Dutch PhD candidates need intrinsic motivation

23 Jan, 2018

Do you remember the moment you fell in love with science? Maybe you spoke with a teacher, read a book, or saw a SciFi movie? Maybe you already knew you wanted to become a scientist at a young age, or maybe you only considered the option after your university studies. No matter the circumstance, something gave you the intrinsic motivation to venture into the unknown, and now you have a job where you are pushing the limits of mankind’s knowledge. Congratulations! You will contribute to the progress of science, and improve our understanding of the world around us. Maybe your knowledge will help cure diseases, enable further exploration the universe, or make the world a fairer place for all. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and an exceptional challenge. Only 0.6% of the Dutch population holds a PhD degree (1), so you know the bar you set for yourself is high. Therefore you will need to be equipped with intrinsic motivation to overcome adversity, solve problems, and rise to the occasion. You will need grit. And I am here to help.

Undoubtedly you already have seen, heard or experienced some of the issues that face many PhD candidates. It is noteworthy that these challenges are such that only 10% of PhD candidates in the Netherlands finish their PhD training in the allotted 4 years. First of all, the average graduation date of PhD candidates has a ten month delay. Furthermore, at some universities (VU University Amsterdam, Radboud University Nijmegen) and in some disciplines (Law) the average delay is more than 1.5 years. Also, 33% of PhD candidates has still not graduated (yet) after seven years.  These data show a harsh reality: PhD training requires 90% of PhD candidates to finish their training in an unpaid position. And one third of them get stuck in this unpaid position for over three years! Therefore, it is not surprising that recent studies have shown that the mental health of PhD candidates in the Netherlands could be better.

If you are struggling to hold on to your intrinsic motivation, you are not alone. While only 19% of the average population is at risk of a clinical depression, this number rises to a shocking 36.5% for PhD candidates at VU University Amsterdam. Furthermore, 38% of PhD candidates at Leiden University are at risk of severe psychological complaints like a depression or burn-out (6). And 27% of PhD candidates at Utrecht University showed signs of a burn-out (7). In these publications, several researchers at these universities say they are surprised by these results. It seems that most professors are unaware of the magnitude of mental health problems amongst their own PhD candidates.

Not surprisingly, one of the factors that increases the chance of poor mental health for PhD candidates is delay of the graduation date. However, the two most important factors are insufficient supervision, and experiencing an unmanageable workload. Other relevant factors include low job satisfaction, not being paid for the work, being a non-native, uncertain career opportunities after graduation, pressure to publish, and low intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, high intrinsic motivation is linked to fewer difficulties managing the workload, and fewer burn-out signs. This is why intrinsic motivation is so important during your PhD training!

As a PhD candidate you will meet your own, unique obstacles on your way to graduation. Based on the information presented above, it is likely that these obstacles will delay your graduation by several months, and this may reduce your sense of emotional well-being. High intrinsic motivation is likely to help you to persevere through the hardest parts of your training and (eventually) finish your PhD. Therefore I want to help you reconnect with your intrinsic motivation with an exercise.
Make yourself comfortable, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Imagine yourself back at the moment when you fell in love with science. Simply be with yourself in that moment. Take the time necessary for the memory grow and become vivid. Enjoy the happy, positive feelings you had in that moment. Fully reconnect with your intrinsic motivation for science.
Once you have reconnected with your intrinsic motivation in this way, it will be easier to recall it at other moments. It may help you when an experiment fails, a paper is rejected, or a supervisor is less than helpful. This feeling is yours and yours alone, it will always be within your grasp. It is a personal reminder of the beauty of your job, even when your job seems ugly. Use it!

If you want to follow up on this exercise with a more thorough coaching program, you can contact me for a free intake!


I use the word ‘PhD candidate’ instead of ‘PhD student’ because I believe all should be employees, receiving a pension and social security.


(1) http://data.uis.unesco.org/ education, educational attainment, cumulative, Netherland


If you think you may need professional help, please consult your supervisor, health and safety officer, company doctor, general practitioner, or other healthcare professional.

Image by DariuszSankowski on Pixabay

…you will need to be equipped to overcome adversity, solve problems, and rise to the occasion. You will need grit.

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