5 strategies to motivate your research student

Recently I was asked to talk to a group of new research students at the end of their week long orientation course. I was asked to talk about Maintaining the Momentum, which I interpreted as helping to maintain an interest in their research degree after the euphoria of the first week had worn off.

These are the five things I suggested to those students.
They also articulate into a set of strategies that a supervisor can use to help keep their research student motivated during the less energetic parts of their candidature.

1. Know that one outcome of a research degree is that it can progress your career path.
There are many different reasons that research students embark on a research degree. For some it is the next likely step in a continuation of an undergraduate degree. For others, their choice to undertake a research degree is part of a career strategy. For the later, helping them to keep focussed on this viable outcome is a way to maintain the motivation across the long distance. This agenda can also be reinforced by government bodies (such as the one in my country Australia) in expecting specific research capabilities to also arise from the candidature and thus make a research graduate more marketable to potential employers. (Strategy)Along the way, these can be emphasised so that a research student is aware of the repertoire of research related capabilities they are developing.

2. Begin writing immediately.
I am one who believes that the hardest part of doing research is the writing, so I encourage all research students to begin writing immediately. Even after a very short introductory meeting with a student I request that they write no more than two pages documenting what it is they want to investigate and how they thought they might like to investigate it. These two pages form the start of a process of writing development and provide the fuel for subsequent meetings. It is amazing that buried in these initial thoughts are often references to literature, ideas about methodology and deeply held beliefs (that might be challenged) about what it means to undertake a research degree.
Simply asking a student to write something after a first meeting is the strategy for the supervisor to encourage this early writing. They then need to follow that up with feedback about the student’s writing so that they are encouraged in the development of their ideas.

3. Make use of what you already know and start to delve into your current knowledge
One of the things that I found as I embarked on my first research degree was a sense that even though I had already completed undergraduate studies, some of my lecturers treated me as if I knew nothing. As a research supervisor I have tried to reverse this attitude by starting off acknowledging what it is that a research student already knows. This background knowledge, when it is encouraged to come to the surface, may reveal a range of ideas about how a research student positions their understanding of the topic or issue they want to investigate.
The strategy for the supervisor is to ask the question ‘what do you already know about your topic?’ and then in the ensuing dialogue begin to point out evidence in the student’s language of the beginnings of methodology and of a literature review.

4. Mix with other students who are also undertaking research degrees so that you are reaffirmed by the experiences of others
It is often said that the research degree is a lonely journey. Although it is unlikely that anyone will be investigating exactly the same topic as you, mixing with other research students helps to locate the areas that you have in common that you all may be struggling with. It is reassuring to know that you are not the only one who is struggling.

Sometimes the faculty at which you are undertaking your research degree organises meetings for students, and a student can also organise their own meetings. (Strategy)Some supervisors bring together all of their research students for these general motivation type sessions so that ones further along their candidature can inspire those newer to research.

5. Help your research student to identify what inspires them with their thinking so that you can remind them about that when the inspiration seems to have waned.
I remember that when I was undertaking my first research degree I started listening to the music of Enrico Morricone. There was one particular track on the Mission soundtrack that lifted my spirits. I actually used this track of music when I presented my research proposal. Not that my supervisor used this, but it might have been a helpful nudge for me to be encouraged to listen to that music when I was feeling a little bit helpless. Not that it is going to be music for everyone; for some it may be some other stimulus such as literature or art, or even the environment. (Strategy) When you are having your initial discussion with a student ask about how they get motivated. This may be valuable knowledge for them at times when they are feeling a little despondent about their work, and you can remind them of their motivational sources.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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One Response to 5 strategies to motivate your research student

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