Sustaining your motivation during the scientific journey

The academic path is a long and arduous one. How can you find your inner motivation to move forward even when the road is rough?

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Sustaining your motivation during the scientific journey

Maya Schuldiner, Weizmann Institute of Science


Self-motivation in science

The academic path is a long and arduous one. From undergraduate through graduate studies, postdoctoral research and starting your own lab – these are many years in which you have to work hard without job security. Moreover, during this time you will experience many failures, setbacks, rejections and criticisms that are all part of doing science. If this is a route that you have decided to take, I believe it is important to constantly be asking yourself - is there a way to make this road an easier one to travel?

In my eyes, one of the most important things required to succeed in science, is developing a strong internal motivation force. While in many other lines of work motivation can be external, in science, self-motivation is critical as the goals are often distant and rewards far apart. Those that do not know how to harness their own motivation will often find it hard to endure the challenges of a scientific career. So, the question becomes - is there a way to increase our self-motivation in science, help us overcome challenges better and succeed more?

There are many psychological ideas about how to do this, but one that I like very much is called the Goal Orientation Theory (first suggested by the educational psychologist J.A. Eison). To understand how this theory may be able to help you, let me first tell you a little about it.

 The Goal Orientation theory

This theory suggests that people are motivated to reach their goals by two very different orientations:

1. Process Orientation: Individuals that orient themselves on the “Process” while performing their task, are driven by a motivation to increase their knowledge, master new situations and obtain new skills. Such individuals are less concerned about their performance relative to others, but rather about mastering the process and developing their competence relative to their own abilities.

2. Performance Orientation: Individuals that orient themselves on the “Performance” are driven by a motivation to perform well, or excel. Since performance is almost always relative to others, they judge themselves relative to the performance of their peers. This often is associated with the need to gain approval from peers, teachers, parents or mentors. In science such individuals may focus on quantitative measures, such as number of papers, prizes or grants.

While reading this, you probably feel that your orientation is a bit of this and a bit of that or sometimes more “Process” based and at other times very “Performance” focused, which is normal. The theory discusses the two extremes but each of us has some “Process” and some “Performance” orientation in us to different extents. Moreover, our goal orientation is flexible to a certain degree – it can change in different situations and evolve through life experiences. Importantly it is something you can affect and even select. In simple words – through practice, we can each work towards defining our own Goal Orientation in specific situations. During my own journey I have found that by learning to control and switch between these two motivational forces I can do better at finding my inner reasons to continue even when things are hard. I would like to suggest to you below, why it can also help you.

In many instances in science, it is really good to have a “Performance” orientation. For example, when you go into a test or an interview, or need to finalize revisions for a paper - you need to be performance oriented. There is no process here to enjoy or grow from - you need to get a good grade, secure the position or get the paper accepted. More generally, “Performance” orientation is very productive for short term goals that have a quantitative outcome. On the other hand, for longer and more complicated tasks, that cannot be easily quantified, such as completing a PhD degree, it helps to draw motivation from the “Process”. During such long-term endeavors, a scientist that is solely “Performance” oriented, may develop a dependence on external rewards such as papers, prizes or positive feedback from a mentor or peers. Since such rewards are scarce, they become prone to being ‘burnt out’. Being able to develop a high frustration tolerance depends on being able to find the motivation from within and not depend on external input. So, during a long goal such as a PhD, a postdoc or a tenure run, those that can harness their “Process” orientation will fuel their motivation from daily opportunities to learn and grow.

But practically, how can we learn to control what motivates us? Most important is to be minded to it - define your short as well as long term goals and then try to optimize your motivation for each specific goal. Here are a few tips to help you find, in yourself, the right motivation for the right occasion:

 How can you become more “Process” oriented?

