Staying on track

Motivation to complete a graduate degree should come from within 

Self-motivation is key to making progress and avoiding delays as a graduate student. While the motivation to complete a degree should come from within, this does not mean that students should face the challenges of a graduate degree without support. Relationships with supervisors, peers, mentors, friends, family, and community are key to maintaining motivation over the long term. Goal setting and accountability (whether through tools like annual progress tracking or through regular meetings with the supervisor) renew self-motivation by highlighting progress.

Set specific goals and break them into achievable sub-goals.

What led you to apply for graduate studies?

What are your long term goals, and how will the degree you’re pursuing help you achieve those goals?

Ambiguous or overly-ambitious goals can be discouraging. Having too many goals at one time can also hinder your progress. It is much more motivating to experience significant progress in a few areas that align with your priorities than to try to “do it all”.

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. Consider using your Individual Development Plan (IDP), your Letter of Understanding (LOU), and annual progress tracking to align your goals and program milestones.


Stay in communication with your supervisor

Staying in regular communication with your supervisor will go a long way to ensuring you stay on track to graduate on time. McGill services can provide additional support with writing, well-being, connecting with peers, etc. to help you stay on track.

  • Track your program milestones using myProgress: discuss program requirements with your supervisor, including the expected timelines for completing each.
  • Meet regularly with your supervisor: If your supervisor is routinely unavailable to meet with you to discuss your research, you should write to them and set a reasonable deadline for a response and for a subsequent meeting. If you do not receive a response within a reasonable time, contact your Graduate Program Director.
  • Ask for feedback: regular and constructive feedback from supervisors is key to making progress. The Feedback and Self-assessment page of this website shares tips for establishing efficient and productive feedback meetings, like preparing and agenda ahead of time that includes issues that both parties want to discuss.

Meet annually with your supervisory committee to discuss your progress

Annual graduate student progress tracking is required for doctoral students. Students share below what their first annual progress tracking meetings were like and share their advice on how to prepare:



Relationships with peers can help enhance motivation

Although supervisors are almost always willing to be helpful, they cannot be or supply your only motivation. As a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, you can meet with people at a similar stage of their education and careers to foster collegiality and a sense of being in a cohort. Setting common deadlines, motivating each other, and having a support system for academic or personal concerns can help ensure that you stay on track and decrease isolation.

Do you feel connected to other students in your lab, research group, program, department or the graduate student community in general? If not, what can you do improve this?

  • Journal clubs, writing groups, departmental student associations and interdisciplinary societies (e.g., the Post-Graduate Students' Society) are great opportunities to meet other students and foster collegiality.

Do you go to conferences, seminars, or workshops with other students? Are there any upcoming events that you would be interested in going to where you can ask a classmate or friend to join?

What motivates you?

Many graduate students will struggle at some point with motivation, especially during phases of their program where the work is highly self-directed or done in isolation (e.g., writing a thesis or dissertation).


Questions for reflection

Reflect on some common sources of motivation below and experiment to see what works for you. 

Reasons for pursuing your degree: 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?

Making 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?



An Individual Development Plan can help you reflect on the reasons you're pursuing your degree and set achievable goals. 

Graphos's Writing Commons creates a space for students to set realistic writing goals and provide one another with accountability in meeting those goals

Find additional services and resources listed on GradHub

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

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