Student Notebook

Strategies for Developing Purpose in Your Research

After my poster recently was accepted for a conference presentation, I called my mentor to share the good news. When I told him I was thrilled to be stepping into the profession, he answered, “Zach, you are a professional.” This caused an epiphany for me: Many graduate students are trying to enter a profession of which we already are key members, with all the responsibilities that entails.

As graduate students, we sometimes lose sight of the larger purpose of our work. We take classes, do research, mentor undergraduate students, present at conferences, and produce manuscripts to prepare ourselves for the professional world. Yet in the meantime, we forget that we already are contributing to our profession by tackling meaningful issues. As graduate students, much of our research happens under the direction of peers and mentors, but we still must maintain motivation and purpose. So take these strategies into account as you continue to work toward your scientific goals.

Start With the Big Picture

As a young researcher, I had a broad interest in sports psychology and performance improvement, but I did not fully understand the purpose of developing a line of research. One day, a friend asked me, “What is the purpose of your research? What is your research going to accomplish?” I was fixated on shortsighted questions such as “Does music improve running performance?” Upon further discussion, my friend revealed that his own research goal was to find ways to eliminate obesity in the United States. At this point it dawned on me that a lack of literature on any topic does not justify a research program on that topic.

A successful research program requires purpose. An infinite amount of evidence means little without an underlying purpose. And where do you fit in the profession if you have no purpose? After some reflection, I have begun to focus my research on the goal of understanding what motivates individuals to make decisions affecting their physical and mental well-being. By focusing on the big picture, I have been able to develop a research program that I hope will make a practical difference in the world.

In a recent discussion regarding programmatic lines of research, a mentor of mine mentioned that not all studies have a profound impact on their own; a collection of related studies can reveal more than any single experiment. Nevertheless, the underlying cause driving these studies is very important. Many graduate students worry about conducting innovative research with specialized methodology, but it is important for us to start with the big picture. For example, are you interested in conducting research to address worldwide epidemics such as obesity or social problems such as prejudice? Keeping the big picture in mind as you tackle individual research questions will help you define your purpose and stay motivated.

Follow Your Natural Interests

My undergraduate mentor in kinesiology (the study of human body movement) used to preach “living the profession.” In my case, an interest in sports and performance led me to kinesiology, but a concern for the effects of reasoning and motivation on well-being guided me toward psychological science. I chose to integrate these interests to understand the cognitive and motivational processes carried out when making health-related decisions.

A former professor of mine perfectly illustrates how interests can inform research. As an active physical therapist specializing in gait adjustment, he was so interested in this topic that he would go to the mall just to notice and diagnose gait abnormalities in the people around him. Framing your natural interests and observations into a research program is one way to guarantee that you will continue to find inspiration for your work.

Take Advantage of Opportunities

Sometimes, you need to gain hands-on experience to fully appreciate the underlying purpose of an area of research. For this reason, it is important to network with peers and professors, apply for grants, and submit presentations and manuscripts. The APS Student Caucus offers several volunteer opportunities for student members, such as serving as an APSSC Campus Representative at your university, participating in the APS Mentorship Program, and becoming a reviewer for APSSC research competitions.

Although centering research on your own interests can provide purpose, getting an outside perspective can help you keep your ideas fresh. By taking advantage of opportunities to interact with other scientists, you will be exposed to new perspectives. In addition, receiving feedback from peers and professionals at conferences is a great way to network with others and develop research questions and interests.

Become a Mentor

A great way to build purpose and meaning in your research is to mentor an undergraduate student. Many ambitious undergraduates at your university probably are looking to become involved in research. By supervising and teaching undergraduates, you will gain valuable mentoring experience that may help you develop your sense of purpose and ambition. Teaching, encouraging, and inspiring younger researchers to establish their own research program can also serve as a reminder of the broader purpose of your work.

Though the day-to-day tasks of graduate school may sometimes cloud your sense of meaning, find time to re-energize yourself. Reminding yourself of the big picture, following your natural interests, diving into new opportunities, and becoming a mentor can help you insert purpose into your work.


For a new graduate student–which I am–this is very helpful. Thank you.

Of course, Laura! Good luck with your studies!

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