Finding Your Passions as a Graduate Student

What inspired you to pursue a graduate degree?

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Desire to improve your career options
  • Fascination with a particular subject or discipline
  • Wish to become part of an advanced community of scholars and researchers

When I first set out to write a commentary on the issue of passion and graduate school, I thought to myself “Scott, did you actually write a dissertation about something you were passionate about?” I had to admit to myself that, well… I’m not sure. And yet, I had heard and read so much advice about “choosing a topic you’re really passionate about.”

Being a sociologist with a very interdisciplinary background, I was challenged in trying to decide on an appropriate dissertation subject in my field of doctoral study (higher education policy and counseling). So, I chose a research subject that at the time seemed very practical, relevant, and probably employable in the future.

I dreamed of becoming a research professor someday in the future, so I studied job satisfaction among university professors in Research-intensive universities. I wrote a dissertation called The Fiscal Crisis of the American Public Research University and its Impact on Faculty. And I ended up concluding that many university professors were suffering from declining morale. Especially mid-career faculty who had just earned their tenure. A portion of my dissertation got published in the Journal of Higher Education a year after I finished it.

For years I had idealized the profession of being a professor. A lot of my doctoral classmates shared my dream and ambitions. We all wanted to be professors when we finished. So it seemed very appropriate to investigate what it is like to be a professor: from the perspective of the things that give professors greatest joy and greatest frustration in their careers. The results for me were incredibly profound.

Most recently, an article was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education that provided a total explanation of what really happened to the academic job market in the 1990s. It totally validated my dissertation findings! The title is How a Famous Academic Job-Market Study Got it All Wrong–and Why It Still Matters.

Maybe I did choose a passionate topic after all?

In my experience working with doctoral students, I’ve found that many struggle with the choice of topic. Some also end up regretting their choice of discipline. (Some just want to find a better dissertation adviser!) Many of them learned that to keep their momentum to finish their studies, they had to hold onto enough excitement to make it worthwhile to keep pushing forward, writing one page at a time.

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I hope these thoughts are helpful for you. Consider them the beginning of a conversation about a very complex issue:

What does it take to make you want to enroll in graduate school, and what does it take to make you stay to the finish line? Whatever it is, find it, keep it alive, nurture it carefully, and always pay attention to how you’re feeling along the journey.

Someday, I promise to share a longer story about a dear friend who reached out to me when I was really questioning whether to finish my dissertation. I had just one chapter to go. She suggested that I go out to lunch, and “take my dissertation to lunch too.” Turned out to be the best advice I ever received my entire academic career!

Here are a couple of sites with reflections by others who have questioned the importance of passion in graduate studies. If these help, feel free to write to me with your thoughts.

  • PhD Passion, by Daniella Marias
    Daniella was a Ph.D. student in Forestry & Ecosystems at the time she authored this essay in 2015.
  • Don’t Follow Your Passion, by Stephanie K. Eberle
    Stephanie is Director of the Stanford University School of Medicine Career Center for Ph.D’s, Post-docs, and recent MD recipients. As she contends, “Follow your passion” is not bad advice. Rather, it is simply devoid of helpful advice. The phrase is used as a kind of shorthand to encourage you to dispel the fear of uncertainty and focus on what you know and want in the moment.”

Would you agree?

For more help, be sure to visit my References page.

Author: Scott Kerlin

Dr. Scott Kerlin received his Ph.D in Organizational Systems and Counseling from the University of Oregon in 1992. He also holds Master's degrees in Management/Organizational Psychology and Public Administration. He has extensive research leadership and professional development work with graduate students in U.S. and Canadian universities. Details are available at https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottkerlin/

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