38

When I was accepted to become a Master's student, I had virtually no experience in the topics that my supervisor wanted to work in. Lately I've been catching up on background knowledge (I've been in the program for about a month), but I still haven't developed that ever-elusive passion that I probably should have by now.

So why did I choose to work with this supervisor? I chose a supervisor based on personality, and I decided to take a risk with a brand new topic because I was feeling jaded about what I had studied in undergrad.

I'm not asking "how do I find my subject?". I want to know if this lack of an all-consuming obsession with a particular subject is a real cause for concern. What should I do, and what do you suppose my supervisor would want me to do?

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    Scholarly passion is a myth more than a reality. Compare your research to a love relationship. Perhaps love at first sight does exist, but the most stable and deep relationships are not necessarily those that start as a passionate affair, notwithstanding popular belief. It takes time. – henning -- reinstate Monica May 31 '18 at 10:51
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    Not any more than it is required for high school. – Davor May 31 '18 at 14:18
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    Sometimes the dedicated but passionless are better at almost anything because they are more consistent while a passion-driven person may only be motivated correctly when they are interested in something. – Mark Rogers May 31 '18 at 17:39
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    Don’t confuse passion for commitment. – JeffE Jun 1 '18 at 15:15
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    For anything that seems to require passion, you can often substitute strong work ethic, or some combination of work ethic and latent skill. – Joel Coehoorn Jun 1 '18 at 15:58

10 Answers 10

75

Passion is not necessary for a master’s degree.

You’re still at the stage of your career where you’re getting your feet wet with research. The important thing right now is to separate your feelings about research in general from your feelings about the specific research topic you’re exploring. You can always move to another topic for your PhD, and nowadays, you’ll almost certainly have to change focus areas multiple times in your career.

At this point in your career, being able to determine that:

  • You love research and your focus area;
  • You love research but not your focus area;
  • You love your focus area, but not doing research in it; or even
  • You don’t love research

are all perfectly valid outcomes because they will help you to decide on a long-term path.

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    I think I should write these 4 points in my greenboard. Just for curiosity, does these apply post PhD?? – Coder May 31 '18 at 19:30
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    It might be hard to ascertain if you love research but not your focus area, though...one might cloud the other...but of course that doesn't prevent one from slogging through and getting a Masters' :) – rogerdpack May 31 '18 at 22:55
  • That's why I said it's important to separate the two when judging how the project went. My first project convinced me research was the right career for me—but that the research area very much was not. – aeismail May 31 '18 at 22:57
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    @Coder Yes. Post-PhD it's in a way easier to decide that you lost passion for your field, because you are much more flexible in adapting your field of study without having to worry how the new research will fit into your dissertation. – xLeitix Jun 1 '18 at 12:51
  • @xLeitix Absolutely right what you said. – Coder Jun 4 '18 at 14:39
34

I will probably get shot for this, but here is what I think: there is no way to have "passion" for anything until you master it at some level.

I wanted to do physics because my school teacher was someone pushy who liked to drive people to succeed. As I was studying, I got quite good at it, so I ended up liking the subject. But, as an undergraduate, I didn't know what I would like, so I ended up doing what others told me, which eventually didn't turn out quite right.

As a PhD student I didn't have any all consuming obsession with anything. I merely had lots of work to do, and as I was solving increasingly complex problems, I got a feeling for my subject and liked some of the stuff I was really good at.

But, as I started to find my own research problems, I began to like things enough not to change career. At this moment, I wouldn't say I'm passionate about any subject, but I very happy to be doing some of my research -- the parts that don't involve bureaucracy. And I'm very curious how my research will turn out.

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  • Well stated!! I had very similar experiences. – drsnark May 30 '18 at 17:59
  • Cal Newport's book does a good job explaining what you just said amazon.com/Good-They-Cant-Ignore-You-ebook/dp/B0076DDBJ6 – tallharish May 30 '18 at 20:06
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    I thinking you're talking about finding reward in one's work, certainly research can be quite rewarding if you achieve progress. Other jobs can be rewarding in their own ways too. Many things can be especially enjoyable when you're the best at them. Passion is something different. For me my research area was love at first sight, even if I had to stand in line with everyone else doing it too. And I think the value of such emotional drive is keeping you in one area long enough to build the momentum to stay there. Because eventually emotions flatten and it's just a job. – A Simple Algorithm May 31 '18 at 9:30
4

Passion helps, but this is a precious resource and it can (and often does) run out, particularly on the course of several years required for MSc or PhD program.

