I am a math researcher working in number theory. During my college years I heard all the stories of great mathematicians, icons of the subject who dedicated most of their time to mathematics research (think Gauss, Euler etc). And that motivated me. I always seemed to do well in math at college. I secured top ranks at graduate and undergraduate exams. I cleared the national entrance exam in mathematics (CSIR, India) and got admitted into a Ph.D. programme. Now that I'm pursuing a Ph.D things are not as I had envisioned. There are days where I just don't feel like it. Some parts of math are hard and it seems like a drag. Also I conduct classes thrice a week which I am not enthusiastic about and on some days I just don't wanna do it.

I have this idea of a perfect job where you come in to work everyday and are captivated by what you do and everything just flows. But that's not what I am experiencing. Is this normal? I’m confused. Its not like I have lost interest rather that I'm not as in to it as I would like to be.

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    "I have this idea of a perfect job where you come in to work everyday and are captivated by what you do and everything just flows. " -- Yes it's called adulting sucks. You have find your own motivation to keep your interest going. Apr 18, 2017 at 12:31
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    Of course it is. This is normal for everything in life. Is this surprising? Apr 18, 2017 at 14:06
  • I think the huge majority of grad students experience this to some degree, regardless of their field (whether they admit or not). It often occurs after a year or so of starting your programme and is sometimes called second year blues. Apr 18, 2017 at 15:26
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    @lighthousekeeper: I have an answer more specific to OP then to the general case, for which it might not be quite relevant. So I'd like you to reconsider reopening for that reason.
    – einpoklum
    Apr 18, 2017 at 16:28
  • @einpoklum OK, I voted for reopening the question. Apr 18, 2017 at 17:11

2 Answers 2


This is quite normal - it is possible to be passionate about the topic, but at times, to be not so enthusiastic about the work involved. This could be a sign that you are need of a bit of a break, or in the worse case, heading towards a burnout.

A few things to reflect on:

  • Are you getting enough sleep, exercise and eating well?
  • Are you making time to visit and go out with family, friends and other like-minded academics?
  • Are you giving yourself some time out to pursue other interests and hobbies? There would have been times that the greats of the topic felt the same.

These greats of the field more than likely had days when they also could not be bothered.

Specifically, why not consider the following:

  • The days when the mathematics is very difficult, take these as challenges (rather than hurdles) to accomplish (rather than just overcome)
  • Teaching the class could be opportunities to refine your mathematical (and mathematical communication) skills and similar type of skills.
  • Is there anything you can change to make your situation more enjoyable?

It is very normal.

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    This answer is great! I wanted to draw more attention to the point about sleep, exercise, and food: Even when you aren't getting enough of these, it's very easy to think you are. I had no idea how much of an impact a period of minimal sleep and food was causing on me, until I took a week's vacation and realized what I was missing. Really carefully consider that point, and don't just blow by it like I always did.
    – apnorton
    Apr 18, 2017 at 17:20
  • @apnorton you are spot on about how critical maintaining sleeping, eating and exercise patterns are - I had the same situation.
    – user70612
    Apr 20, 2017 at 3:49

I think it's perfectly normal. While I am myself still learning to be a PhD student in a fairly math-intensive area of research, I want to share my thoughts, expressed beautifully in this comic: If you try to chase 'fun' each day as a PhD student, that might be being a bit unrealistic. Instead, try to find 'fulfilment' in your work.

Set aside a medium-sized, actionable goal for two weeks, for example: "try three completely different approaches to prove this lemma that I need". Or "write up the detailed analysis of this algorithm". That two week deadline you set for yourself to finish something which you know you'll be proud of will up your motivation (at least for those two weeks).

I have another strategy for motivation-less days when I don't feel like doing research, don't feel like reading papers, don't feel like preparing to teach, but actually need to make some progress academically: I have a lot of researchers I admire - my own advisor, the giants in my field, the rising stars winning all the recent best paper awards, etc. I have many of these people's theses downloaded onto my laptop. On days that I feel zero motivation, I actually open up a thesis and start reading it. As I finish a chapter, I am overcome by the feeling of awe that what I read was a product of intense hard work and days and days of failures followed by that one success. It makes me want to be like them and therefore go right back to work (and I also end up learning something new).

And of course, on some days, you could just do something non-academic that would make you feel good about yourself - go for a long swim/run, finish a jigsaw puzzle, cook something complicated, etc.

Don't worry! Good luck :)

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