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I am a second year PhD student in computer science. I see other students craving to find new problems, read papers and it's like they are enjoying it and when they find a problem, they spend endless hours trying to come up with a publishable results about it.

I talked to some people and they said, many times you get to like what you do, it's not that you always end up doing what you like - implying that this kind of excitement and motivation is something that can develop in time.

Can you give me some practical strategies that help towards gaining and maintaining a high level of excitement and motivation about research? What keeps researchers like those I described constantly interested and excited to do research?

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I find that a good way (for me) to get excited about my research is to work with some inexperienced research students - high school and undergraduate students.

Mentoring these students reminds me of the things that excited me about research when I first started: mainly, that we can come up with some problem that we think is interesting, that hasn't previously been solved, and then go ahead and solve it. I still think that is so cool, and seeing that reaction in my students reminds me all over again :) Also, I get to feel like an expert in this scenario, which helps makes me more excited about my work.

Generally, I find that spending time with others who are passionate and excited encourages those feelings in me, too.

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    1. The OP is a PhD student, so he/she does not have to work with students. 2. He/she is asking for motivation for "spending endless hours trying to come up with a publishable results" not how to enjoy talking about the research. 3. Receiving admiration from students (inexperienced people) can make the researcher overly proud, or in other words "happy for nothing". And certainly, it does not motivate a researcher to spend lots of time to read and investigate new things. – user4511 Aug 29 '14 at 4:23
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    @Vahid I'm a PhD student; this is what gets me excited about doing (not talking about) research. I can't claim this will work for everyone, but it certainly works for me. – ff524 Aug 29 '14 at 4:25
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    @VahidShirbisheh I disagree with all your comments. Being a PhD student does not at all mean that you don't get to instruct younger students. Enjoying your research is kind of a package deal - if you enjoy explaining it, you will also feel much more inclined to work further on it. And, finally, being proud of your work is a really, really good motivator for most people. – xLeitix Aug 29 '14 at 7:26
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    @xLeitix - Not in absolute terms, sir. There are also pure-research institutions, where there are no UG programs for you to assist in. (IAS, Princeton - classic example). Of course, in normal universities, there is an instructional component too, which is very valuable. Pure-research institutes lose out on something very important. But not having it also has advantages, e.g. as people in normal universities figure out in their final year! – 299792458 Aug 29 '14 at 7:34
  • @New_new_newbie Surely. But Vahid's statement was also written in very absolute terms ("1. The OP is a PhD student, so he/she does not have to work with students."), which is at least often not correct. – xLeitix Aug 29 '14 at 7:38
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Well. I think something really important is to work on a problem that you are excited about. I find it more exciting when I can explain people what I am doing, but I have also seen people that get excited the more obscure the subject they are into, so it really depends on your personality. Still, it has to be something you are passionate about.

It is not always possible to do that, especially on your first years when you are ramping up and are maybe following projects of more senior students or just working on whatever your advisor asked you to.

Still, think on problems you consider important. Think of solutions, read papers you really liked. How could you do them better? Talk with your advisor about them. If you work on a problem that you just really enjoy talking about you will feel the passion.

Talk to the senior students, they have been through that. Many of them will be happy to give you examples related to your specific area.

Best of luck

  • While I agree in theory, for many people, research has a way of gradually sucking all the joy out of their particular problem - as exciting as it was at first :( – ff524 Aug 29 '14 at 13:28
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The three answers above are all great ideas. But I'd like to expand on two of these answers with a story from my own personal experience in finding what to do for research.

If you're in the early stages of research but you're not that passionate about it, I would suggest looking for other research opportunities that inspire more passion. You may not want to switch your current focus or advisor (and at first, I didn't either), but it may very well be useful for you to explore, just to see if there might be some other arrangement that better motivates you.

In short, you might try the following:

  • find some aspect of life that you're very passionate about
  • see if you can find some research project in your field that speaks to your passion
  • find an advisor who is willing to work with you on such a project, and who fits your personality well enough for you to work with this person in an effective manner.

While cloudraven suggests to look for specific problems, I'd take it a step back from that and say that you should first look for a topic of study that speaks to a passion of yours, even if that topic is not itself within computer science. First, it may not be obvious if you can connect it with your current field of study. However, you may be surprised at the ways people have studied this topic using computer science, or the ways in which people are motivated to study some aspect of computer science because of this topic. Then, once you've linked that passion to your field of study, it may not immediately be obvious what problems are still open that you can attack. This is fine - it will require some hard work to find a specific research path, and moreover formulating your own thesis problem will likely require a lot of help from an advisor.

(Disclaimer: I'm an applied math grad student, so admittedly I may very well have a wider range of possibilities for research than students in other fields. Thus, taking a general life passion and researching it may well be easier for me than for you. However, computer science and applied math share a substantial overlap, so this advice may be somewhat relevant.)

I had been working on a project with a very interesting theoretical aspect, but the physical application did not quite excite me enough to provide the drive I needed to get anywhere on my research. Also, I was working with a well-respected and talented advisor, but we didn't meet or communicate very often. This was in part because that year he was teaching and researching at another university, but also because he had a lot of students and was otherwise busy with work. In any case, I became his student under a mutual understanding between us that I would work in a very independent fashion. While at first I thought that such an arrangement was perfect for me, it gradually became more obvious that I needed more frequent, in-person meetings to stay motivated.

And then I took a class on applied and harmonic computational analysis, a topic which is very much related to the field of music technology. I've always been a very musical person, and it's a really big passion for me. But I didn't realize that I could connect this passion with my field of study until I did a small research project for that class. People talk all the time about how music and math are related, but I never really heard much of people doing applied math projects that involved music until I actually went out myself and looked for these topics.

(If you want to hear what the problem was that motivated me, well... I wanted to make a remix of a song, but I couldn't separate out the vocal track as I wanted. Eventually, this led me to discover the topic of source separation, which arises in not just music technology but also a surprising number of academic disciplines. From there, I started discovering many other different topics that I find to be pretty cool.)

Since then, I've switched advisors and started some really fun, exciting projects. And I'm no longer nearly as worried as I used to be about whether I'm making enough progress, not only because of my passion for my project, but also because I check in weekly with my advisor.

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at some point in my college, when I was to do my science project and my advisor, whose field of study was different from pure science, It was really hard to put in my passion to get it done. Not like the passion wasn't there, but we both had different passion in respect to my field of study.. I had to convince myself that I must go through, I had to develop the passion because I would have to defend how I design it.

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If I am allowed to go into lifestyle coaching more than academic coaching, I think you should find what makes you tick. Academia is highly competitive and if you are feeling that you are not in the upper 50% now, perhaps you should take some time to consider your career choices.

Sometimes the truth hurts. Often, escaping the truth hurts more in the long run.

Having said that, my own experience is that taking a bit of a time-out and working in another field briefly helped my motivation to come back and be grateful for being in a place I enjoy and feel I can prosper in.

Also, I'm not saying there are not other success vectors. If you are top-notch at what you do and are just wondering how come another mode of research makes your colleagues tick, that's fine, and quite possibly an important asset in the long run.

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    While I appreciate that you took my feedback constructively and did not start a mudslinging duel with me (as happens often on SE), and while I like your middle two paragraphs in absolute terms, I would point out that everything would appear formidable in the early days of PhD. Happened to me, I'm sure happens to most others too. Now, a reconsideration advice in this situation is perhaps, taking things too far. It is difficult to clearly mark out when the troubles are big enough for you to think about reconsideration. There are people who go through this phase, and still complete their PhDs. – 299792458 Aug 29 '14 at 7:25

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