How to stay motivated in science (and not let the daily grind get the best of you)

Seems like an odd post to write, because aren’t we all super-motivated all the time, and isn’t science just the coolest thing ever? Yes, sure it is. But there are always moments, especially when things are not working out just perfectly, when one gets to thinking about motivation. Or when you’ve just spent a very long day in the lab performing a relatively monotonous task, like harvesting several hundred pots or processing samples. Here is my personal take on this, it is kind of a mental trick that I have been using myself. I recently shared it with my lab; and I thought, why not spread it.

So we all get into science because of the big questions that excite us: why are there so many species, how do ecosystems work, how do factors of global change affect communities, how does something as amazing as a soil aggregate form, or insert your own personal big question here. This is good: we should all have the big question or questions that drive us, because they are broad in scope, important, and just fascinating to think about.

But here comes reality, and we have all experienced this (I think) at some point or another: the day-to-day reality of doing science means almost always that you cannot directly address that super broad awesome question. In order to derive a question that you can handle in a MSc thesis or a PhD or in a research project, you need to break it down into smaller pieces, that are then amenable to experimentation, sampling or analysis. But this means that what you are actually working on – at any one point in time – is just a small subset of that original big, awesome question. And this smaller sub-question is inherently less interesting, just because it is a subset. Yet, it seems even for addressing this small question, which is inherently less interesting than the grand question, a lot of work is required. A lot of samples need to be processed, a lot of time is spent in the lab. And this is the point where one can start thinking; why am I even doing this? In other words: there is quite a mismatch between the particular sub-question and the immense effort that goes into answering it. It may seem like it’s not worth it.

And that is where a little ‘mental trick’ comes in: in such situations, and I think they are very common, it is absolutely crucial to remember that big question, and to reassure yourself that you are actually working on it. You just had to break it down to one aspect, but in working on this sub-question, you are actually pursuing your big question. And after addressing this particular sub-question, you can tackle another one; and so you work towards your goal.

Maybe this is easier said that done, it certainly requires some effort to uphold this perspective when faced with the daily grind. There may be different solutions (like collaboration), others may have different tricks, or this issue never comes up for them; but I think it is essential to always maintain the excitement for the bigger question(s) and to place what you are currently doing in this context.

So think of this when you are processing sample number 239 of your experiment …you are in it for the grand question!