We are often told passion is one of the most important aspects of a PhD. That if you don’t like your topic or field of study, you are doomed from the start. It is idyllic, actually: being so passionate about your topic that you will never procrastinate, you will put in 110% every day, and, most of all, have a lifelong devotion.
Realistically, choosing a topic is one of the biggest challenges for graduate students even if you are floating in a cloud of passion. Regardless of whether the topic is from a blank slate or a continuation from previous work, for many students, passion goes something like this:
- An initial idea driven by passion and excitement (and practicality)
- Excitement builds and you feel confident
- Excitement dwindles and you question everything
- Repeat 2 and 3 until you end up in a static state of one or the other
The scary part is ending up permanently at step 3. What does this mean? Should you stick to your plan of becoming a tenured expert in fruit fly migration? Regardless of your PhD stage, divorcing yourself from a career path you had perfectly planned and a topic that used to be your passion is not impossible. Practically, one can always apply to non-traditional jobs post-PhD, and build contacts to transition into preferable topic areas and career paths.
At the same time, pursuing alternate plans is more difficult then it seems. Think about the achievements that are rewarded in our department, where reward = verbal praise, postings on the news websites, congrats from professors, wow factors at thesis/protocol defense. These ‘wow factor’ achievements include awards at conferences, speaking invitations, novel methods, publications in NEJM, CIHR funding..Someone who has all these things is a ‘very good’, ‘very bright’ student. We all like praise, so adhering to the above model is highly tempting despite dwindling interest in the topic and career path that’s receiving the praise.
Unfortunately, similar external validation is not available for alternate plans, making two things necessary to move on from your set-in-stone path. Admitting the mismatch between previous thinking and the current state of mind, and learning to rely on internal validation are mind games that must be overcome. So what if no one notices that you just published a very creative idea in a very mediocre journal? You should be proud, when you think of yourself explaining this idea to someone who will notice, at a time when it actually matters for you. Learning to define your own achievements is a pre-requisite to defining your own path beyond the PhD, and ultimately finding a career that is truly driven by passion.
Further reading for those interested: