The Hypomotivated Trainee

October 28, 2007

We have been asked by an interested reader to address the topic of “The Hypomotivated Trainee”. Here are my thoughts, from the perspective of the PI.

As a preliminary matter, it is key to recognize that motivation is not just a matter of quantity, but also quality. Post-doctoral and graduate trainees are not only different in how much they are motivated, but also in the nature of their motivations.

Some are focused on just doing interesting science. Some are working towards the goal of eventually achieving scientific independence and becoming independent PIs themselves. Some don’t know why they are doing what they are doing, and may not even have ever asked themselves. Some are preparing themselves for working as scientists in industry. Some may be preparing themselves for non-scientific careers in which they make use of their scientific training: science journalism, business, law, public policy, etc. And some are just happy to have somewhere to go every day and receive a paycheck.

Before a PI can begin to think about how deal with a “hypomotivated” trainee, she has to figure out what motivates the trainee. The worst mistake the PI can make is to assume that every one of her trainees is motivated by the same things she was when she was a trainee. This is because the only effective way to increase the quantity of motivation of a trainee whose effort is flagging is to convince him that achieving his own goals is dependent on such an increase. Like any manager/mentor it is the job of the PI to get the most out of every trainee in her lab.

What I am saying applies most emphatically to small and/or young labs. The failure of even a single trainee to be productive can be risky for the lab as a whole, leading to such disasters as failure to obtain funding, publish papers, and gain tenure for the PI. And of course the failure of a trainee to be productive is a disaster for the trainee himself. In larger labs, it is less of an issue for the lab itself if a single trainee fails, but no less for the trainee himself.

OK, so with these preliminaries out of the way, what about the actual nuts-and-bolts? For trainees who are motivated by a true passion for doing science and/or a desire for ultimate independence, all it usually takes is a reminder of these goals and what it takes to achieve them: sustained, passionate effort. Reminding these kinds of trainees that they are engaged in a zero-sum game in which there will be very few winners and a large number of losers can be helpful.

Trainees who are motivated by a desire to transition out of academic science and into either industry or science-related but non-science careers need to be inculcated with the understanding that their success, or lack thereof, as trainees will have a large impact on the status, independence, and income they can achieve in their post-training careers.

Trainees who are just happy to have somewhere to go every day can only be motivated to increase effort by their fear of losing their positions. Trainees who are clueless about why they are engaged in scientific training need to be led through the process of discovering what they want out of the training experience.

There are also a few general principles that apply regardless of a particular trainee’s personal motivations. First, everybody likes to have fun. And fun is infectious. A PI who is having fun leading her trainees in the pursuit of interesting scientific questions, and who makes it clear to her trainees how much fun she is having, creates a fun environment. And a fun environment is a productive, motivational environment.

Second, there is a specific type of hypomotivation that can occur in any of the types of trainees I outlined above when experiments go badly for an extended period of time. After a sustained period of experimental failure, some trainees develop the mindset that nothing they do is ever going to work. And this mindset becomes self-fulfilling.

It is just like hitting a baseball. When a batter is in a slump, he tightens up; every time he comes up to bat, he just knows he is not going to get a hit. The only way to come out of a slump is to loosen up, relax, and feel confident that hits will come.

Slumps are inherent in any pursuit where great success is defined statistically as succeeded in relatively few attempts. In baseball, a .300 hitter is one of the very best; in science, the vast majority of experiments don’t work. So trainees in an experimental slump need to be convinced that if they just relax and keep plugging away, experiments will start to work. Sometimes, stepping back from a difficult series of experiments and just doing some easy basic stuff can break a slump. (This is part of the purpose of batting practice: to hit non-challenging pitches and reinforce the mindset that hitting is easy.)

Third, and perhaps most pernicious, is a special kind of hypomotivation that hides behind a facade of tremendous experimental effort and productivity. The goal of any scientist should be to design and perform experiments that ultimately provide clear-cut answers to specific questions. In the beginning of a project, however, the experiments tend to be much more exploratory, and less oriented towards giving answers to specific yes-no questions.

