In my PhD program everyone talks about how passionate they are about their field of study, and how they go to seminars because they're fun. Is it expected that PhD students truly love their subject, or is it enough just to do good work and publish papers?

This thread was prompted by discussion here.

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    Just because people talk how passionate they are doesn't mean they actually are. People like to invent a nice story for themselves. You absolutely do belong in a Ph.D. program. There is free will. You can stay there, or you can leave. You can stay out of love, or for practical reasons, or for no reason at all. It is O.K. You can also leave the program for any and no reason at all.
    – user14102
    Jan 1, 2015 at 3:57
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    @osa +1 for "Just because people talk how passionate they are doesn't mean they actually are." People like to also invent a nice story ABOUT themselves.
    – user100487
    Jan 1, 2015 at 15:16
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    If there is multiple applicants for a given position the best candidate needs to be chosen. There is a tendency that the persons who live and breathe their field of study, has worked harder and longer than those who don't and therefore are better qualified. Jan 1, 2015 at 17:14

8 Answers 8


In my experience, good primary investigators are always rather unbalanced human beings in one way or another. If you aren't intensively passionate about something closely connected to the research process, then you can't last, because so much of leading research involves shaping your own agenda. That said, you can still be doing work in research, even at a Ph.D. level or beyond, without having such independence and drive, but instead being a "super-technician" following somebody else's agenda and leadership.

The scientific ideal holds that every scientist should be of the primary investigator type, and Ph.D. programs are typically designed to select for and cultivate this. That said, in practice it depends a lot on the group that you are in. Some professors expect their students to develop their own research agendas very strongly, others are (whether they admit it or even realize it) more looking for good technicians to execute on their grants, and a Ph.D. is more of a byproduct.

We don't really like to admit this as a community, but with the current market structure of academia, we actually need to have the second type of education and people as well. Look at it from the perspective of simple flux balance analysis: the rate of Ph.D. students entering programs is far higher than the rate at which primary investigators retire or die. If every Ph.D. student either ultimately ends up as a primary investigator or a "failure," then it means most Ph.D. students are failures. But I don't think that is actually the case: people who aren't hyper-passionate to the point where it distorts their lives can still succeed just fine in a Ph.D. program and at research, they just are likely to take one of the other tracks besides being a professor or other form of PI.

That said, even if you don't end up going the harrowing road of PI-ship, research work is very hard, and there are a lot of easier and/or more financially rewarding ways to make a living. To get a Ph.D., you need at least enough passion for the subject to find more value in this difficult and low-paid path than in any of your alternatives.


As I see it, there's a big difference between being obsessed with something (to the exclusion of other interests) and loving it. Obsession is neither necessary nor helpful, but love is certainly helpful and perhaps even necessary if you want to achieve your full potential. Love dramatically increases your powers of concentration, beyond what can be achieved through self discipline alone. Love makes all the little details memorable and engaging, while also drawing everything together into a meaningful story that illuminates the big picture. Of course it's still possible to do good work without love, but that just makes everything harder.

It's important to keep in mind that different people express love differently. Some people are dramatic and expressive, while others are quieter and more reserved. You can have a perfectly good love for your subject without feeling the need to tell everyone, and comparing yourself to more vocal classmates may be unhelpful.

If going to seminars isn't fun, then that's a little worrisome. Some people simply don't enjoy attending talks, regardless of the subject, and that's OK. However, if you like talks in general but not so much in your research area, then that could be a sign that you haven't yet found the right area for you. (Or maybe it's just not a very good seminar.)

Love not only makes things easier, but also more rewarding. Having a job you love is a wonderful thing, and if you could better achieve this by following another career path, then that's worth serious consideration. However, you shouldn't feel any external pressure: if you can do good enough work, then nobody else will care what's in your heart. Ultimately, the only person this really concerns is you.

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    I tend to find that seminars about thinks I don't know are more interesting...
    – Ian
    Dec 31, 2014 at 9:18
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    I only enjoy seminars when the speakers are good presenters, more or less independently of the topic itself.
    – Davidmh
    Dec 31, 2014 at 11:59
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    I think all of the answers here have merit, but this probably covers the most important point. While you don't have to love it, if you don't love it, why are you doing something that doesn't pay very well and has crappy hours? If you're smart enough for a Ph.D., you probably can get a 6 figure job within five to ten years in something else, either via Ph.D. then industry, or in a profession without a Ph.D. , that has more like 40 hour workweek. If you're an Academia lifer, it's usually because that's what you like doing or believe in.
    – Joe
    Dec 31, 2014 at 17:49

Allow me to offer a dissenting point of view. In the words of 5 Brainy Birds:

If you don’t eat, sleep, and breathe science, get out of the lab! ... is an antiquated view

I know many successful academics (at all stages of the academic lifecycle) who do not "live and breathe" their field of study, and manage to do excellent, creative, interesting work regardless.

