About halfway through graduate school — often around such big milestones as comprehensive exams or dissertation proposals — many students experience a "sophomore slump," says Alytia Levendosky, PhD, a psychology professor at Michigan State University. Their excitement has faded, their degrees seem impossibly far away, and getting there requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, she says.
"Almost every student comes to a point in which they're stuck for various reasons," Levendosky says.
For Audie Black, a Michigan State University clinical psychology student, that moment came after he'd spent two months hammering out a first draft of his master's thesis proposal only to find out that the data to support it weren't available.
"I thought it was my shining glory," Black recalls. "In reality, I was on the wrong track and essentially had to start over."
But, with his adviser's help, Black was able to view the experience as a learning opportunity. "If I could do everything correct the first time, I wouldn't need to be in school in the first place," he admits.
Need help keeping your own wheels in motion? Here are a few tips:
Work with your adviser. Establishing regular meetings with your adviser can help you maintain your enthusiasm, Levendosky says. She keeps advisees on track and engaged in their work by developing structured project schedules and firm deadlines.
"This helps them see that I'm invested in their progress, too," says Levendosky, who adds that it's her job to help students work through whatever might be blocking their success, be it anxiety about the future or doubt about their abilities to handle a project on their own. Once she's helped a student deal with his or her concerns, often by reminding them of past accomplishments, together they develop a concrete plan for the next task.
Daydream. Years of research have shown that imagining future success can enhance your motivation. But it may be particularly inspiring to envision yourself receiving positive feedback on your dissertation proposal or passing your comprehensive exam from someone else's perspective, according to a 2007 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin study (Vol. 33, No. 10). That's because third-person imagery prompts people to become more self-aware and see the event's broader significance, says study author Roger Buehler, PhD. For example, seeing yourself successfully defend your proposed dissertation may remind you of the task's larger meaning and help you push forward to achieve it.
"Graduate students often get so caught up in the day-to-day tasks that they lose focus on the bigger picture," says Buehler, a psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. "Pausing to see things from the third-person perspective can help to remind you of why you're doing all of this in the first place."
Get outside your bubble. Sometimes it can feel as though your entire life is consumed by your program, says Black. While building a social support network with students in your department can be crucial, it may also be beneficial to tap into larger social or professional groups outside of your program. By participating in APAGS events, joining in on listserv discussions or attending APA's Annual Convention, students gain an appreciation for how their coursework and individual research fit into the broader scope of the field.
Cleveland State University counseling psychology student Heather Bonnett found that to be true when she attended this year's International Counseling Psychology Conference and connected with students and other professionals outside of her program. "Meeting others at the conference really helped put the work we're doing in the classroom in perspective," Bonnett says, noting that it allowed her to make contacts with clinicians and other practitioners she may not have met otherwise.
Find a cheerleader. One simple way to rekindle your first-year motivation may be to place a photograph in your work area of your significant other or a friend or family member who has always pushed you to do your best. In a 2003 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study (Vol. 84, No. 4), researcher James Shah, PhD, found that briefly flashing the name of a close friend or relative inspired study participants to pursue their goals more persistently, particularly if that person viewed achievement of that goal as important.
Black says that when he is feeling stalled, he thinks about his wife, Jessica, and how completing his doctorate will affect her as well.
"This degree isn't just about me," Black says. "It's about her and our future family together. That motivates me to keep working hard for us."
Time yourself. Texas Tech University psychology professor Erin E. Hardin, PhD, says the best tip she ever received as she struggled through writing her dissertation was to commit to spending just 15 minutes per day working on it. Pledging to spend such a small amount of time made this sometimes overwhelming task seem much more doable and helped her overcome her fears.
"I often found that I kept working long after 15 minutes had expired, but if I'd told myself from the outset that I had to work for, say, three hours, I probably never would have even started," Hardin says.
Take breaks. One of the most important yet overlooked strategies for staying motivated is to step away from work once in a while, says Bonnett, who exercises two or three times a week and takes at least one vacation each semester.
"You wouldn't believe how much a vacation can rejuvenate a person, even if it is a low-cost, short one," Bonnett says.
Research on the effect of annual vacations on stress and burnout confirms Bonnett's claims. In a 2003 study in Anxiety, Stress and Coping: An International Journal (Vol. 16, No. 2), researchers found that workers who took either long or short vacations experienced reduced stress and job burnout, even up to three weeks after returning from the trip.
Black adds that it's also important to take daily breaks. To that end, he tries to read something that's purely for pleasure every day and schedules bike rides or cross-country skiing outings with his wife as often as possible, he says.
"You hit those moments where you get so sick of talking about psychology all the time," Black says. Choosing to pursue an unrelated interest, he says, can be key to tackling the road ahead.
By Amy Novotney