Set long-term goals that are “Process” driven: Sometimes long-term goals leave us lost in perpetual small steps that seem to be driving us nowhere. Rephrase your goals to yourself so that they are about the learning and not about the achieving – about the journey and not about the destination. This might bring more meaning into the small steps and unexpected turns. For example, instead of “publish a paper” set the goal as “learn how to do research in a way that creates a solid finding which can then be published”.

Change the way that you think about the process: Be happy when you have made progress towards achieving your long-term goal. Find satisfaction in the process. Enjoy learning a new skill. Appreciate a great thought, even if it does not, right now, actively alter your chances of a measurable outcome.

Accept that learning how to do science is a long process: Remember always that you have made an active choice to go into a career path in which you are always learning and growing. This is a lot of fun but also requires patience with yourself. I have heard too many times students that tell me: “I don’t understand this so I must be stupid” instead of: “I am still new to the lab and hence it is normal that it is taking me time to learn all the various aspects of the work here”.

Change the way that you give feedback to yourself and others: Try to think about verbally “rewarding” yourself and others on the process and not only on the achievements. For example, when you see someone that has persevered and finally cracked a protocol or an experiment, complement them on not having given-up.

 How can you become more “Performance” oriented?

At some points during your career it is useful and even essential to use the “Performance” oriented drive as it will help you complete your tasks in less time and excel. The key is to identify these moments, and then use all of your motivation and energy to chase the moment and reap the rewards.

Break up long-term “Performance” goals to short term ones: Often when faced with a grand long-term goal (such as “Publish a paper”), we feel lost as it seems unreachable and we have little opportunities to rejoice upon achievement. In these cases, it is useful to break a goal up into short-term goals or action items that are smaller and more achievable – providing you with plenty of opportunities to give yourself a pat on the back.

Define your optimal “Performance” accurately: One of the problems with “Performance” goals in science is that they are often not well-defined. If you give quantifiable terms to your goals you can work towards a defined horizon and not one that is always further than you thought. For example change “Get the best PhD ever” to “Publish one paper in a good journal” or “Get an average grade above 90” – with such definitions it is clear exactly what you have to achieve for that goal to be fulfilled and if you succeed you can be happy about it.


We all have different needs that guide our inner drive, in science and generally in life. Realizing that our motivation can be driven by the process itself as well as our performance or outcome is important. Even more so learning to control and modify what motivates us is advantageous. When you succeed you can, on the one hand, enjoy the process, and thereby free yourself from external quantification or judgment. On the other hand, you can fuel your motivation by setting short term goals that you can achieve and evaluate yourself.

Defining your own motivational force is, in itself, a learning process. One that can take many years. I have been working on mine for the last 15 years and only sometimes do I manage to define and control it successfully. However, when you manage to optimize your motivation for each task, you will find that it gives you a lot of happiness, energy and well - additional motivation. This is especially important when your work or lifestyle involves long-term tasks that are often frustrating and which involve ‘harvesting’ the fruits of your effort in the distant future. Maybe most important to remember, as we work on our goal orientations, is that measurable achievements do not define us as individuals. When your paper gets accepted it does not necessarily make you a better scientist than if it is rejected. There are many factors governing yes and no decisions, such as editors and reviewers, and most of them are really not about you as a person or even as a scientist. Hence finding an internal measure for success and rejoicing in your achievements – both material (papers, grants, positions) and mental (learning a new technique, having a good idea, giving a good talk) – can provide long lasting motivation in the difficult but interesting journey that we have all picked.


Like everything that I do, writing this piece was a learning process. I had to read a lot and think about my own self-motivation (often quite Performance driven but in recent years through thought and practice getting to be more Process driven). Also, the piece started off quite lame and became better through the generous feedback of many wonderful people: Oren Schuldiner, Ron Milo, Einat Zalckvar, Michal Eisenberg-Bord, Ofir Klein, Mira Rosenthal, Emma Fenech, Naama Zung, Hadar Meir & Sarah Haßdenteufel. I am grateful for their inputs and thoughts. 

Maya Schuldiner

Principal Investigator, Weizmann Institute of Science