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127. Listener Mailbag: How Do You Stay Motivated in Grad School?

It’s a well worn analogy, but an apt one: grad school is a mental and emotional marathon, not a sprint.

This week, we answer listener mail from ‘runners’ at different stages of the race!

This episode is Part 2 of our conversation with Susanna Harris of You can listen to the first episode here:

Finishing Strong

We begin near the end with Katie, who is really feeling the pain with the finish line in sight. It’s that time when you start to wonder why you got into this race in the first place!

Katie asks:

How do you let go of your proposed PhD plan, and breath life/love into wherever it’s going now, which feels like you’re scraping up the dirt on the floor and mushing it into the vague resemblance of a thesis?

We cheer her on, and let her know that EVERYONE feels that way near the end of grad school. The key is to keep pushing over the finish line and be done with it.

You’ll have time to analyze your impact once you have those three little letters at the end of your email signature…

Gear Guides

Next up, we take a brief detour to talk about the tools of the trade. Runners love gear, right?

Xin Fei asks:

What is your opinion on electronic lab notebooks? I find paper lab notes tedious and hard to keep track with. Any recommendations on E-lab books? Pros and Cons? I was thinking of using note taking apps (Notion, Evernote, etc) but wasn’t sure if that’s the best way to do it.

Electronic lab notebooks are a complex topic (one to which we could devote an entire episode!) but the bottom line here is to talk to your ‘trainer.’

Your PI and lab mates need to approve of whatever technology you choose for keeping notes. In most cases, they’re the ones who will want to access your records after you move on from the lab.

Second Wind

Rounding the last leg of the race is Josh, who wants to know about keeping up his motivation as the miles tick by.

Have any of you gone through a “motivational slump” during your PhD training, and if so, do you have any tricks to help pull yourself out of it?

It’d also be great to hear any related advice from a mental health perspective (eg. If the slump is wrapped in some longer-term mental health issues).

After having a good laugh/cry about the vast quantity of motivational slumps we’ve ALL been through, we get down to the layers in Josh’s question.

First, Susanna illustrates the difference between a temporary ‘motivational slump’ and the more serious implications of declining mental health.

For a science-slump, we recommend getting out to talk or write about your work to an audience that will be truly fascinated by the problems you’re trying to solve. That might mean presenting at a high school or chatting with your friend at the coffee shop.

Sometimes simply ‘zooming out’ from the project will help you realize what inspired you about it in the first place.

If the ‘slump’ is more than temporary, it’s a great time to talk with a mental health professional. For many grad students, depression and anxiety can creep up slowly and catch them off guard.

There are resources (usually on-campus) to help support you on your journey. And like a sports-injury, trying to ‘run through the pain’ will likely make it worse.

This is a great time to find other people running the same race so you can offer, and accept, support. Visit and their Instagram page for more information.

Endurance Training

And last, but not least, we hear from a listener thinking about running a marathon, but who hasn’t tried a 5K yet:

I have decided that I would like to pursue a masters or PhD in Biomedical Engineering, but I’m having trouble deciding between the two options.

I was exposed to a bit of research during my undergraduate years, but how can I really understand if full time research is for me if I haven’t actually done it?

My question is, does it make more sense for me to pursue a masters degree first to gain more exposure to research and advanced education and ensure that the PhD route is truly for me, or should I directly enter a PhD program with the fallback option of leaving with my masters if I determine the PhD isn’t  for me?

We encourage the listener (and ANYONE applying to graduate school) to put in the time and training to make sure that research, and a career on the other side of a PhD, are right for you.

Without research experience, it’s really difficult to get into a PhD program. It’s also notoriously difficult to leave one once you’re in.

We recommend taking a few months or a year to work in the lab as a technician or research assistant. That way, someone else is paying YOU to find out if you like to do research. If not, you’re not in debt and you can move on to something you like without a gap in your résumé.

And if you happen to fall in love with research, you’ll be more qualified and more confident to take that first step across the starting line.

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