One of the biggest challenges for PhD candidates, and any writer, is motivation. There is little external motivation beyond ‘getting this book-sized thing done’, and that deadline may be months or years away. In between are a lot of days and minutes and hours where the only thing making you write is you.
And often, you just don’t want to.
Academic writing is hard. It takes a long time. It doesn’t provide instant gratification. It doesn’t make sense to most of your friends and family. It rarely pays. You can’t look at it and see you’ve done a good job. You can’t work hard for a day (or a week) and then tick the task off your list. You are likely to get multiple revisions and rejections from readers whose judgement you value. It may not be widely read and is unlikely to be highly cited.
So, what can you do?
When candidates come to see me with this question, I often start with a process of elimination.
- Check if your resistance to writing is something sensible and pragmatic.
- are you hungry or tired?
- have you done enough planning, researching, thinking yet?
- is it really that useful for you to be writing late at night, on the weekend, on your holiday?
- If it’s one of these things, then you should be paying attention to your resistance, it’s telling you there are other priorities just this minute.
- Check if your resistance is something emotional or personal.
- do you have issues with your supervisor, team or faculty?
- are you anxious, depressed, stressed out, or burnt out?
- do you have other major life things going on at the moment?
- This stuff is major, and you probably need to ask for help. Go see your mentor, Academic Skills, the University Health Service or your mum. Your ability to write, think and work is not seperate from your body, your health, your mental health, your wellbeing.
- Check if you are doing the right project.
- Sometimes you wander away from your key question, the thing you were passionate about. Is your writing off track?
- You may have had to change your project to work with a team, or due to the advice of your supervisor. Can you incorporate something of what interests you back into your writing?
- Have you fallen out of love with your topic? This is especially likely for people who are pursuing a passion, who find their topic is now work. For this reason, I always recommend doing something that fires you up with anger rather than love.
- Check if a PhD is really for you.
- There are many people in the world with the brains, passion and persistence to do a PhD–and for all sorts of reasons they chose not to.
- Not everyone who enjoyed and succeeded in their masters degree will enjoy a PhD. Is extended individual research for you?
- Most people start their PhD hoping for a career in academia, but by their third year, most are looking elsewhere for a job. Combative academic cultures, the shrinking academic job market, increased publication and grant competition… Is a PhD useful for you to reach your long term goals?
- About a third of people who start a PhD will not complete, many of these by choice. That can be a sensible and valid decision.
Okay, so you aren’t hungry, tired, lonely, on the wrong track, too early to start, or ready to break up with your PhD. You just have a whiny voice in your head that says “I don’t wanna!” when your sensible voice says “Now is the time to write!”
The big five tricks to help you get over your inner whiner are:
- Turn off distractions.
- Try Freedom, or just go to Notifications on your phone or computer.
- Build a habit.
- This is a good article on getting started.
- Break it down to small chunks.
- Give yourself frequent rewards.
- Try Written? Kitten!
- Get a buddy or a team
- Try Shut Up and Write with a group or online.
There are so many resources to help you achieve these goals. Share any that work for you in the comments!