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I am a PhD student currently in my second to last year. Last year something weird happened, my supervisor forced me into projects in which I was not interested. He forced me into collaborations which I didn't want. Actually, I had already written some papers in collaboration and was trying to work independently on my own ideas. But he didn't pay a lot of attention to my ideas and calculations and asked me to jump on projects which he felt could result in a paper really fast. I did it but it broke my spirit. Having to work on things I had no interest in made me lose my motivation.

I came into physics from another field. I could have gotten a wonderful job but I left it all for physics because I love it. But after being forced to work on things that didn't interest me multiple times and not letting me do my own stuff and not paying attention to them, I lost all interest in the field. Everything felt like a waste of time. Actually I always had this idea in my mind that PhD is the time when you are supposed to learn to become an independent researcher and this situation made me feel that it was a waste of time. Also, my supervisor is obsessed with the number of papers, which resulted in average papers that could have been far better if he wasn't so hasty. I was ready to risk spending a long time on projects but he wasn't. Afterall, how can you expect to publish good results if you do not risk losing time on dead end directions? Anyway, since then I have been struggling to regain my passion and it has been a year now. I am finally allowed to do my own things but it feels useless now since I lost my drive so badly that I am finding it hard to get back on track.

Therefore, my questions to academics here: can you provide some suggestions/methods/ways to regain my lost passion since right now is the crucial time in my PhD and I feel I am wasting time because of my disrupted mindset?

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    Take a break. Change supervisor. Physics is a great topic, but the wrong supervisor can mess it up for you. Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 15:33

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I won't say that "passion" is useless, but it is not a switch you can turn on and off. Nor is this a bad thing. I am somewhat older, and I have felt a passion for pure mathematics, but this was a feeling that came and went. I would say this is the normal order of things. At first when you get into a new subject (either physics as a whole or a subdiscipline, or sub-subdiscipline) you feel excited, but it wears off. Familiarity breeds contempt, and thorough mastery of a subject will lead inevitably to a kind of jadedness. I can feel a kind of spark when I explain something that I once found exciting to someone for whom it is unfamiliar. But this is an interpersonal thing, and I actually always feel I must warn them not to fall in love with intellectual constructs too soon.

In any case, passion will not sustain you in the long run. It is true for marriages, and it is also true for academic pursuits.

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Good supervisory practice should not kill the student's passion for the subject

If you'll indulge me, I'm going to give an "answer" here that is actually directed to supervisors and is tangential to your question. This is important to add because your question raises some important issues about good supervisory practice. My answer won't necessarily solve your immediate problem (though it might help you have a productive conversation with supervisors), but hopefully it might diminish the prospect of it occurring to others.


When supervising a PhD student, there is sometimes a trade-off between two desirable goals you want to help the student achieve: (1) establishing a publication record that will lead to entry-level career prospects in research; and (2) allowing the student freedom to explore ideas of interest to them to develop their passion for the subject. Established academics are cognisant of the reality of "publish or perish" and we know that the competition for research positions in academia and elsewhere is fierce (and there is a huge overproduction of PhD graduates in the market). Therefore, many well-meaning supervisors focus heavily on (1) at the expense of (2), knowing that they may be short-changing their PhD students if they don't push them hard enough to produce publications and help them gain entry-level academic positions after graduation.

This approach is okay if you are dealing with a student who is committed and disciplined and whose interest in the subject is solidified, particularly if the student's goal is to land an academic research position after graduation. However, it is counter-productive to use this approach if doing so destroys the passion/interest of a student who could otherwise have been able to learn and practice the subject in some capacity. Ideally, the trade-off between (1) and (2) should be formed based on explicit discussion between the student and supervisor about the career goals of the student, what they hope to get out of their PhD program, the realities of the academic market and broader research profession, and any other relevant issues. Supervisors should teach their students the realities of what academic research looks like and how to go about getting a position in the field, but they should let the student make an informed decision about what they actually want in their life after graduation and what they want to get out of their candidature. My view is that it is even good practice to explicitly tell the student about this trade-off, and that your supervisory approach will involve trying to deal with this trade-off, and that your approach can be varied if the student thinks there is too much emphasis on one end.

