After joining a research group, I discovered my colleagues are always lowly motivated. They play card games and online games, and they listen to songs with the loudspeakers on all the time. They never discuss research-related things, and the only time they open a spreadsheet is to calculate some kinds of points in online games. This all happens in office hours in the laboratory.

I expected my colleagues would be happy to discuss with me about research problems, but it turns out nobody is willing to do this except my supervisor and some of the post-docs. They just focus on their entertainment. I do not know why they want to do a PhD; maybe they just want to delay their entry into the job market. However I really want to be trained as a good researcher and I am serious about my PhD. I cannot stay motivated all the time because their attitudes seem to gradually be affecting me, and the atmosphere is simply full of laziness. I can notice myself sometimes lowering my standard in research work now.

My supervisor seems ok with it and does not get angry at their slow and boring progress. My research interest matches quite well with my supervisor's, and I do not want to change my supervisor just because of those lowly motivated students. How can I still be motivated in a lowly motivated environment?

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    Build up an online environment. If you consider the whole world as your research group, surely you will find some motivated colleagues with research interests matching your own to associate with. Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 14:30
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    Start reading PHD Comics, you will better understand your comrades then. Also it will use up a lot of the time you are now worrying about why everyone isn't motivated. Have linked you the first comic, just click on the next button when you have read it. :)
    – user18193
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 15:03
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    "the only time they open a spreadsheet is to calculate some kinds of points in online games" Well, you wouldn't want them using a spreadsheet for serious analysis would you? Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 16:16
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    Also note you're just contributing to the #1 procrastination excuse there currently exists on the net ;-) Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 16:34
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    @dmckee Spreadsheet can also be powerful and useful if use correctly.
    – bingung
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 18:42

2 Answers 2


Let' start with the obvious:

They play card games, computer online games

It is none of your business what they do on their PC, if they do not scream, yell or make noise. But even then, noise is also encountered on all working environments (even 2 students arguing about their research is enough to make another student not able to work). So, bring your headphones and shut them out.

...listen to songs with the loudspeakers on all the time.

If that bothers you, you must ask them (ask not tell) to stop. You have the right to not wanting to listen to their music. If they lower the volume, this is also a logical compromise. Again, bringing your headphones might help.

I do not know why they want to do a PhD, maybe they just want to delay the time joining the job market.

Probably they do not either. Still, it is not your business nor you are their supervisor to judge their performance. You must only be interested in YOUR performance.

My supervisor seems ok with it and does not get angry at their slow and boring progress.

Again, it is not your business what your supervisor does with his other students. Focus on yourself and your research problems.

You should realize that in any job (in or outside academia), not all people show the same dedication or have the same motivation towards their work. Some are slow unintentionally, others slack and many will just do the bare minimum not to get fired. Of course there are also many other who do their best, in order to be the best at what they do. It is always a matter of choice (and abilities) and people have different degrees of motivation and dedication. Again, you should not let others dictate what you do with your life or PHD and always imitate / get influenced by those that you look up to (hard working people) and not people you do not want to be like (like your PHD co-students). So, it is not clear why those playing games on their PC, influence how you do your work. On the other hand, if your working environment is notoriously bad, consider to:

  • Work some days per week from home if that is possible with your research and your supervisor is OK with that.

  • Come at office hours, where it is less crowded (e.g. earlier than other students)

  • Is there another shared office which you can use? Ask your supervisor about that but do it in a discrete way not to alienate yourself with the other co-students on a personal level.

Good luck

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    When you get to a place and everybody is shouting you have to shout, if everybody is whispering you will whisper not to stand out of the crowd. Low motivation is contagious and people may not notice how deep it's rotting them until they change to a different environment, where everything may seem from a different universe. Minding your own business may be a terrible mistake leading to a slippery slope of slack. Being self-satisfied is extremely easy in a sloppy environment and when the perception doesn't adjust to reality we have a bubble that can burst very painfully.
    – Trylks
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 10:44
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    For the shouts I agree, because they hinder your performance - attention span. But you cannot expect motivation from outside. A PHD is quite a lonely journey for many people (what if you are the only PHD student of a supervisor?) and counting on others for inspiration sometimes it is not feasible
    – Alexandros
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 10:49
  • Inspiration and motivation is good, but not necessary or guaranteed. Analogously, demotivation is bad, but not necessary or unavoidable.
    – Trylks
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 12:19
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    I disagree about "minding your own business" as a solution. I very much relate to OP's question, and I generally am very motivated about my research and academic career. However, as Trylks pointed out, I find it that a person achieves higher goals if they have people to look up to and to take a cue from (especially in the beginning of one's career). I remember a quote along the lines of "If you're the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room." (substitute "smart" with the relevant quality here).
    – Pandora
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 13:42
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    I have mixed feelings about this answer - yes, on a philosophical level everybody is responsible for their own PhD, but practically speaking it just is much more difficult to remain motivated when everybody else slacks off (and is getting away with it).
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 12:05

Flee or fight.

Flee is obvious. Fight means focusing on your goals and finding something rewarding.

I've experienced low motivation, I am at this precise moment suffering high temperatures and lots of noise, the work environment is very important and it will have a toll in your productivity (and your career) if it is not the right one.

The point is, either you leave to a better place (if possible, that depends on several factors) or if you decide to stay then you need to compensate from that toxic environment.

I read some time ago a blog post titled hack your motivation, which could be useful. In general what I find most motivating is keeping track of my progress, on a daily or even hourly basis, either writing a section of a paper, running/conducting an experiment, programming some class or complex method, or anything else. Anything that gives you the feeling of making some progress.

That's probably why your colleagues are wasting their time, games provide some fictional reward, some fictional and imaginary sense of achievement, games are like porn in that sense (no real sex, only fiction and imagination). What I mean, in short is: gamify your research. You all will be playing games, but you will be playing the right one (assuming you do the gamification right).

This site is a good example of gamification. I have 2093 points already! I would feel less sick with some A/C, though...

What you have to ponder are your chances in this flee or fight scenario. I can't tell you whether you will have more success running to a less toxic environment or reducing the toxicity for you. It depends on the opportunities that you can find to flee and how strong is your motivation and gamification to fight toxicity.

That's your decision and yours alone.

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    +1 for the game part! Especially "You all will be playing games, but you will be playing the right one". That's one approach I'm attempting when feeling unmotivated. (Also, "hear, hear!" about the A/C.)
    – Pandora
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 13:47

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