I am wondering if academics (Professors, Researchers etc.) who usually have to spend their lives on research get bored of the subject or get tired of research?

In this case, I want to know how they stay motivated - for example Nobel Laureates more often spend a large part of their life (15 - 20 years) on specific research. So how do they stay motivated?

  • 27
    Well academia.SE seems pretty well populated so
    – zeldredge
    Apr 1, 2015 at 1:31
  • 13
    Like any career: change jobs/topics and have hobbies, friends, family, ect. Apr 1, 2015 at 2:50
  • 11
    Followup question: Do people get bored of life?
    – Carsten S
    Apr 1, 2015 at 10:37
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    No - they get bored of marking.
    – Dɑvïd
    Apr 1, 2015 at 21:08
  • 4
    @David But that's what grad students are for.
    – Loocid
    Apr 1, 2015 at 23:31

5 Answers 5


What helps, I think, is that "research" is not a single thing but a complex of many different activities. If I am feeling burned out on paper-writing, perhaps I find my joy in coding or mathematics or sketching new project ideas. Likewise when I am happy about papers but feeling burned out on something else. At a larger scale, even a "unified" line of research has many distinct facets that may feel quite different when one is actually closely engaged with it. Thus, I see no difficulty in the idea of remaining interested and engaged for a long period of time. I have been so for nearly 20 years (counting undergraduate research work as well) and I see no reason to expect my interest to fail any time soon. Funding, of course, is an entirely different story.

  • Brilliant Answer! It was exactly what I needed - Thanks!
    – user26985
    Apr 1, 2015 at 17:28
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    From a motivation theory perspective, factors such as self-efficacy (belief in one's ability to achieve competency in something) and ability (actual competency) have a lot to do with one's motivation to engage in an activity. There is also the issue of "extrinsic" (contingent on external validation and achievement relative to others) vs. intrinsic (inherent satisfaction/interest in process regardless of outcome) motivation. If one findings research intrinsically motivating (worth doing for its own sake), there is better chance of sticking with it without getting bored over the long term.
    – A.S
    Apr 2, 2015 at 14:20
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    @Aymor And it's hard to make it to a PI position without strong intrinsic motivation...
    – jakebeal
    Apr 2, 2015 at 15:07

My spouse almost never gets tired of research. This is a person who loves collaborating with people, helping students, tinkering with equipment, tinkering with data analysis programs, analyzing data, writing papers, reviewing papers, editing papers, planning the next experiment. My son, on the other hand, is cut from different cloth. As my spouse would say, this is a guy who is more of a tool user than a tool maker.

I heard an interview with a surgeon on the radio once. She said, "Don't become a surgeon unless you feel that you can't do anything else." Meaning, unless there's nothing else that would satisfy you. That's the way my spouse is. I don't think anything else would be anywhere near as interesting or satisfying for this person.

My spouse did change sub-fields about halfway through, feeling that the first sub-field was well understood and rather saturated, and wanting more of a challenge. It was a good change.


There cannot be a single answer because people are different.

I'm on a first name basis with a nobel laureate in his seventies who abandoned all academic work immediately after retirement; he says that he could no longer bear the politics, jealousy, intrigue in academia.

My PhD advisor, on the other hand, just turned 92 and still goes to university two or three days per week. He has macular degeneration, but uses a 27" display to keep up with the literature in his field. He's aware that some of the younger profs at the department think that he's just an old fool, but he doesn't care.

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    I think the jury is still out on who is a 'fool' (old or young)...until these youngers get to be his age! (if they make it that far) I say well done. Sometimes consistent routine at all costs (including ridicule) is the best weapon against demise in old age.
    – A.S
    Apr 2, 2015 at 14:13
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    I believe this is a situation in which Clarke's first law is likely to apply.
    – jakebeal
    Apr 5, 2015 at 12:25

Not only could researchers become bored with their research, but in some sense, it seems the current system of evaluation amplifies this process. Indeed, there is a strong emphasis on specialization, which in some sense is guarantied to make you THE expert of a sufficiently narrow field. It is initially cozy to be such an expert, but then the risk involved in moving away from this soft spot is a deterrent to what truly keeps researchers on their toes, namely curiosity and risk taking. If not, they get bored and it seems some of them find it their duty to manage other people's research.

In this case, I want to know how they stay motivated ?

Let curiosity drive your research, not impact. Move around fields, places, be opened to new ideas. Talk to young people. Try and be creative. Go to conferences/schools outside your field of expertise. Be ridiculously ambitious about your scientific goals (that should keep you busy for a while...)

  • 2
    +1 Insightful to recognize boredom as an unfortunate side effect of the systemic pressures for specialization, and good suggestions (even if somewhat idealistic for early-career researchers) about how to avoid these pitfalls.
    – Corvus
    Apr 2, 2015 at 22:42
  • @Corvus if an early career researcher is already bored he should do something else :-)
    – chris
    Apr 3, 2015 at 7:05

Sure, I think boredom occurs, but boredom itself is not strictly negative. I think being mindful of it, helps a researcher identify when s/he feels that s/he has already contributed her/his most impactful work on a topic, and that it would be better to move to a new topic (or even subject). Perhaps never finding yourself bored within a narrow scope is worse?

From Richard Hamming's "You and Your Research" speech (http://www.paulgraham.com/hamming.html):

You have to change. You get tired after a while; you use up your originality in one field. You need to get something nearby. [...] What happens to the old fellows is that they get a technique going; they keep on using it. They were marching in that direction which was right then, but the world changes. There's the new direction; but the old fellows are still marching in their former direction[...] You need to get into a new field to get new viewpoints, and before you use up all the old ones.

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