Finding motivation to study

Ask yourself why you want a graduate degree and share this with your supervisor 

Your supervisor or other experienced academics can help you to put your motivation, character, and experience in the context of successful graduate students. Defining your motivation can help you and your supervisor to work together.


Consider why you chose to undertake your graduate degree. It may be helpful to discuss these questions with a friend, fellow student, your supervisor, or a professor.

  • What led you to apply for graduate studies?

  • 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 graduate degree?

  • How will a graduate degree help you to achieve your long-term goals?

Define your goals

Ambiguous or overly-ambitious goals can be discouraging. Make your goals specific, and break them into smaller, achievable subgoals. Your supervisor can help you decide on reasonable goals, but it is important to share your motivations and reasoning behind each goal to help them to help you.

You could also read the relevant parts of this Ministerial statement on quality assurance of degree education in Canada. It characterizes the major differences between the bachelor’s, 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.

Why did you choose this topic?

Is it the project that is so appealing? Are you 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.


Reasons: Why are you doing this degree? How does each task take you one step closer to completing your degree? What do you hope to gain from this?

Setting Goals: If you set goals, how will you remember them? Do you need to write your goals down? Will you display them on your desk or wall, somewhere you can see them everyday?

Make it fun: How can you make your work more fun? Do you like working in an environment with sunlight, cool art, comfortable chairs, cute pets, or pleasant music? Can you eat your favourite snack or sip your favourite drink while you work? Can you collaborate with friends or at least work in the same room?  

Accountability: Do you need to be accountable to someone? Do you need deadlines that either your supervisor or a friend makes sure you meet?

Rewards: It is important to recognize the progress you make and to feel good about your hard work. How do you reward yourself for meeting a goal, subgoal, or deadline? Do you celebrate small accomplishments? Does having a reward at the end motivate you to complete your work?

How do others explain their motivation to do research?

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.” (STEM PhD student: McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2015)

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]. (STEM PhD student: McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2015)

There are many factors that influence students’ motivation. The 2012-2013 McGill-wide supervision survey revealed, for example, that supervisors’ funding and expectations influence students’ motivation to work on their 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 a 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.


Why students enrol in graduate studies

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, Atkinson, & Parry, 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 psychology of motivation

Psychologists generally differentiate between two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is driven by internal rewards wherein one’s desire to engage in a behaviour is motivated by oneself. Examples include a desire for personal improvement, pride, or to feel accomplished. Extrinsic motivation is driven by external rewards wherein one’s desire to engage in a behaviour is motivated by others or symbols of recognition. Examples include a desire to impress your supervisor, avoid public failure, obtain a degree, or receive a monetary award. Intrinsic motivation is generally considered to be the stronger motivator because it is inherent in one’s character and does not rely on other people or outside factors to inspire motivation. Graduate students should consider what intrinsic motivation they have to complete their work, and if necessary, consider using extrinsic motivation to complete tasks or assignments – try rewarding yourself with a night out with friends, watching a movie, or going out for dinner.

There are three psychological needs associated with self-motivation (Kirkland, Karlin, Babkis Stalino, & Pulos, 2011).

  1. Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives

  2. Mastery/Competence: The desire to get better and succeed at something we care about

  3. Relatedness: The wish to connect with others or act in service of something larger than ourselves

Graduate students should seek to increase their feelings of autonomy, mastery, and relatedness to stay motivated throughout their degree. While the large amount of autonomy and independence granted to graduate students can initially be overwhelming, with time graduate students become more comfortable with their self-determination. A desire for mastery/competence is common among graduate students – in fact, many graduate students experience the Imposter Syndrome, a feeling that they don’t belong in their graduate program. It is important to remember that being accepted to into a graduate program indicates a great deal of competence in the field; graduate students are extremely competent in their field and a sense of mastery comes with time. Relatedness is something can be hard to feel as a graduate student because you often work alone and away from the field. Try to connect with people in your field as often as possible– meet with your supervisor, discuss your topic with your friends, tell your family about your research, or search for an online community. It is easy to feel isolated when working in a specialized field but remember that there are lots of people interested in your research and many others out there who are working in your field. Remind yourself how your research helps other people and keep the big picture in mind.



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).

Kirkland, R. A., Karlin, N. J., Babkes Stellino, M., Pulos, S. (2011). Basic psychological needs satisfaction, motivation, and exercise in older adults. Activities, Adaptation & Aging, 35, 181-196. doi:10.1080/01924788.2011.596764

Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. S. (2000). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (3rd ed). Buckingham: Open University Press.

Further Reading

Learning Strategies, Student Academic Success Services. (2013). Maintaining motivation in graduate school. Kingston, ON: Queen’s University.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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