Maintaining Student Morale
January 2015 (perspective of an assistant professor)
At the start of last semester, I wrote Motivation, Momentum, and Marketability: New Faculty Edition, which is based on an earlier article, Motivation, Momentum, and Marketability.
In those articles, I framed professional productivity in terms of three M's: motivation, momentum, and marketability. But as I work more with students on research, I'm now realizing that a more fundamental driver of work-related productivity and satisfaction lies in a single M: morale.
One of my most important jobs as a research advisor is to help my students maintain and elevate their morale. Without proper morale, nothing else matters. There's no way to even start building up motivation, momentum, and marketability.
Maintaining student morale is far easier said than done, though. So many aspects of the research grind can demoralize students. It's my job both to warn them of potential pitfalls and to help them emotionally recover when shit inevitably goes down.
If you're a student working on research – especially at the graduate level – here are three major potential demoralizers:
It's important to be aware of these potential challenges so that we can figure out how to overcome them together.
A fourth demoralizer that Ph.D. students often experience is the feeling of isolation – of no longer having a robust social support system. Unfortunately, this is something that I, as an advisor, cannot help with as much, since I'm not one of your peers. So you'll need to be proactive in fending off isolation.
Why will you likely feel isolated as a Ph.D. student? Back in college, you were taking dozens of classes with up to hundreds of classmates in your same major; you were living and hanging out with lots of like-minded friends; and you had many other people around to work with and study together, since everyone was studying similar topics. Now, as a Ph.D. student, you are literally the only person in the entire world working on your particular topic. Your friends, family, and peers will most likely not understand what you're doing or why it's significant. And you no longer have the vibrant social scene of college to keep your morale high. Furthermore, the transition to young adulthood in your 20s can be emotionally tough. As one of my friends (and fellow professor) wrote: “Your 20s can be so angst-filled (my personal belief is that that's one reason so many PhD students are miserable - yes, PhDs are hard and challenging, but your mid-20s are also hard and challenging, and everyone that age is full of questions about if they're doing the right things with their lives - not just PhD students), but they're also really fun and awesome.”
In sum, building up camaraderie with your fellow students and keeping up strong ties with your friends out in the “real world” are vital to surviving your Ph.D. years.