Some would argue that "testing" the passion of the student through heavy emphasis on (1) at the expense of (2) is actually a desirable thing, since it acts as a filtering mechanism during the candidature --- any student who is insufficiently happy with the harsher realities of professional research and the "publish or perish" culture is dissuaded from continuing in the field and directed towards some non-PhD activity. This view assumes that the only value in a PhD is to secure and practice a professional academic position, which I reject. There are students who will do their PhD and decide that they don't wish to practice in academia or any other "publish or perish" field. For these students, a smaller number of papers in areas of passion for them is far more valuable than a larger suite of paper to pad out a CV for a job application in academia (and again, the student should make an informed decision on this).

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  • "I could have gotten a wonderful job" - so excellent points made. +1 Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 0:02
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    You list two goals. In my experience, there is a third one which is very important to many (misguided?) supervisors and universities: Ensuring the student completes their PhD, and does so on the prescribed schedule. If thier student is at risk of failing, those supervisors tell them exactly what to do and they pick something easy, not something good for the student's career. Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 1:49
  • Getting more money to pay the your students with is also an important goal for supervisors. Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 1:51
  • @AnonymousPhysicist I agree with you that the goal of the supervisor is to ensure that the student passes. Maybe, indeed, the student is in danger to fail, but given that they have multiple papers, I did not assume that this was the issue. Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 0:41
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To recover lost passion in a subject, I cannot recommend anything more highly than the "plate story" from the physicist Richard Feynman. (I also highly recommend the book this comes from; it is wonderful!) Feynman talks of having lost his passion for his subject for the exact same reason as you --- because he was focusing on "important" problems instead of playing with the things he wanted. He decides to go back to playing with problems of interest to him with no concern for their importance and it brings back his passion.

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    In principle, yes. But this is not a burn-out due to overinvestment. This is simply a supervisor who changed goalposts. Spinning plate example does not work here - the supervisor has grabbed the plate out of the air and told the student to sit down and eat properly, so to say. Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 9:23
  • But according to OP, "finally I am being allowed to do my own things", so it appears that the previous imposition is now gone.
    – Ben
    Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 21:56
  • Maybe the supervisor gave up on them. But the damage is done. Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 0:00
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Just take some time to rest from physics. It's burnout. More walking on open air, especially on sunny days, take vitamin D and good sleep. And desire to work magically will return sooner or later (can take half year though)

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Passion is not useful in physics. Hard work is.

If you are not enjoying your work, you should not be a PhD student. Find a job you would like better, and if you cannot do that, find one that at least pays more, so you can use the money for something you like.

You say your mindset is "disrupted" but it is more likely you just learned what a PhD is really like.

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    I think that your advice - which I usually appreciate - is off here. The supervisor seems not to be suitable fit to OP. OP does not appear to be lazy, but rather interested taking things further and a more deliberate and thought-through pace. We cannot know if OP really has good ideas, but it is clear that the supervisor does not even consider them and does not really give feedback on them. Also, if OP has the right judgement, the supervisor prefers a shallow but fast style. In short, I think the advice does not respond to the question as it has been asked. Do you want to amend your response? Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 15:36
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    @CaptainEmacs Thank you for elaborating my situation. I also feel that the answer does not address what I am asking. I have been a very diligent student all my life. I worked really really hard on my previous projects. It's just the way I was forced into things which I wasnt interested in and also was forced into a type of research I thought was very superficial and shallow that I lost my interest. I don't have an issue with hardwork. And I disagree with the statement that "passion is not useful in phy". I think both are very useful and my case is a living example of this.
    – Vash Arry
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 16:36
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    @AnonymousPhysicist "Reflects the choices of the source of funding" - there are no indications of the source of funding or such constraints in the question. Who says it's not just institution money? "The passion is not coming back.": of course not. As long OP is in that situation, the fun in research has been squeezed out of them. I have taken on students who left a supervision relation because it was unsuitable. It is very clear that passion, drive and hard work come back when in the right circumstances. Your response does not answer the question as asked and makes unwarranted assumptions. -1 Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 17:58
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    @CaptainEmacs I read that as "my supervisor forced me into projects that please the funding source." If you do not please the funding source, that will always happen. Physics PhD students do not get free choice of research subject. Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 15:40
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    @CaptainEmacs "in the 2nd year." That is not what the question says. Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 1:44

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