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Ph.D. Passion

The Ph.D. can be a passionate pursuit, or a means to an end.

June 16, 2015

Danielle Marias is a Ph.D. candidate in Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. You can find her on Twitter @danielleemarias or at her website.


While exchanging pleasantries with fellow graduate students at a climate change conference, someone joked about the lack of funding for scientific research. Before I could stop myself, I found words spill out of my mouth, “We don’t do it [scientific research] for the money.” Another student responded, “Speak for yourself.”

And so that got me thinking: Why do I do science? Was I just saying these words to impress my colleagues who undoubtedly did their work because they are passionate about it? Do some scientists do what they do just to pay the bills? Am I an imposter if I’m not passionate enough?

I thought about how and why I entered graduate school and realized it was a mix of recent experiences, good timing, and luck. During college, I enjoyed a plant physiology course with the professor who became my undergraduate advisor and I spent my weekends in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire. These experiences changed my mind about medical school and the lab bench. At the time, I was a ski bum in Colorado and wanted to get out of customer service and pulling espresso shots. So, I applied to grad school and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Both applications miraculously worked out and I decided to attend Oregon State University. And so it seems that luck and happenstance helped me to fall into my current position as a graduate student studying plant physiology.

In the early stages of my Ph.D. and trying to refine my dissertation topic, colleagues emphasized the importance of being passionate about the topic I pick. It makes sense that a scientist would be passionate about science, the field she thinks about everyday. I initially found it challenging to find a Ph.D. project that I would claim as my passion.

And this is because my Ph.D. is not my passion. Don’t get me wrong--fortunately for me, this has been an amazing journey so far and I truly enjoy my situation. I enjoy learning new things, creating my own schedule, and making my own decisions about how I spend my days. I have an amazing lab group and advisor and Oregon is a spectacular place to explore as a trail runner, skier, and boater. I enjoy the work I do and find it interesting but what inspires me and gets me excited about life is the ability to balance my work and non-work lives.

Since the conference, I listened to a Ted Talk titled “Learning from Dirty Jobs” by Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe. I was lured in on Ted’s Twitter description of this talk: “Why ‘follow your passion’ can be terrible career advice.” With the conference conversation still echoing in my head, I had to watch. Why do I do what I do? Is it okay if my passion isn’t my career? How passionate do you have to be to be a scientist? Mike Rowe discusses various dirty jobs and the people who do those dirty jobs and how they’re not necessarily passionate about what they do--instead, they fell into it, they’re good at it, and they do what they do to pay the bills and live the life they want to lead. Is this enough? For me, my current position as a Ph.D. candidate does just that: it allows me to live the life I want to lead.

I have grown more comfortable with the taboo realization that my Ph.D. is not my passion and here’s what helped me:

  1. I have interests and hobbies other than plant physiology. I feel fortunate that I make a living by doing something that I find rewarding and worthwhile such as pursuing science and the quest for knowledge while also balancing time for my other interests.  

  2. The discernment between significance and passion, a concept eloquently explained in a post in Inside Higher Ed called “Don’t Follow Your Passion.” My dissertation work has significance, which motivates me to happily go to the lab or office each day, but it is not my passion and that’s okay: I can still call myself a scientist.

  3. The reminder that loving life is much more important than loving a job. A fulfilling job (i.e. a funded dissertation project) that utilizes and develops your strengths leads to a happy life. But being overly focused on your job can take away from your non-work life. And focusing on your non-work life such as doing things you enjoy with people outside of work also leads to happy life.

What are you passionate about as a graduate student (e.g. writing? making figures? something completely unrelated?)?

[Photo by author]


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