Blog: Maintaining Motivation by Dr Sara Shinton

Dr Sara Shinton

Dr Sara Shinton

Sara is the Head of Researcher Development and Assistant Director of the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh

I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to contribute to the SGSSS Cohort Building Programme this month. The student pitches and presentations demonstrated huge impact and productivity on their projects but also demonstrated the challenge of doing a PhD. I was asked to share some thoughts on maintaining motivation to acknowledge the challenge and give some insights into how to keep my own motivation going.

I’ll start the blog as I started the presentation – by being clear about how difficult it can be to stay motivated at times. I describe myself as a “work in progress” at all the presentations I’m asked to give about professional and personal development, particularly those with a focus on productivity. Ahem.

For those who weren’t at the event , I am Dr Sara Shinton, Head of Researcher Development and my role at UoE is to oversee our training programmes for researchers at all levels. I’m also a researcher on an EPSRC funded Inclusion Matters project, Evidence Base (link: https://evidencebase.org.uk/) looking at academic culture and leadership of large strategic projects.

Rather than claiming there are universal rules of motivation, I’ll start with some insights that help me understand where my struggles with motivation come from

  • I know I work best under approaching deadlines, but really struggle to motivate myself without time pressure
  • I’ve deliberately chosen a challenging role (and add to that challenge regularly with new projects) which means progress can be slow and hard

These insights have come from a mix of experience, profiling tools and feedback. Although I don’t agree with everything that the tools report, there’s enough in them to be helpful. If you want to feel more motivated, I’d encourage you to reflect on your own drivers and barriers. One image used in my presentation was of the stressors associated with my MBTI type (link http://www.cppblogcentral.com/assets/stress-heads/esfp-stress-head.html) which include not being appreciated, having uncertainty about purpose and working without flexibility.

I asked the researchers at the programme a few reflective questions to help them understand their motivation

  • What naturally drives you?
  • What baggage do you always carry?
  • What enables motivation?

My next point was the motivation is built when we find “footholds”. Mine include

  • Clarity of objectives – knowing what to do
  • Having the power to do the work – being able to do it without seeking approval or permission
  • Clear, immovable deadlines – externally imposed as I am not a natural “finisher”
  • Working on tasks where my value is obvious
  • Others depending on me (although this can create problems if these demands grow)

Another reflective question:

What external milestones or deadlines will help you to keep going when motivation dips?

It’s vital to remember how difficult it can be to stay motivated when things are uncertain. I was reminded of this in 2018 when I got trapped in Edinburgh by the weather for four days. Although I could have used this time to catch up on writing, make progress on a proposal and be productive, I found it impossible to work. The uncertainty of not knowing when I would get home (bearing in mind I was safe, warm and being well looked after by a hospitable friend) completely corroded my motivation.  By doing a PhD you are jumping into uncertainty. If this paralyses you, seek support and build certainty by remembering what you know and how you’ve grown and developed.

Another tip from my own thesis writing days was to break tasks down into things that are possible to plan and possible to finish on short timescales. The more demotivated I am, the smaller the bites I need to take (I remember motivating myself to write just one sentence at one point when writing my thesis.) If I have to write, I now use the pomodoro technique (link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique) which strictly times focused bursts, with regular breaks. By breaking things down you also build a memory of small achievements to silence the voices which may whisper disparagingly about your ability to succeed. And whilst we on that, make sure you celebrate your successes to reinforce those memories.

Motivation and resilience are strongly linked, but rather than adding more here, I’m going to share the two resources that I drew my suggestions from. Don’t be put off by the intended audiences (physicists and research staff). They are relevant to PhDs in social scientists.

The Institute of Physics Resilience Toolkit https://www.iop.org/careers/resources-for-members/file_68925.pdf

The UoE Guide to Thriving in your Research Position: https://www.ed.ac.uk/institute-academic-development/research-roles/research-only-staff/career-management/thriving-in-your-research-position

As always, an audience of researchers adds more value than it takes so I’ll include some thoughts on a question and a comment.

How regular should deadlines be?

For this we discussed the role of the supervisor and regular meetings, perhaps monthly although this should be agreed and be flexible to the demands of the project. Meetings are deadlines and should be used to demonstrate progress and discuss challenges and choices. They will be more effective if everyone involved in engaged and prepared so many supervisors will ask for written work or an agenda in advance.

Motivation through debate

One researcher commented on the motivating impact of debate and disagreement. They were most motivated when their ideas were challenged by their supervisor which made them go away and think about how to present them better. This is a great example which illustrates how important it is to understand your own preferences. For me, debates with my supervisor were so difficult that I stopped suggesting ideas for much of my PhD. Only when he expressed disappointment with another student for not being interested in debate or working together to develop ideas did I realise this is what he was trying to do for me. I overcame my aversion to disagreement and started to develop the skills to defend and explain my ideas which I needed for my viva.

Some final points to finish

  • Remember what you’re aiming for and why
  • Equip yourself to deliver success
  • Protect your time and energy
  • Knowing your skills and strengths and use them
  • Manage your weaknesses
  • Take responsibility, but use support

Good luck and be kind to yourself!

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