I started graduate school for my PhD in August 2015 and officially completed in August 2020. My motivation to finish school was fully depleted by February 2016 and it never returned. It would take a separate series of blog posts to tell the full story of why and how that happened. What I’m here to tell you today is how I actually finished school when I had 4.5 years left and zero motivation.
Motivation is the road trip equivalent of picking a destination.
One of the greatest lessons I learned while getting my PhD is that motivation is purely what gets you started. Nothing more. Think about planning a road trip. Say you want to go to Disney World because it’s the most magical place on Earth and you want to relive the happiest parts of your childhood. That joy and those ideas are your motivation for going, but if you don’t have the resources to plan and complete the trip, that dream will die just like Mufasa. Motivation alone is simply not enough to get you there. So, what is?
To sum it up in one word, I would say drive.
If motivation is the excitement that helps you pick a destination, drive is what gets you in the car and takes you there.
Drive is the gasoline and oil you put in the car to transport you all the way to Orlando. Drive is partially made up of clarity, which comes from knowing your “why”. Why did you start? Why do you want to finish? These reasons need to be clear, specific, and for you.
My “why” answers, were the only reasons I finished. Let me be clear, I wanted to quit every day. I knew getting a PhD was going to be hard, but it wasn’t hard for any of the reasons I expected. Again, another blog post.
Side note: if pursuing a PhD no longer aligns with your goals, dreams, or general life plans, then by all means, change course. Do not feel trapped in this journey. Make the moves you need to for your life.
But, earning a PhD still made sense every time I asked “why am I doing this?”. So, what did I do even though I was long past my breaking point and emotionally overdrawn? Well, just like when cars run out of gas, I had to get out and push. I think of it as discipline.
Discipline is doing what needs to get done even when you don’t want to do it.
Ninety-five percent of the time I had no interest or desire in doing any work. However, I always got it done because even though I was over-committed I’d often sacrifice my well-being over my reputation. Note, this was not healthy.
As you may be able to guess, you shouldn’t rely on discipline for very long. You need to continuously fill your tank along the way. This was probably one of my greatest mistakes that I will be paying for for the foreseeable future. But I’m telling you my mistakes so you don’t have to make them.
If you do run out of gas and you have to push for a bit, put premium gas in when you get to the next gas station. You may think you can’t afford it, but frankly you can’t afford not to. And always fill up with premium gas. You are like a luxury vehicle designed to operate on the best quality fuel. Investing in your fuel is investing in yourself. For me, this involved learning to set boundaries, ask for help, and rest.
Side note: don’t just rest when you’re tired. It’s like hydration. If you wait until you’re thirsty to drink water, you’re already dehydrated. Also, rest and sleep are not necessarily the same thing. You can get eight hours of sleep and still wake up tired.
It will take time to determine what combination of resources and support provide the right type of fuel for you. So, dedicate time to learn how to fuel yourself. No one can tell you what your fuel solution looks like, so it’s up to you to try different things to learn what works best.
Ultimately, motivation won’t take you very far. Its sole purpose is to get you started for the journey. When that excitement wears off, you need to have the clearest answers to your “why” and the premium fuel to take you there. If you run out of gas, call roadside assistance, rest, and refuel.
Final note: this journey should not be your whole life. It should not consume all of your time and thoughts. ‘Graduate student’ is not a permanent or primary identity. So, work on being a full person who just so happens to be getting a PhD along the way.
Author: Nontalie Morrow (she/her) recently graduated with her PhD in Higher Education from Penn State University. She is currently based in Atlanta, GA and is working on her new blog "Any Questions for Us" designed to support those going through the job search process. You can find her at www.nontaliemorrow.com, @