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Differentiating Ego and Passion

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So, this is a strange question probably.

I am thinking a lot about how to choose what to specialize in, both for the thesis (master's) and for the dissertation later on, AND for my career (which I realize will be somewhat flexible and I am not going to quite determine that right now).

I have noticed that there are some things I am interested in - or rather, that I thought I was interested in - that are turning out to be sort of ego-driven, rather than real interest or passion driven.

An example: I always thought I was interested in the archaeological aspects of my field, but we've been assigned some readings specific to my subfield, all about the excavation and specific historical details of certain significant sites - their dates, their names, their types, their geographic location and its relevance to the site, etc. I am finding that, it is terribly boring to me. I don't care to read what period this or that artifact is from. I don't care that the number of steps indicates that the person was higher or lower ranking in society. (To note: I DO think it is interesting what certain artifacts were USED FOR, and what the artifacts say about the practice of religion at the time). BUT, as I am currently bored to tears in these readings, I am realizing that previously, it wasn't that it was some kind of passion of mine, it was that... I had always thought it would be "so cool" to know such things. As in, wouldn't it be cool to be the person someone comes to to say, "hey, we found this site and we don't know what it is, or what it means, can you help us decipher?"  

It is only now, as I'm reading this archaeological data, that I see how boring it is to me. I don't actually care - it was just my ego that thought it would be cool to be in that position of knowledge and sharing it. This is just an example of a few.

So... I am curious from others who are further along in their Master's and PhD programs especially: did you come up against this problem? How were you able to figure out, before it was too late, that you were only interested in a topic for ego-driven purposes, rather than because you had an actual passion about a topic?

I am fearful of choosing a topic that turns out to be something I am not actually that interested in!!! 

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First of all, I think it's a misconception that all graduate students must always be in love with their topic of study all the time. I love astronomy, space, and planets but when the new Cosmos (with Neil deGrasse Tyson) came out, I could not bring myself to watch it because I already got my fill of awesome astronomy things 40 hours per week doing research! I have other passions too, and would rather spend my free time pursuing those.

And, there will always be parts of your research that you will hate doing even if you are super passionate about your topic. Some parts of my field are just super boring to me too. I love studying hot Jupiters and how these planets have their orbits modified by other stars and planets. But I find discussions of studies on whether these hot Jupiters have clouds made of X or Y pretty boring. I still read the papers to understand important things, like for example, what the clouds are made of could maybe teach us something about how close to the star the planet was created, but I have no passion at all for the methods used to determine cloud content. 

I also find it a little hard to disambiguate "passion" and "ego". Primarily because you need to have passion for the field in order to derive some "ego" based pleasure from being an expert on it. I admit I am a little excited and get a ego boost when I go to a conference and see someone cite my work! But honestly, if I had no passion for hot Jupiters, why would I be excited about that? Compared to the world at large, PhD work and academia is really about studying the highly specific details of a topic very intensely. It's about finding out some knowledge that very few people in the world would even care about. But the fact that you derive pleasure from doing such a thing means you must have some passion for the field. Why else would you care about knowing some things that few others even want to know?

And finally, I don't think measuring your level of excitement/boredom while reading papers is a good way to determine whether or not you actually like/have passion for your field. Each person has their own set of things that excite them and drives their passions. I personally do not enjoy reading or writing papers at all. It's the worst part of my job (but an absolutely important/required part). That's okay though. I think every job, no matter how awesome, will have parts that just suck. My strategy is to know what excites me and make sure I have lots of that in addition to all the mandatory boring parts. For example, although I hate reading papers, I really enjoy discussing them with other people and I learn a lot more that way. So, I started a little weekly papers discussion group in my department. Another thing that really excites me is going to conferences and meeting lots of other people working on really cool things. I find myself extremely motivated when I return from such a trip and I get a lot of work done in the few weeks following that motivation. I am also a type of person that gets more excited about big picture questions, which might explain why papers are so boring to me. Papers are usually focussed works that treat one tiny part of a big picture question at a time. So, I balance out my reading by making sure I step back and look at the big picture. Sometimes it's helpful to find a big review paper that goes over the whole idea and re-read parts of it to remind yourself why the tiny details matter. Or, I like to meet up with a friend from a different subfield and talk about our research's big picture questions to each other. Forcing myself / reminding myself of the "why" is a big motivator for me and doing this helps. 

PhD level research is supposed to uncover new knowledge that no one has ever known before. You definitely will come up against roadblocks and struggles that make you wonder why you even care about the topic at all. I think this is a pretty common occurrence and can happen as often as once per week or several times per month for me. Sometimes I just can't read another paragraph of this dreadful paper and I just need a short walk or a break. Once in a while, I need to take some time off completely---take a vacation or an extra day off for a long weekend and not think about it at all. You probably have heard people say grad school is a marathon before. You have to pace yourself and manage your energy levels. This is true for things like how many hours you work as well as your motivation level. It's helpful to be aware of what things decrease your motivation and which things increase it and plan your work schedule so that you maintain a good level of motivation. You can't expect raw passion to fuel you through the whole PhD, just like you can't finish a marathon on pure determination.

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