How to motivate a graduate student

When you are motivated, ideas bubble up in the middle of any activity. When you are motivated, you find solutions and links across different areas of your endeavor. When you are motivated, you find joy that carries you through the boring parts of any activity.

Since this is a blog about becoming a biology professor, the kind of motivation I’m thinking about has to do with research. The particular focus is on graduate students, but could apply to other levels. Post-docs and faculty are likely to have passed the great self-motivation divide. Undergrads have many academic demands on their time and may not yet have figured out where their motivation lies.

So, how exactly do you motivate a graduate student in your group who does not seem to be very motivated? I’m afraid the short answer is that you cannot. Motivation has to come from within. The student has to want to discover for themselves. Motivation is an extremely personal quality.

If you cannot motivate a graduate student, does this mean no one can ever motivate anyone? I would not say that, just that motivation comes earlier in life. Perhaps it comes from earliest childhood, when you are encouraged to explore, when your ideas are treated as if they mean something, when you are shown the natural world, and given simple tools for exploration like a butterfly net, or a child’s microscope. Besides encouragement, a little pushing is a good thing, for it challenges you to find a best performance past what you might have thought possible.

Motivation arises in Fairchild Botanical Gardens butterfly house

Motivation arises in Fairchild Botanical Gardens butterfly house

My earliest memories come from exploring, from trying to follow rabbits in a Washington D.C. park. They extended to a catholic interest in all things wild and natural. By the time I was 12 and tried to smuggle two jars of formaldehyde into the tiny suitcase my parents allowed me to pack myself for a year in England, I was set as a curious naturalist and motivation was never a problem. I could go on about the various teachers through the years that encouraged and pushed me, but I bet it would be more fun to tune into your own memories on the topic.


Is he thinking that when he grows up he will study butterflies?


While it is true you cannot motivate a graduate student, I think it is possible to unmotivate them. Give them a narrow already defined project, criticize frequently, pay attention to when they come to work and when they leave, compare them unfavorably to others, encourage competition rather than collaboration, and steal or crush their ideas. Do several of these for only a few months and you will go a long way towards unmotivating a student. The lucky ones will simply leave your group. But of course, you are not this kind of person, so you will not do any of these things.

So, what do you do with the unmotivated student? First, think of your own needs. How is the student impacting you? How is he impacting your group? Meet with him and set up a list of clear expectations. Also make it clear that there is no place for someone who does not love what they do in research science because it is impossible to flourish against those that love this field. Help him to understand that he needs to discover what he loves, and do that, leaving your lab and science, if necessary.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Graduate school, Research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How to motivate a graduate student

  1. IG says:

    Dr, Strassmann, I totally agree with you! It is almost impossible to motivate a student, but it’s very easy (in fact) to unmotivate them for the reasons that you have identified…I know this because sometimes I am unmotivated by the people that (I think) should be more careful in not doing this… Great to read your article!

    p.s. fortunately I regain my motivation quickly enough to get my research to continue 🙂

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