As a scientist develops a picture of whatever phenomenon she is interested in, she should begin to move decisively towards the yes-no experiments. But it can be frightening to do the decisive experiments, because they could result in an answer that is much less exciting than best-outcome hopes, or even an answer that indicates that all of the exploratory effort already put in was wasted.

In this kind of psychological context, some trainees (and even PIs) exhibit experimental Brownian motion. They take little experimental steps left-and-right, back-and-forth, but never move decisively towards answering the key question. This protects them from the fear of possibly finding out that they have been largely wasting their time, but gets them no closer to a possibly exciting result.

The trainee begins to confuse an illusory productivity of performing lots of experimental procedures to the real productivity of answering lots of scientific question. In this situation, the only thing a PI can do is to explicitly work out with the trainee what the key experiments are, and then firmly insist that the trainee perform those experiments “now”.

To summarize, trainees need to be motivated by (1) a lot of desire to reach their post-training goals, (2) a lot of fun, and (3) some seasoning of fear of failure.

4 Responses to “The Hypomotivated Trainee”

  1. Thomas Robey Says:

    It is so nice to see you writing posts, physioprof! Although I must say you have posting quality content in your comments all along.

    You say:

    So trainees in an experimental slump need to be convinced that if they just relax and keep plugging away, experiments will start to work. Sometimes, stepping back from a difficult series of experiments and just doing some easy basic stuff can break a slump.

    Whether this is possible is totally up to the environment set up by the PI, and if I ever have trainees – doctoral, medical or whatever – I hope I can facilitate this. You are right to set this apart from the having fun point. My experience in a ‘driven’ lab with a PI that also liked to have fun and encouraged trainees to do so was that having fun and successful experiments were too often conflated.


  2. A superb and insightful post, PhysioProf. I’ve often used the baseball analogy as well, modifying it to point out that hitting .400 is the most difficult feat in baseball and hasn’t been done since 1941.

    For those in a slump, it also bears mentioning a quote from Oliver Smithies from an article written well before this year’s Nobel announcement:

    “It’s very important to like the process,” Smithies says. “If you don’t, you will be disappointed because you only get exciting results occasionally. You get the process all the time.”


  3. bikemonkey Says:

    Great one PhysioProf, gold nuggets throughout. With respect to the goal-dependent training track in the lab, the big thing this recommends is honest communication. Throughout the training stint. One to the biggest difficulties is going to be that people’s motivations change, even across a not-atypical 5 year posting in a lab. Also, as in that Chronicle piece on time “wasted” training anyone not going on to BigResearch or BigProfdom, one has to deal with the trainee being comfortable not maintaining a career fiction…

    Abel Pharmboy “‘It’s very important to like the process,” Smithies says. “If you don’t, you will be disappointed because you only get exciting results occasionally. You get the process all the time.'”

    It’s funny because there are many ways in which getting one’s daily fix from a particular model, or whatnot can be counter productive to the big picture of science. Model dependency is the “Small Town Grocer” in that cartoon and, while ok if well chosen, can lead to a life of funding and promotion stress. Still, the counter to this is captured in the quote passed along here. I tell trainees that it is okay to admit a substantial part of the motivation is “I get to work with [Model X}! whoo hoo!”. It has worked to get me through rough spots for sure…


  4. BugDoc Says:

    I have some really bright trainees that like doing science and contribute to an engaging atmosphere in the lab. However, I am trying to communicate to them that in addition to enjoying the work (very important), you also need to bring intensity to your experiments if you want to be successful. Some students don’t need to be told this and do experiments quickly because they really want to know the answer ASAP. Others do experiments whenever they get around it, and don’t distinguish between getting the result this week rather than in three weeks. For my part, I am committed to supporting them in whatever their career goals are, be they academia, industry, teaching, etc, but it seems to me that whatever job you are interviewing for, intensity and a strong work ethic make a big impact in addition to your research accomplishments.


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