Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Maintaining Student Morale

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:

  • Breaking new ground in research is inherently hard. There's no way to sugar-coat it. If you're doing something that nobody has ever attempted before, then, by definition, you have no clue whether or how it will work out. It never gets easier. My job as an advisor is to help you keep iterating and executing consistently week after week. I can't eliminate the intrinsic difficulty of doing research, but I can help you maintain your morale as we explore uncharted territory together.

  • Even if you produce amazing results from your research, getting them accepted for publication is a long process fraught with rejection, resubmissions, and re-rejections. Top-tier conferences in computer science accept only 15% to 25% of submitted papers, so plenty of good work gets rejected. In my experience, early-stage students take rejections really, really hard; I sure as hell did. Rejection always sucks. But my job as an advisor is to help you get through those low points, which every researcher experiences.

  • For the purposes of funding or other administrative requirements, students must sometimes brush up against the school bureaucracy in ways that are totally irrelevant to their research. If this happens to you, then at best, it's a mild distraction; and at worst, it might demoralize you due to the seemingly arbitrary nature of decisions from above. My job as an advisor is to be a shit umbrella, shielding you from some of the external bullshit that threaten your creative flow.

It's important to be aware of these potential challenges so that we can figure out how to overcome them together.

Postscript: Isolation

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.

Created: 2015-01-16
Last modified: 2015-01-16
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