Are You an Unmotivated Academic?

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8 Steps to Increased Motivation

Our “Success in Graduate School with ADD” teleseminar on Monday went quite well! There was a lot of lively participation. You can listen to this teleseminar for free on my blog,

A question was asked in the ADD seminar that I hear often: “How do I stay motivated?” We’ve all dealt with flagging motivation part way through a large project, and writing a dissertation (or a book, or at times, the next page in an article) is one of the biggest projects around.

And The Degree Goes To…. Those Who Hang in There

The Ph.D. is a degree of perseverance. Once you’ve passed certain academic hurdles and have the requisite degree of intelligence (which you certainly must have if you’ve decided to read this newsletter), it’s all about who can stick with it. Therefore it’s important to figure out how to achieve the ability to maintain motivation and persevere despite the slings and arrows that the graduate school experience flings at you.

Do You Think You Can?

Do you remember the Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper? In this children’s story, a little train engine is asked to pull many train cars, in order to deliver toys to the children on the other side of the mountain. The big engines are too tired or busy to help her. Despite her small size, she makes it up the mountain by saying to herself “I think I can, I think I can.”

It turns out that Watty Piper wasn’t just blowing smoke. There is some good research that shows that motivation is connected to how much you believe you can do a task.

If You Think You Can, You’ll Persevere

Albert Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy suggests that your view of yourself influences how motivated you are to persevere in the face of adversity.

He defines self-efficacy as “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” Bandura, A. (Ed.) (1995). Self-efficacy in changing societies. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Furthermore, people who have a strong belief in their ability to handle challenges enjoy their work more, set appropriate goals for themselves, and recover more quickly from setbacks.

How’s Your Self-Efficacy?

If you’re wondering how you are doing in self-efficacy, check out the Academic Self-Efficacy Assessment that I’ve posted on my website. Although based on a well-researched instrument, there is no true scoring system. You will receive a reply based on my estimate of the 4 quartiles. This assessment is meant to give you an idea of what areas of self-efficacy need improvement.

Where Does Self-Efficacy Come From?

Bandura posits 4 sources of self-efficacy. I’ll try to relate them to the graduate school experience

  1. Success experiences – most graduate students have had success as undergraduates and earlier. However, graduate school can hand you one of the first tastes of harsh, negative feedback. The key is weathering these setbacks and convincing yourself that you can handle them emotionally. Those who do so prove to themselves that they can handle anything.

  2. Role models – positive role models make you feel likely that you can do it, too. Hence the effectiveness of dissertation support groups and good dissertation advising.

  3. Being told by others that you are capable of succeeding. Again, support systems, including a helpful department, encouraging advisor, dissertation group or coach can make a big difference in whether you can stick with it.

  4. Your own view of your emotional reactions. It’s not just whether you react to stress, but how you think of your own reaction, that influences your ability to cope. For example, if you feel extremely nervous while presenting your dissertation work to your peer group, you could label this two ways: 1) “I can’t even handle talking to other graduate students about my work. I’m not cut out for this.” Or “I’ll be less nervous each time I do this. I’m glad I’m practicing on peers.”

Increase Your Self Efficacy, Increase Your Motivation

It may seem that some of these sources of self-efficacy are out of your control, but in reality there are many places where you can intervene and make your graduate school experience or academic career more conducive to success.

In the interest of space, I’ve posted some suggestions as to how to increase your self-efficacy on my blog. There you will find 8 ways to stay motivated by increasing your self-efficacy.

Here’s a final note to motivate you to work on your self-efficacy. One study showed a positive (55%) correlation between self-efficacy and coping and a negative (–55%) correlation between self-efficacy and procrastination! In other words, more self-efficacy means you are less likely to procrastinate. So check out my blog and become more self-efficacious!


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