Finding the Motivation to Pursue, and Finish, Your Education

City Runner

During an eight-mile training run recently, my thoughts turned to “Why do I run?” and “Why do I keep going?” Chuckling to myself, I knew the answers immediately. I run because of the numerous health benefits, and I keep going to achieve my goals. I think these ideas translate well to finding the motivation to get an education.

I began running mid-way through my doctoral program, seeking mental clarity and an alternative to sitting in classes, the library, and in my make-shift basement study space. It felt good to demand performance from my body just as I was demanding performance from my brain. I was raised in a family that put a premium on internal motivation and high expectations, so they were not surprised when I decided my first race would be a half-marathon.

Much like running, pursuing higher education requires an internal focus and a “fire in the belly.” This fire fuels the passion and motivation to keep going, despite self-doubt, overwhelming challenges, or fatigue. If earning a college or advanced degree was easy, everyone would have multiple degrees, just like everyone would have a dozen road-race medals hanging on their wall if running were easy. This fire in the belly or desire to achieve goals is what drives people to go beyond what is easy in order to accomplish something more. In my opinion, without that drive to achieve, higher education becomes a chore that is dropped when the going gets tough. Answering the question — “Why am I seeking an education?” enhances motivation to explore your education options, to apply to a degree program, to finish a course, and to complete a capstone, thesis, or dissertation.

A lot of research focuses on motivation, beginning with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954). According to Maslow’s theory, after meeting basic physiological and safety needs, individuals may focus on meeting social, esteem, and ultimately self-actualization needs (Petty, 2014). One may argue seeking higher education may be an attempt to meet these more advanced needs because a sense of belonging, achievement, and fulfillment can result from successful educational pursuits (Petty, 2014).

An additional theory was developed in 1964 by Vroom, who identified two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Individuals with intrinsic motivation experience satisfaction when involved in an activity they find interesting, whereas, those who are extrinsically motivated derive satisfaction as a result of an external reward or avoidance of punishment when completing the task (Leal, Miranda & Carmo, 2013). Lastly, examining one’s environment, support systems, and other non-academic factors is also critical when evaluating motivation, persistence, and academic achievement (Allen, 1999).

Dig deep to discover your motivation(s) for seeking an education. Is it enough to carry you through to the finish? Do you want to learn for the sake of learning (intrinsic motivation)? Will you reap rewards or benefits from your course of study (extrinsic motivation)?  Evaluate your “non-academic” factors that affect your ability to achieve.  Are your basic needs met? Do you have support from family, friends, and coworkers/supervisors? Perhaps most importantly, do you have “grit?” Described as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” and possessing “the energy and determination to stay focused on the pursuit of goals over a period of time, and the fortitude to persevere despite challenges, adversity, and failure,” grit may be more important than intelligence in predicting success (Taylor-Massey, 2015, np).

Searching for an appropriate conclusion for this article led me to Jenna Wolfe’s “3 ways to find workout motivation when you’d rather give up” (2015).  These tips easily translate to pursuing and completing, your education.

  1. Focus on each step or rep. Focus on each step of the application process, each learning objective, assignment, project, and course. Celebrate small wins and accomplishments on your way to your goal.
  2. Visualize your goals. Picture your framed diploma hanging on your wall, or wearing your cap and gown, crossing the stage at commencement.
  3. Talk to yourself. Be gritty. Remind yourself that you’ve got this! Believe in yourself.

I believe in you!

Want some more motivation and advice? Check out these other ValuED articles:
Career Planning: Finding Your Calling and Living it Out
What it Really Takes to Be a Successful Student
Advice for Returning to School After a Long Hiatus

Allen, D. (1990).  Desire to finish college: An empirical link between motivation and persistence.  Research in Higher Education, 40(4), 461-485.
Leal, E. A., Miranda, G. J., & Carmo, C. R. S. (2013).  Self-determination theory: An analysis of student motivation in an accounting degree program. Revista Contabilidade & Finanças  24(62). São Paulo.  Retrieved at

Petty, T. (2014). Motivating first-generation students to academic success and college completion. College Student Journal 48(1), 257-264).

Maslow, A. H. (1954).  Motivation and personality (3rd ed).  New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc.

Taylor-Massey, J. (2015).  What it really takes to be a successful student. ValuED blog retrieved at

Vroom, V. H. (1964).  Work and motivation.  New York: Wiley.

Wolfe, J. (2015).  3 ways to find workout motivation when you’d rather give up. Today blog Retrieved at

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