During the “How to Survive your PhD” MOOC, in the discussion on Curiosity, a topic came up that raised my hackles a bit. The question was raised of how to generate passion in students who just wanted to “do what’s required and get over with it.” This led into the old argument that the best (only?!) approach to a successful PhD is to choose a topic you are passionate about.
This is an idea that surfaces repeatedly in advice for prospective PhD students in books, articles and blogs:
Invariably you will find that people who are studying or have achieved a PhD are passionate about their topic. If they are not when they start out, they often become emphatic defenders of their territory by the end, after living, sleeping and breathing the stuff for three years (or more!).
Churchill, H., & Sanders, T. (2007). Getting your PhD: a practical insider’s guide. London: Sage. p19
Leaving aside the fact that a requirement for most of us is to become an “emphatic defender” of our work in order to complete the PhD process, I think that for me, and probably for many PhD candidates, this idea is dead wrong.
For my Masters thesis, I did a very extensive piece of research in a topic that I was passionate about (well, fascinated by at least) but after two years of “living, sleeping and breathing the stuff,” I couldn’t wait to see the end of it, and very deliberately changed my career direction. That was just over 20 years ago, and I have never done any work in that field since. I have flicked through my thesis once or twice to admire the photos I used to illustrate my work, but I have no interest whatsoever in revisiting the topic. The pressure and pain of the immersive focus on the topic effectively killed off the passion to the point where I turned down a job that would have used the specific topic knowledge I had worked so hard to gain.
My PhD topic, by contrast, is one that I chose with a very pragmatic view of what was going to deliver the most value for me for the remainder of my career, in terms of what is useful for my employer and my students. I am interested, I am curious, but I am not passionate about it. I do not immerse myself in it, and I treat my PhD like a job (with a very easy-going boss!)
Like any PhD student, I go through lows and highs, and perhaps the highs are not as high as those of someone who is making breakthroughs in a field they are passionate about, but similarly I don’t think my lows are as challenging as they would be if I were “falling out of love” with my topic. I do it for the sake of my learning and personal development, for the qualification and the career advancement that can bring me, and I hope to improve the knowledge and skills I can offer to my students.
My PhD world is not purely mundane without excitement or thrill. The research process still fascinates me. The joy of learning, the challenge and curiosity of new ways of approaching a problem, the satisfaction of writing something that captures exactly what I want to say – I love research and the new ways of thinking, the expansion of my knowledge boundaries that it offers. For me it is about the doing, not the knowing, and the PhD offers me the chance to immerse myself in that.
One commenter on the MOOC observed that a PhD is like a marriage – if you have to ask if it is right for you, then the answer is no. But just like a marriage, passion is not the only or even the best reason to say yes.
CAVEAT: I already have an academic career, I have no interest in post-docs or world leading research labs, and I can afford to do or not do my PhD to suit myself. I want the opportunities that having a PhD will offer me, but effectively those opportunities are contingent on the qualification and not the content I produce.