Finding Meaning in Your Subject – Even if you Didn’t Choose it

It may be that you’ve already started your PGR studies and feel you initially chose your subject for extrinsic reasons or it may be that you are on a studentship that had a pre-defined question for you to research. 

In these circumstances, it may feel that your research has less personal meaning for you – that, in effect, you are less intrinsically invested in the outcome and findings [1].

This doesn’t mean that you can’t make your research more meaningful to you. 

Rather than persisting and trying to push yourself through by making yourself focus on what you ‘should’ do or on possible extrinsic rewards, it may help, instead, to take some time out to find ways to connect positively with the subject of your research [1].

There are a number of ways you may want to do this and different methods will work for different people.

You may want to begin by thinking about what is important to you in general. Create a list of things that are personally meaningful to you – it may help to ask – what do I care about? What makes me excited, passionate, determined or angry? What would I like to change in the world? What would I chose to spend my time on? 

This can be a difficult exercise at first, if you haven’t thought about it before, so give yourself time. It may also help to talk to others who know you – they may have noticed some things that you haven’t.

Try not to settle with just the first few items that you come up with – the more ideas you can generate the better.

Then take your list and look for points of connection with your research. Be broad in how you think about this – it may be about the general subject, or one specific aspect you’ve looked at or about the methodology you want to use or your publication strategy. Look for ways to invest the work you do on a day to day basis with some personal meaning.

Or you could take the 4 pillars we describe in the page “Finding Meaning In Your Subject.” 

Could your research help increase your sense of belonging with your research community within your university or nationally or even internationally?

Could your research help provide you with a sense of intrinsic purpose?

Can you bring your research together to tell a new story? – this can be particularly helpful if you are at a lost stage in your research. Finding a way to bring it into a cohesive narrative structure can give you a real boost.

Can it provide you with a sense of transcendence or can you see personal growth in your work? Perhaps it may help to mark the development of the skills, knowledge, understanding and wisdom you’ve already acquired from your studies.



Schmuck, P., Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals: Their Structure and Relationship to Well-Being in German and U.S. College Students. Social Indicators Research, 50(2), 225–241.