There’s an element of puppy love in beginning a new research project. It’s easy to be motivated, excited, and engaged in a fledgling idea, especially when you’re a young scientist who is just starting out.
But what happens when reality hits and you’re forced to redo a botched experiment? When funding runs low, or out? When teaching duties claim too much time and life outside the lab distracts you from your work? What happens when the puppy grows up—when, after months or years of real-life struggles, the work loses its fresh appeal? A scientist’s motivation often ebbs in the face of such challenges. The result can be anxiety, procrastination, second guessing, and lost productivity.
One of the things scientists need to be able to do is reinspire themselves. … If you talk to someone and they say, ‘That’s very interesting,’ that can recharge your batteries for at least another few hours, enough to get you through the day.
Science Careers spoke to industrial and organizational psychologists who study motivation in the workplace and asked them how scientists can identify the underlying causes of a motivation crisis and then take effective corrective action.
New moon waning
“Motivation waxes and wanes over time,” says Ruth Kanfer, a professor of psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “This has happened to me at times. It happens to every scientist.” The enthusiasm of young academic scientists frequently cools as they tussle with the demands of teaching and the bureaucratic burdens that the job entails, she says. When experiments aren’t running as quickly as you’d like, and data is forever awaiting analysis while you grade papers and write grant proposals, it can feel like your project is stuck in sludge.
Scientists can counteract these feelings by taking stock of their real progress, routinely and objectively. “If you’re just looking at the end of a project, you can get discouraged because it seems like you have a long way to go,” Kanfer says. “But it can be helpful to look at what you’ve accomplished so far.” If it’s early in the process and you haven’t accomplished very much yet—and you find yourself already losing steam—focus less on the project’s endpoint and “set proximal goals, break [the project] into manageable pieces,” she says. Meeting those smaller targets should help you keep going.
Visualize success (not!)
It’s tempting to bask in each one of those small accomplishments, but Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of social psychology at New York University in New York City, says that you shouldn’t let those thoughts linger. Thinking too much about a project’s endpoint can hinder your motivation and productivity, she says.
“What we find in our research is that if you elaborate on the fulfillment of the desired future, and you fantasize about this desired future—then, if you indulge and indulge in these fantasies—when setbacks come you actually are less prepared and less motivated,” Oettingen says. “The more positive, the more idealized you think your future to be, the less energized you are.”
Oettingen and colleagues have measured this in a number of ways. In a 2009 study, she found that recent college graduates (not just scientists) who fantasized about future success more than their peers did accrued fewer job offers and earned less money after 4 years of working. A 2011 study found that people who overindulged in fantasizing about the future put in less effort working toward those goals (as measured by blood pressure monitors). “The more positive these fantasies are about succeeding and fulfilling their wishes, the less successful they are in terms of putting in the necessary effort and the success they have,” she says.
Oettingen poses: “What can you do with these positive fantasies in order for them to become motivationally fruitful?” She recommends a strategy known as “mental contrasting” to combat such fantasy-fatigue. Mental contrasting asks people to go beyond imagining success by cataloguing the obstacles you’ll have to overcome to achieve it. Once you’ve identified the obstacles, make an if-then plan to overcome them when they arise.
Oettingen recommended establishing an if-then routine: If you notice yourself procrastinating, remember you’ve done this before and type up your quotes. Do this every time and it becomes automatic, she says. I was grateful for the advice.
Self-motivation isn’t the only way to boost your enthusiasm. Kanfer suggests looking to colleagues for help. “If you’re working collaboratively, your collaborator can inspire you to move forward,” she says. Collaborators can remind you why you were passionate about your project to begin with and be a sounding board for your frustrations, she says.
If your frustrations lie in a lack of confidence in some aspect of your work, Kanfer says, the best approach is to improve those skills—and a very good way to do that is to ask more experienced colleagues for additional training or helpful tricks they’ve picked up over the years. This can help overcome self-confidence–related procrastination issues.
Even people who aren’t your team members can help you regain your motivation. Talking with almost anyone about your project can help you remember what motivated you in the first place, Kanfer says. “One of the things scientists need to be able to do is reinspire themselves. … If you talk to someone and they say, ‘That’s very interesting,’ that can recharge your batteries for at least another few hours, enough to get you through the day,” she says.
With or without colleagues, focusing on what excited you about the project in the first place can help you get through its most tedious parts, Kanfer says. Also, she adds, thinking about the relief you’ll feel at having that part of the project behind you—and knowing that afterward you’ll be able to move on to more exciting parts—can give you the boost you need to start a tedious task.
The importance of values
Maia Young, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Management, says that procrastinating and feeling unmotivated can stem from a mismatch between the process of achieving your goals and what emotionally attracted you to them in the first place. “Emotions accompany defining moments in a person’s life, and if you are a scientist, I’m sure you got into it because you had a lot of positive feelings about that line of work to begin with,” she says. Scientists “get into it because they’re inspired by any number of things, and I feel like, when someone has a lapse in motivation, we have to diagnose what was the emotion that accompanied the highest level of motivation in the past.”
Emotion researchers have distinguished several different “types” of positive emotions, such as hope, gratitude, awe, and pride, Young says. Any of these can motivate someone to become a scientist or to choose some other field. For example, if a young scientist becomes a nanotechnology researcher because she’s awed by the pace of progress in that field, and then finds herself frustrated by her own slow progress, that’s an emotional mismatch: The awe surrounding progress was an important aspect of the field that led her to choose it, perhaps even as important as the field’s substance. That doesn’t mean she should abandon the field, or even her particular project, Young notes, but it does mean that when selecting future projects, it makes sense to look out for ones that satisfy your emotional connection to science. (For advice on choosing work that is consistent with your values, explore the values portion of myIDP.)
“We have to be open to the fact that some things that once gave us that positive emotion” just don’t do it for us anymore, Young says. “Let’s say that in the past it was, ‘This is a really cool question and I want to answer it,’ which I think is a very common thing early on in someone’s career.” When your interests change, the work lags, or the questions that excited you no longer do, “where can I get that positive feeling now?” Young asks. Sometimes a shift in perspective is called for. Where once it was the big ideas that drove you, you may need to look to other aspects of the experience of doing science. “Maybe you can get the same emotional experience from mentoring others,” she says.