To a certain extent, passion (generally called motivation) is normally expected of candidates in academia, so even if you do not have it, you have to show it at some point in your motivation letter and/or in your interview.

In addition to other brilliant answers, please note that MSc/PhD program is a two-side investment: student invests time and often money, but also the supervisers invest time, passion and sometimes are expected go above and beyond their contractual obligations to help students succeed. This is a rewarding process if (and only if) both parties are engaged and the result proves efforts worthy.

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  • In order to avoid getting the wrong kind of answers on this post, I deliberately did not include my motivations for asking this question. Quite simply, I was becoming concerned about meeting my supervisor's expectations, and so I did a bit of research. Many sources said passion is important, but I couldn't agree more with your statement that it can "run out" – Mahkoe May 31 '18 at 18:14
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    I disagree. Motivation is not the same thing as passion. Passion might be one motivation, but IMHO it's far from the best, as it's likely to lead one into irrationality. (See e.g. "Romeo and Juliet", among countless other cautionary tales :-)) A far better motivation is the desire to earn a decent living doing work that is interesting, and which you can do well. – jamesqf May 31 '18 at 18:26
  • @jamesqf When PI wants a passionate pamphlet from a candidate, he asks to submit a letter of motivation with their CV. I am not saying passion and motivation are the same thing, but in academia they say "motivation" when they expect passion. – Dmitry Savostyanov May 31 '18 at 18:33
  • @Dmitry Savostyanov: What the heck is a "passionate pamphlet", and why would a PI want one? – jamesqf Jun 1 '18 at 4:11
  • I would second the idea that passion can "run out". Especially when you work on one problem which turns into a protracted series of dead ends and which raises more questions than answers. At this point you realize that it takes a lot more than interest or passion to find the motivation to push through and keep going. For example, focusing on the fact that you have a job to do, and keeping an eye on the horizon for the possibilities of interesting results. – Kai Jun 1 '18 at 4:14
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I teach on an MSc programme and I would say:

Passion is absolutely necessary for an "academic" Masters, i.e. getting a distinction, publishing a paper, building a serious research relationship with a supervisor, then using all of the above to go on to PhD and maybe academic career. Especially for a masters by research rather than taught. If you are not passionate about your subject then you should not be pursuing such careers in the first place as they will make you utterly miserable for your whole life. (Real passion here means: you love this stuff so much that you are willing to devote the next 10-20 years of your life constantly relocating to random countries where the work is, getting paid nothing, and working on insecure 1-3 year contracts, probably away from your partner and family for much of it, who are trying to pay a mortgage somewhere else, all for about a 1 in 10 chance of getting a permanent academic post somewhere, also in a random country. Not recommended for most people at all.)

Passion is not necessary for a "professional" masters. The vast bulk of masters students are in this category and use it as training to get a better, higher-paid (non academic) job, and are often successful in doing so. In some professions (eg. chartered engineering) a masters is a necessary box to tick as part of gaining professional status. You probably still won't do very well if you really don't like your subject, but "passion" is an overused and unnecessary word for "yeah this subject's OK and its a nice/stable/well-paid career" which is a great goal to pursue for most students.

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3

I want to know if this lack of an all-consuming obsession with a particular subject is a real cause for concern.

Yes, but not reason to give up your Masters' program. What I suggest is:

  • Try to maneuver the rest of your Masters' in directions which you feel might stir your passions, or just such that are significantly different than what you've done so far. Not at the expense of failing to pursue your approved subject, if you have one - but to sort of probe around for something to get passionately into later on.
  • Don't dare start a PhD without feeling very enthused and passionate about digging into a specific subject - certainly not when it's the subject you muddled through an uninspiring Master's about.
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    "Don't dare start a PhD without feeling very enthused and passionate about digging into a specific subject": This advice does not apply if you know you want to do research but your program doesn't require you to choose a project right away. – aeismail May 30 '18 at 23:28
  • @aeismail: In my opinion - it does apply. – einpoklum May 30 '18 at 23:41
  • All I knew when I started grad school was that I really liked doing research, but couldn't tell you exactly what area I wanted to study for the next few years—just that I wasn't going to be an experimentalist. By your logic, I shouldn't have started my PhD. (Then again, I only had a bachelor's, not a master's.) – aeismail May 30 '18 at 23:52
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    I was told this by several professors when I was entering grad school. I was going to grad school to find if I had that passion, not because I already had it. I hated the way some academics tried to scare me out of grad school even as I was doing well there, because I treated it like an interesting and rewarding job to try, but not like my life's calling. Just tell people "if you want to try grad school, don't let strangers tell you that you shouldn't". Even trying it and finding out you dislike it can be a valuable experience -- you'll never look back and wonder "if only"! – Sam May 31 '18 at 22:07
  • @Sam: 1. Maybe it's different in different academic disciplines. 2. In the departments I'm familiar with - there's no "trying" and it's not a school. It's a job as a junior researcher. You can always take grad school courses (often already as an undergrad) or read their textbooks, of course. – einpoklum May 31 '18 at 22:11
3

Passion certainly helps. When you have passion for what you are doing, it feels much less like work and more like self-fulfillment. But when you lack passion for what you need to be doing to advance your life planning, you can substitute it with:

  • Having rigorous self discipline and clinging to the hope that one day the drudge will be over.
  • Alotting a bit of your time for something else which provides you with self-fulfillment. Pursuing an art or craft, doing sports, a low-intensity personal research project or spending time with people you hold dear can provide you with the mental energy necessary to withstand the boredom of doing the stuff which needs to be done without losing your sanity.

I know people who ended up detesting the subject of their master thesis, but they pulled through because they knew that they had to succeed in order to progress with their life plan. Many of them did eventually succeeded.

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0

Yes you should be passionate! You are paying a big price to be there! A masters degree is a lifetime investment. Many years will be spent completing your degree, a lack of passion will result in a lack of satisfaction upon completion.

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    Usually you don't need many years for a master's degree, just 2 years. – The Doctor May 31 '18 at 17:18
  • Actually, some over-passionate students may also feel dissatisfaction upon completion, particularly if their passion is due to wrong expectations. – Dmitry Savostyanov May 31 '18 at 18:37
  • This is the right answer. It seems like everyone on this page is dead inside and can't remember being passionate for their field, or somehow thinks that doesn't matter, that a grad student should just be a lab rat or research slave. Passion for a particular research project goes up and down, but passion for a field and passion for research in general are critical. If you don't have that, you are only wasting years of your precious life. – 6005 Jun 2 '18 at 16:46
0

No

Passion is not necessary for a masters degree. Merely intelligence and resilience.

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  • Welcome on the Academia SE! I suggest to write more reasoning to your answers. – peterh - Reinstate Monica May 31 '18 at 15:35
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You did not mention a country, but at least in Europe the Master's degree is the marker of the end of your studies. And usually nothing more.

If you finish your studies without a master (but having passed all the exams), they are essentially lost - you are technically "something" (what depends on the country), but not the normal guy who ended correctly his studies.

This is to say that the Master is usually the end of scientific studies for people in Europe and a compulsory purgatory before going on.

The quality of the average master thesis is low to say the least because those who were writing it had other more important things on their minds (looking for a job, party hard like it was the end of youth, etc.).

So do not worry if you do not have the passion. It is more worrisome if you plan to continue in science - not because of the subject (you can change that) but rather the mindset.

Again, this may depend on the country.

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  • I think European people don't usually do anything after their undergraduate...very few do a Master. – Chen Stats Yu Jun 2 '18 at 16:58
  • @ChenStatsYu in average 78% of studenrs which get a license (3 years of studies) continue with a master (87% in law). This is for France, the rest of Europe is similar. Before the Bologna reform which brought in a 3+2 years cursus more or less homogenous in Europr, it was even more. So no, the vast majority go for a master degree as it is way superior in the market than a license in Europe. – WoJ Jun 2 '18 at 22:47
  • haha maybe just in the UK then. Lots of pupils just "go straight" into work after undergraduate degree. Tuition fee is another issue here. – Chen Stats Yu Jun 2 '18 at 22:51
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I think it really depends on individuals. I did my Master degree in the U.K., which usually lasts 12 months.

I think most people could survive a year without "passion" for the sake of just doing a degree. But it is less likely to do a PhD without passion, which last about 3 to 4 years in the U.K. typically.

Just my honest opinion.

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