The PhD journey is something that requires a great amount of support. Students tend to look elsewhere for motivation through hard times. These sources of motivation tend to be other students who seem to be sailing through their own PhD unencumbered or academics who tell tales of their academic conquests 10 years ago. It's great to have a role model to follow and to be your inspiration, however, there is often a great risk of comparing yourself to these people in terms of your own progress. This can result in some unhealthy perception of your own PhD journey.
Everyone has a different PhD journey and it is necessary to accept that your own journey is very different from others. In that case, why aren’t you your own motivation? If you are willing to believe in these success stories, why can’t you believe in yourself as a success story-to-be?
Academia is fraught with people with the imposter syndrome. The higher you climb in this field, the more you doubt yourself. The impostor syndrome is the outcome of the gap between societal expectations of what is expected of you and where you believe you are currently. There is even more room to doubt yourself when you start comparing yourself to others without understanding their unique circumstances. These role models can, therefore, be sources of stress instead of motivation. The most reliable source of motivation is yourself. You know what you have gone through to get yourself where you are, you are the best person to galvanise yourself into achieving better, just because you have done the same in the past.
Believing in Yourself
Consider your past and present. What have you done to get yourself here? Take note of things you had to endure: difficult supervisors, tumultuous relationships, living with filthy housemates, financial hardships etc.
Now think about what you have achieved during those experiences. Consider intrinsic and extrinsic achievements. What have you learned about the world or about yourself? What did you accomplish in spite of the troubling circumstances and the less-than-ideal environment? What are your victories, big and small?
Now, look at where you are currently. What are you struggling with? What is limiting your progress? What are your current pains? Then, look at where you want to be in the future. What are your long and short term goals? What do you want to be able to achieve beyond this period of difficulty?
Now juxtapose your past, your present and future. Find the similarities in goals, hardships, circumstances. Note the subtle or drastic differences. Remind yourself of what you had gone through before and believe that you can do the same now, if not better than before.
Celebrate Your Success
Ever seen a doctor’s office with his or her certificates on display? This is the same idea. Nothing is more powerful than visually reminding yourself of what you have achieved. Don’t need to be humble when you are on your own. Embrace your achievements, you deserve to be proud of them.
Put up your certificates, a copy of your dissertation, copies of your publications. Mark your research milestones and celebrate them as you arrive at them. Plan your celebration ahead, that is a way of motivating yourself and more importantly, it compels you to actually celebrate. It is too easy to stress about a certain milestone and by the time you arrive at it, you are already stressing about the next milestone.
This is something I fail to do during my PhD. I stressed about the next step before I had even finished the current step. I was constantly chasing one deadline after the next and when I am done earlier, I start working on the next. This was how I managed to submit my PhD thesis in 2.5 years. Looking back, I probably did not have to kill myself like that and I could have taken more time to savour each success that comes along. I would have been a happier student then if I had done that.
Share Your Successes with Others
Post it on Instagram, yell it out on twitter, shove it in other people’s faces or Facebook feed. Humility is a virtue blah blah blah… so is motivating yourself and others. If you only moan about how hard life is that is what you are going to remember about your PhD journey. Tell others your woes but do not forget to share your happiness with others too. You can be someone else’s motivation one day. Show others that there is light at the end of the tunnel, share with them the steps you have taken to arrive at your accomplishments. In leading others to succeed, you are also explicitly showing yourself that you are capable of getting through difficulty and making something great of yourself.
Let other people share in your success and hopefully, you will be a part of theirs too one day. The PhD life is too short and there are too many low points for you to forgo these valuable opportunities to be proud of your own achievements.
The key point to take away from this article is to learn to be your own motivation. Be mindful of over-relying on others for motivation. Amidst all the humility, find room to accept yourself as your own role model. Nothing wrong with some self-confidence and self-admiration, in moderation of course. When you can accept yourself for your greatness then you are in a position to be someone else’s role model.