no clear career direction but excellent academic results, students may take the seemingly easy option of graduate work supported by a scholarship. Others start the doctorate with the idea that the university offers deep intellectual truths in which they might share. There are also those who undertake graduate work when their supervisors (or other academics) convince them of their abilities.

All this suggests that students, while motivated to undertake the degree, may not understand the nature of the actual task.

A lot of the mistakes I've made are the result of me not asking questions and people not putting me right—they presume I must know.... I didn't know the PhD was meant to be an argument, as [my supervisor] said, it’s meant to say something. I thought it was meant to be one of those old-fashioned monographs, the collection of information. When I was an undergraduate I used to think a PhD was one of those articles you get in [a journal] or something [like] that 10,000 word article. I used to think “they must be PhDs” (Delamont et al, 2000, p. 39).

For more information if this is a familiar scenario, see also the Purpose of the graduate degree page of this website.

A widely read book on “getting a PhD” is that by Phillips and Pugh (2000). In a chapter entitled "How not to get a PhD," they also explain how a lack of motivation and other factors can work against degree completion:

  1. Not really wanting one; rather wanting something else (such as a career change) that candidates mistake for a PhD.
  2. Not understanding the nature of a PhD.
  3. Overestimating what is required, i.e., it is a PhD, not a Nobel Prize!
  4. Underestimating what is required of a PhD.
  5. Losing contact with a supervisor.
  6. Not having a thesis, in the sense of an argument or position.
  7. Having a supervisor who does not know what is required.
  8. Taking a new job before completing the PhD.

The text of this page was based on:

  • Delamont, S., Atkinson, P., & Parry, O. (2000). The Doctoral experience: Success and failure in graduate school. London and New York: Falmer Press.
  • Dux, M. (2006). Quitting has its own rewards. The Australian (12 April 2006).
  • Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. S. (2000). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (3rd ed). Buckingham: Open University Press.


Acknowledgement: Original content adapted from Margaret Kiley, CEDAM, ANU. Updated by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2011. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Shuhua Chen and Joel Deshaye, April 2013.