Finding Meaning in Your Subject

One way of ensuring that you are intrinsically motivated as a PGR student, is to choose a research topic that is meaningful to you. If you find the subject of your research personally meaningful, it will be easier to maintain the desire and energy to keep going, even when experiencing challenges. If, on the other hand, you have chosen your topic to impress others, because it may lead to a job or just to get the title Doctor, you may well be discouraged and be more likely to give up when things go wrong [1].

Esfahani-Smith (2017) [2] identified 4 pillars of meaning. Belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence and that these pillars lead to a fifth important element – growth.

You can think about using these pillars to choose and shape the subject you want to study.


Can you chose a subject that will allow you to join an existing community of researchers, with whom you can share a mission and a passion? Will you feel a sense of belonging with other similarly minded people? This is also important when choosing your university or department – is there a strong community for you to be a part of or will you be left on your own?


Can you choose a subject that you feel is important and are passionate about? If your research improved understanding of this subject, could it help you, the people you know, oppressed people, your country or the world in general? When you think about the subject, do you feel a positive emotional response like excitement or determination?


Could your research change the way we understand and talk about something? Could your research result in you having a different story to tell about ourselves or the world? Is there an unheard story that you think should be heard and can be advanced by your work?


Transcendence is the sense of moving through our ordinary experiences to something beyond, often captured as an experience of awe. Could your research help to connect you with experiences, discoveries and learning that help you to experience awe or transcendence? For example, being awestruck by something in nature or the cosmos or connecting with something through creative work (particularly if you are pursuing an arts based PhD).

A PhD that is supported by any of these pillars will also help you to grow and develop as a researcher and as an individual. Remember, focussing intrinsically on how your research can improve your learning for the long term, will be better for your wellbeing and the quality of your work [3]; [4]. 

Make sure that your subject is meaningful to you. Post-graduate research takes a long time and a lot of effort. Sustaining that effort over time will be easier, more rewarding and more enjoyable if you care about the subject you are researching.



Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L., (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020


Esfahani Smith, E. (2017). The Power of Meaning. London: Penguin Random House


Sheldon, K, Ryan, R, Deci, E & Kasser, T. (2004). The Independent Effects of Goal Contents and Motives on Well-Being: It’s Both What You Pursue and Why You Pursue It. PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN. 30 (4), 475-486


Ryan, R & Stiller, J. (1991). The social contexts of internalization: Parent and teacher influences on autonomy, motivation and learning. Advances in motivation and achievement.