Background - I am doing my PhD in atmospheric physics/photobiology.

Here is a scenario:

  • The experiments are complete - the results are far better than expected
  • Successfully got the computer program to work properly and have developed another
  • Papers are published
  • Much of the thesis is drafted

The light at the end of the tunnel is most definitely no longer an oncoming train.

But, at this stage, you just don't feel like working on the thesis, you do other things like cleaning, reading, watching movies - procrastination gets worse, and worse despite the submission deadline coming closer.

The procrastination resulting in more apathy towards the project, despite being fully aware of how much work has been put into the project, how much has been achieved and how little, comparatively, needs to be done.

What strategies are there to overcome this academic-apathy, particularly in this late stage of the thesis?

  • 11
    Sounds like its time for your supervisor to stop paying you. Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 11:49
  • 3
    Then think about the nice meals, the relaxing holidays, and the wonderful treasures available to you when you finish and get a job. Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 12:05
  • 20
    My reverse psychology motivation technique is working already! Good luck. Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 12:23
  • 4
    Go to this site and ponder how lucky you are. phdcomics.com/comics.php
    – bill s
    Commented Jul 6, 2013 at 13:17
  • 2
    May sound like a burnout; see: What can I do to recover from a short term burnout?. Commented Jul 6, 2013 at 21:38

4 Answers 4


My suggestion would be to set minor distinct goals for each day but not overdo them, make them manageable. Mix boring chores with more fun ones so that the fun ones become a reward. This may seem a bit vague or even wooly. The problem I think you are experiencing is that while working on a PhD you get accustomed to stress and like many (myself included) a certain stress is needed to get something, and really the best, out of oneself. This phenomena, in my case, has only gotten worse, and I simply have a hard time getting anything done unless there is some pressure that gets stress levels up. But, with certain tasks it is possible to get stuff done by breaking it down into smaller pieces because if there is no overview or goals are too nebulous then it is not easy to focus on what to do in detail.

  • That is a very good point, as on reflection, I got the program fixed while under pressure.
    – user7130
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 12:23
  • 2
    This is an excellent idea. I'm a big fan of lists, as there's a distinct jolt of pleasure from simply checking an item off a list. Even something as minor as that can be a pretty nice motivator.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 13:33
  • @eykanal that is a good point and I get the same feeling when I check things of my list. My home-office has 3 lists on the wall - 1. PhD, 2. New years resolutions (all broken - achievement!!) and 3. for work.
    – user7130
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 22:44

Here is what kept me motivated and got me through the last year of my PhD:

  1. A comment from a professor that the best dissertation is the one that is written.
  2. My advisor kept pushing me to get her chapters. I'm not sure where you stand with your advisor, but if he/she (and your committee as a whole) wants you to finish up, that can be motivating. If you want to push this angle, send out an email to your advisor and committee with your plan to finish -- that will help keep you working!
  3. I had set a deadline for myself (as mentioned in point 2), and backed all my planning up to make sure I met the deadline. It sounds like you've gotten to the point where it is just the writing you have left, and I suggest setting up a schedule of when you will complete each chapter.
  4. My deadline revolved around the job market -- I knew I needed to be ready to start at a job in August, so I knew I needed to be completely done by then.
  5. I took breaks when I needed to. I treated myself to a day off when I got a chapter completed and sent to my advisor, and I had one weekly TV program that I watched religiously. Finishing a PhD is a lot of work, but it doesn't need to be soul-crushing (and soul-crushing work is bad for you, anyway!).
  6. I really wanted to see the finished product -- I thought it was cool to have this giant, polished document, and that kept me tinkering on it.

Good luck!

  • Very good points - and yes, I do have a TV show I watch each night (Time Team), and have set a deadline for the a planned change in career (December-January).
    – user7130
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 13:22

Looks like a clear burnout sign. Instead of watching movies and cleaning. Get on a train and do something totally different. I think you are in this loophole and won't be getting out of it by doing the same stuff over and over (remember Einstein's quote). Normally you'll need just 3 days to reset your motivation. Things you can do:

  • visit new places
  • see new faces
  • talk about anything else but your PhD
  • rearrange your furniture (believe me, it helps. Your brain needs to forget old patterns)
  • don't read, watch movies or focus on anything more than 15 minutes
  • go shopping. Ladies do this all the time to get that confidence kick

Good luck.

  • 9
    ladies do this all the time — Also women. And men.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 14:57
  • 2
    @JeffE But perhaps not husbands (at least I know a few that try every trick to avoid a shopping mall:)
    – Ajasja
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 18:06

I am completing my PhD in 2 months, and had my own revelation on this subject last week, which is helping me.

My own procrastination is the result of a fear of failure and a fear of being mediocre. If I procrastinate, and don't do as well as I hope, I've then got the excuse that "I didn't really try". It was a revelation for me, because this is the very thing I've been telling myself most of my life after I don't do as well as I think I could do.

I have thus been able to accept myself, and my shortcomings, more readily now... which has removed a lot of the internal pressure to perform well. As a result I have found that I am able to work steadily. I will try my best to do as well as I can without too much pressure, and whatever the result, that will be okay.

The revelation in itself did not help so much... it was really the acceptance of myself as I am now that has allowed me to move forward.

A side benefit to this will be better performance, but that is no longer the goal.

If you can relate to this, then I suggest reading up on "Fear of Failure" on wikipedia.

Good luck!

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