Does it help to enjoy your work and feel passionate about it at least some of the time? Yes, sure. But the stereotype of academics as people who are single-mindedly obsessed with their field of study is unrealistic and unnecessarily discouraging to the huge numbers of PhD students who feel otherwise, and who worry about not feeling "passionate enough" (people like this OP). PhD students are a diverse group with a tremendous range of passions, motivations, and ambitions.

Also, all of the PhD students I know personally (including myself) passionately hate their field at least some of the time.

How much love for/devotion to your subject do you really need? In the words of aeismail:

It should be interesting enough to you that you're willing to put up with the failure that is a necessary component of successful research. But it's not necessary, or even practical or desirable, to spend every waking hour thinking about or doing research.

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    I agree with your answer. The majority of the tenured faculty in my math department are married and have interests outside of research. Dec 31, 2014 at 4:58
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    I agree with this, but there is an important counterpoint. Perhaps the most important attribute for finishing a PhD is persistence. Earning a PhD is an enormous amount of work, and everyone knows students who "had the ability" but who didn't put in enough effort to finish their degree. So, in aeismail's comment, we should not be too quick to pass over the first sentence to get to the second. Dec 31, 2014 at 14:29

The question and its answers have parallels outside academia, and that is something to consider if you perceive one of your options to be "getting out of academia."

I have seen the problem from a few different sides: I was a student. I worked in the private sector from 1985 to 2001, taught university for a couple of years, and I now work in a staff position at another university where I do not teach.

Being in a field that you "live and breathe" benefits you. Find it, and get in it, and stay there. In the private sector I always preferentially hired people who demonstrated true interest in their field; it seems to be no different in academia, nor do the reasons seem different.


Doing a Ph.D. and working in academia both involve being self-motivated on projects with a long time horizon. For example, it's important to go to seminars in the long run even though any given one is not likely to pay off in the near future. One common place that motivation comes from is deeply loving your subject in a way that means you don't need as much self-discipline to work when no one is looking. But that's not strictly necessary in order for people to be comfortable working in a self-motivated way on projects with a long time horizon. If you work best to external motivation or with clear deadlines, then a Ph.D. program is probably not the best place for you, but living and breathing the subject as such is not crucial.


Is it expected that PhD students truly love their subject, or is it enough just to do good work and publish papers?

I think that whatever you decide your job is, you should love it. Consider you are going to spend a large proportion of the rest of your life doing it, so you better look for something that makes you go out of bed five days a week like you are going to a playground.

In a PhD program this is particularly important because research can be very, very frustrating. You can easily find yourself thinking about the same problem (literally) for months, repeating the same experiments, validating data, once and again. Then you write a paper and it's rejected and you must spend some more time on the same problem. If you don't like it, it's the closest thing to work in a factory floor you could find.

In summary. Find what motivates you and pursue it as a career. If it happens to be research, then good luck with your PhD.

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    "I think it is expected that whatever you decide your job is, you should love it." -- excuse me, by whom is it expected? Throughout most of the human history this loving your job was not an option for the majority. Even nowadays there are practical considerations, there is opinion of your parents, there are misconceptions, etc.
    – user14102
    Jan 1, 2015 at 3:54
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    @osa - A company for which I worked was bought out by a large corporation. The new alien overlords routinely spoke of their passion for their work, which as far as I could see entailed buying businesses they didn't understand, alienating the customer base, blaming and firing the locals, then rinse and repeat. They kept those who drank the Kool-Aid, so I think there is an expectation that you love your job, no matter how much doublethink this requires.
    – Peter Wone
    Jan 1, 2015 at 15:12
  • "Then it hit me. I’m not going to be famous. I won’t get to be a rock star. I am going to be stuck on the payroll doing work that doesn’t interest me for a very long time." Poster seen in Chelsea, Manhattan, near 8th av/14th street, around 2007 or so. You suggest a notion of one very privileged. Jan 2, 2015 at 23:04
  • @osa By no one, actually. it was a type. I guess it slip wen I copied the quote from the question. Sorry for the confusion.
    – user27205
    Jan 8, 2015 at 23:54

In my experience, passion can manifest itself in multiple ways. Some people are passionate about their fields, whereas others are passionate about the methodology. For me, the challenge of understanding and modeling of a complex system is my main motivation. I enjoy the process and the model development. I do enjoy my work a lot, but I could be a happy scientist in a different field.


When I was a child I read a lot of books about scientists and decided to become one. Fast forward a few years, I graduated in Physics and decided to do a PhD. I loved the research part, I loved (and still love) Physics but the exact field I was in was not at the same "love" level. It was nice, challenging but I discovered what I really liked were computers and simulations.

I started to administer my department servers and gradually got involved with business companies. When getting my PhD I was immensely proud of it, happy to have done research but ready to try something else.

I now work in IT, love it, do not use anything from what I studied but, looking back, I would not have chosen another path.

This is just to say that what you actually love may not be the exact subject of your PhD studies (and further research) but the academic environment is such an interesting environment (challenges, teaching, how achievements are measured) that it may be the optimum place to blossom. You may also find after some time that your exact interest is somewhere else but your PhD studies helped to reveal it.

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