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5 inspiring TED Talks for PhD students

All TED Talks are inspiring, but some deliver exactly the right “good medicine” at it exactly the right time. Looking for a spot-on spark of motivation, stimulation or provocation during your PhD studies? If so, look no further than these five TED Talks perfectly suited for grad student life.

Jan 16, 2017
  • Student Tips

All TED Talks are inspiring, but some deliver exactly the right “good medicine” at it exactly the right time. Looking for a spot-on spark of motivation, stimulation or provocation during your PhD studies? If so, look no further than these five TED Talks perfectly suited for grad student life.

1. “The Power of Vulnerability,” by Brené Brown

Brené Brown knows what it’s like to be a doctoral student -- she’s been there, done that. In “The Power of Vulnerability,” she details her years-long journey into researching the roots of vulnerability in order to eventually determine, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

The ultimate takeaway? In order to reach the highest highs, we sometimes need to endure the lowest lows. In other words, only in acknowledging our mistakes, dealing with our failures, and embracing our vulnerabilities can we truly accept ourselves. Concludes Brown with advice fitting for every graduate student at one point or another, “The most important thing is to believe that we are enough. That thought relaxes us, makes us gentler, kinder to ourselves and the people around us. We will start listening to others rather than complaining. We will have a more peaceful world to live in.“

2. “The Future of Flying Robots,” by Vijay Kumar

There’s a reason why professor Vijay Kumar’s “The Future of Flying Robots” is one of the 20 most popular TED Talks of all time. Not only does it detail Kumar’s fascinating research into the vast potential of flying robots (particularly in the field of precision farming), but it does so with refreshing humor and honesty. If you need a dose of belief -- both in the power of technology and the capacity of your fellow humankind for innovation and ingenuity -- you’ll find it here...and then some. And did we happen to mention that drones are flying in and out in the midst of Kumar’s talk?

3. “Questioning the Universe,” by Stephen Hawking

We’re all trying to make sense of the universe in whatever limited, microscopic way we can. But if anyone’s got an inside edge on figuring it all out, it’s legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. In “Questioning the Universe,” Hawking breaks down three of the biggest, keep-you-up-at-night questions into surprisingly simple explanations: how did the universe come into being, whether we’re alone in it, and what is the future of the human race?

As for living with debilitating ALS since the age of 21, Hawking -- who was not expected to live past the age of 25 post-diagnosis -- says, “I have been very lucky” that my disability has not been a serious handicap. Indeed, it has probably given me more time than most people to pursue the quest for knowledge.” Hawking clearly hasn’t sunken into self-pity; so what’s your excuse?

4. “Why We Procrastinate,” by Vik Nithy

Think your life as a graduate student would be so much better if you could just stop procrastinating? In Vik Nithy’s TED Talk “Why We Procrastinate,” the successful young entrepreneur insists that procrastination is a mind game, and one he’s gone a few rounds with himself. The key to winning, he says? “Something called metacognition: Thinking about thinking. So we have to acknowledge that we aren’t going to be the ones making the decision to study tomorrow. We’re going to have this spontaneous lazy monkey making decisions on our behalf because we’re too scared to do it ourselves.”

But just because there’s a psychological reason for procrastination doesn’t mean we have to let it rule our lives. Nithy also suggests several useful strategies for managing this common graduate student’s lament -- all aligned with an apt Napoleon Hill quote, “Don’t wait. The time will never be just right.”

5. “How to Make Hard Choices,” by Ruth Chang

We make choices every day. Some are as small as what to have for lunch, and others are as magnitudinous as which career to pursue or whether to marry. For PhD students, these decisions often take on even more weight. After all there’s no small amount of sacrifice involved in getting a PhD, so the pressure to get everything right can be sky-high. In “How to Make Hard Choices,” Chang proposes the value in reframing our mindsets not to see things not as right and wrong or better and worse when facing “hard choices,”, but instead as possibility-filled alternatives -- each an opportunity in its unique way.

Chang’s parting words? “Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition, that the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and it is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that's why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.”

No one ever said being a graduate student was easy. But it’s a lot easier with some inspiration. And while you can kick back and wait for the feeling to strike, why not take Nithy’s advice and make a plan to watch these five Ted Talks instead?

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Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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