Why Undertake Postgraduate Research?

There are many reasons why someone might decide to undertake post-graduate research. Some of these reasons may be internal to the individual (intrinsic) such as a desire to learn more, to grow or to help solve important problems. Other reasons may have a more external focus (extrinsic) such as to improve job prospects, gain the respect of others or because it is a requirement of your current job [1]; [2].

For most people there will be a mix of motivations – you might really care about your subject and so want to learn more and want improve your future job prospects. This is completely normal and completely ok. However, the balance and mix between internal and external motivators will have a significant bearing on your ability to flourish while studying and to succeed academically [3].

If you care passionately about the subject of your research, if you believe it is important and meaningful and if it is something that you enjoy, then it will be much easier to maintain motivation, creativity, concentration and energy. Post-graduate research is demanding and takes place over a long time period. Being able to continue to engage with focus, drive and enjoyment will mean that you are more likely to overcome problems when they inevitably arise, maintain your wellbeing and be successful in your research [4].

On the other hand, if you are mainly motivated by external factors such as the prospect of getting a high paying job in the future or wanting to impress other people, then it will be much harder to push yourself through difficult problems, periods of doubt and the hard work that is required to research at this level [5].

The PGR students in our co-creation panels were clear that when they encountered problems, being able to call on their passion for the subject was key to helping them keep going and find solutions.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations have a significant impact on our wellbeing and ability to succeed [6]. We’ll talk more about this and the research behind it in the next section. 

Of course, it is important to think about what you will study and how you will study it – but it is equally important to think about the why – why do you want to spend all of this time and energy studying this subject?

Connecting Intrinsically

Before you Start

Before you begin a PhD or a research Masters, think about why you want to study that subject. Is it something that has personal meaning for you? When you think about learning more about the subject, how do you react emotionally? Do you feel excited or just feel that it will be tolerable?

Your head and other people may try to persuade you to choose a research topic that has ‘job prospects.’ Of course, this is important but don’t let it push you to pick an area of study that appears to have good job prospects but is something that doesn’t really interest you. After all, this would only qualify you to do a job that you aren’t really interested in either.

Think about those things in the world that you are passionate about, care about, believe in and think are important and try to connect the subject of your study to these things.

After you’ve Started your Research

If you’ve already begun your research, this exercise is still worthwhile. Asking yourself ‘why this subject?’ and finding reasons to connect intrinsically, can still give your motivation a boost and may shape how you want to take the next phase of your research forward. Even if at first there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection, persist with the exercise – identify those things you do care about and if you can relate your passions to your research in any way. If you can’t find any connections it may help to discuss this with your supervisor or a counsellor in your university.

We talk more about motivations throughout the site.

Video Resources

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PGR Students Discuss what Inspired them to do Their PGR Studies

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PGR Students Discuss the Driving Force Behind Doing Their Studies

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Supervisors Discuss Having Personal Meaning to the PhD Topic

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Supervisors Discuss Choosing the Topic of the PGR Studies

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The Inspiration and Driving Force Behind Doing PGR Studies



Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Be careful what you wish for: Optimal functioning and the relative attainment of intrinsicand extrinsicgoals. InP. Schmuck &K.M.Sheldon(Eds.),Lifegoalsandwell-being:Towardsa positive psychology of human striving (pp. 116–131). Goettingen: Hogrefe & Huber.


Kotera, Y., Adhikari, P., & Van Gordon, W. (2018). Motivation types and mental health of UK hospitality workers. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 16, 751–763. https://doi.org/10.1007 /s11469-018-9874-z


Eccles, J, & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational Beliefs, Values, and Goals. Annual Review of Psychology. 53,(1), 109-132


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


Ryan, R & Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67


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