Passion and perseverance, not poetry, make a PhD

Sad, but unfortunately not uncommon, news today… yet another bright young colleague has dropped out from his PhD. The easy reaction was to throw out the obvious question: Why? But in reality it does not really matter. The reasons for people dropping doctoral studies are as varied, as there are people and even if you asked could you ever get the true reason for people’s actions?

But I still want to comment on the doctoral process. In 2006 I wrote a post called Advice to a shiny new PhD student which still contains some good advice.

What I want to add is that the work of the PhD is not a sprint it’s more like a marathon on a bad day. Its seems endless and thankless when you are doing it – sure some people wave to cheer you up on the way but in reality nobody cares about your work – but it’s the end that makes it worth it.

In a marathon you don’t want to be a specialist… You want to be the beige super generalist.

The PhD student will be surrounded by people who are brighter, more poetic, more prolific, more intelligent, better read, more beautiful, etc. In fact no matter what trait you can imagine there will be someone who is better than you. And this is not a depressing thought!?

To survive a PhD is not about being the best in those ways. It’s about become the best at a certain subject. To become the best in academia you really need two things more than anything else. First, a passion for the subject. The reason why your topic is interesting is because it is unexplored. The reason it is unexplored is usually because it is obscure. You will not be loved for you subject, you will be alone with your subject. To survive with little outside stimuli you need passion.

The second thing you will need is perseverance – because it will be boring. No matter how interesting it sounds any topic becomes boring. This does not mean it will never be exciting again – but recognize that you passion for your chosen topic will ebb and flow.

So ignore the poetry and get on with it!

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