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Unmotivated and haven't been working for a while!


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I am a second year graduate student in physical chemistry. I worked really hard in the past year and nothing has come out from my research and now I have no motivation to work at all. I am in a really big lab and even though my PI is really nice, he doesn't have much time for his students. So most of the time students work on their own. I have been struggling a lot with my research. I have no idea what I am doing. I try to read papers and think of ideas to do a research project but since I don't have much background in independent research, I have no clue about how I should approach a problem. I talked with a couple of post-docs to get some idea on how I can solve the research problem that I am working on, they give me some suggestions but I just don't know how to implement them. They use a lot of technical terms and ask me to use methods that I have never heard of. I try to read up on them, look through programs and their user manuals and try to do it but it doesn't work out. Since I don't have much technical training even though I understand the concept, I just can't execute it.

Most of the graduate students in my lab already did a masters prior to coming here or had extensive research experience as an undergrad in top notch school and are very comfortable with research. I went to a small school without much research opportunities so I am very unfamiliar with the tools used in my research. So I am really struggling because of lack of proper technical and research background. I have been reading a lot of books and papers in the past year which has helped me strengthen my background in the subject matter but when it comes to progressing with my project it hasn't been of much help. Since all other graduate students are so comfortable with research, I feel so ashamed to be the only one who is not doing well and I don't even feel like trying anymore. Does anyone have any suggestions on how I can do better with my research?

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The two things I can suggest are: (1) get help, and (2) don't assume everyone is so much better off than you. Most people don't like to admit it when they are having a hard time, but pretty much everyone struggles to adjust in first year, and pretty much everyone feels inadequate and like everyone else is doing so much better. It sounds to me like you're doing all you can do on your own, and so now you need to get help from someone. Maybe that means taking extra classes or even some undergrad courses as background (or maybe reading the textbook is enough). But what it really sound like is that you need to find a more advanced grad student, a post doc, or your PI, to walk you through techniques you've never done before. Really, that's what the PI and the experienced folk are there for, and no one should expect you to already know everything coming in - else, why go to grad school in the first place. Since it sound to me like you have done your homework and you have very specific ideas about your research that you just don't know how to implement, I think you should talk to your PI about these ideas and ask for help with the implementation.

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Hi there, I was having a bit of a motivation issue as well. My lab is small and my PI is nice, but the techniques required to do my project are totally different from what the rest of the lab does, so I often have to figure stuff out on my own. Persistence in getting time with people who can help you is essential, eventually someone will give you some information if you keep on trying, or an eureka moment will appear! I've had both happened before. You can do it!

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I know how you feel. I am in a large group with a busy PI. I struggle with knowing when to ask for help and then actually doing it. I've actually been seeing a therapist regarding some of my anxieties about getting help and it keeps me accountable. This is important otherwise I lose motivation and procrastinate like crazy. We had two new students join our lab this year and I was really frustrated because I felt like they received a much better orientation than I received. I actually was just sitting there trying to overhear everything the postdoc was telling them, because I wasn't told this information when I joined. Would have helped me get started a lot earlier in doing actual research. I know I have to be really proactive about making sure I get the help I need, it's just difficult to do so.

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Thank you guys for your suggestion. Ktel I feel exactly like you. I am also really struggling with knowing when to ask for help. I don't know how much I should struggle on my own before I ask for help. I just feel like I am bothering the post-docs in my lab by asking them a lot of questions. Earlier when I had just joined the lab, I was working with a post-doc on a different project and I used to ask him questions when ever I had trouble understanding or executing things. He got mad at me and gave me a long lecture on grad school culture and how I was supposed to work hard and figure things out on my own. He asked me to not do the project if it is too hard for me so I had to abandon it after putting in a semester worth of work. After that I really retracted from asking for help. I don't want to piss off everyone in my lab as I have to work with them for the next couple of years. I know I need help but I just don't know who I should ask for help or how much help I should expect. I want to talk with more people but it is so hard to strike a conversation with people in my lab. Everyone is busy with their own work and just seem so uninterested in having a friendly conversation. Since research is so isolating, I am struggling because of loneliness as well. Being an international student makes it worse as well. Half of the people in my cohort is American and the rest Chinese and for me it has been really hard to fit in to either group. With the American group most of the conversations are about American pop culture and I don't understand the reference to a lot of things and I feel at loss of words and cannot participate in the conversation. I did my undergrad in the US as well and I had no trouble making friends back in college. I had both international and American friends because there was a nice balance of American and international students from different countries, so we had conversations that everyone could participate in. Not having any close friends to talk to about the struggles that I am having with research has made things even worse.

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That's really unfortunate that the postdoc reacted like that. I'm not going to be best friends with anybody in my group, but I can regularly get help without fear of admonishment at least. It seems your anxieties are founded, mine are really not.

I really recommend that you look for friends outside of your lab and department. Most of my friends are from various rugby teams that I play on. My teammates are anything from high school students to undergrads to grad students to moms to working women.

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He got mad at me and gave me a long lecture on grad school culture and how I was supposed to work hard and figure things out on my own. He asked me to not do the project if it is too hard for me so I had to abandon it after putting in a semester worth of work.

Weird, half my comment got deleted. I was responding to this and saying how annoyed I am that a postdoc would say this - yes, graduate school is about learning to figure things out on your own, but you have to learn to do that. That's what it's all about. Someone has to help show you.

Can you set up a meeting with your PI, and lay out to him the kinds of things that you need from him? If that is unsuccessful, I suggest speaking with your Director of Graduate Studies. Everyone's busy, but PIs and postdocs should be making time for graduate students and actually mentoring them not just using them as assistants.

Edited by juilletmercredi
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