Find your passion – or not

 March 26, 2014

“Find your passion.”   As someone who has worked in career services for 17 years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase bestowed on job-seekers as if it’s the answer to all their problems.  I also can’t tell you how many students and postdocs have somewhat guiltily confided in me that maybe they don’t have a career passion, other than to have an interesting job that allows them to pay the bills and save for retirement, with enough free time left over to enjoy their families and life in general. Those who do have a passion (say, for academic research) are often confronted with the unhappy reality that many others with the same passion are competing for those same jobs, and the situation is not getting better.

Linking passion to employment is a relatively recent phenomenon.  For centuries, unless you were part of the elite, you did what your family did.  Your dad was a farmer, so you worked on the farm.  If there were too many mouths to feed on the farm, perhaps you were sent off to apprentice.  Passion didn’t have much to do with it.  Nowadays, almost everyone (or wait, perhaps it’s still just the elite) is told that they should do what they love and the money will follow.  But what if you end up being penalized for doing what you love?  Julie Miller Vick and Jennifer Furlong have some excellent advice for you:  you don’t have to love your job.  It might be better to do what you like, if it pays the rent on time.  As Nate Kreuter writes, “If there are aspects of your profession, or your specific position, that you do not like, or that you perhaps even actively hate, it does not necessarily mean that you are in the wrong line of work, or that you’re in the wrong position.  It means that you have a job.”

I encourage you to do some informal research on this topic by talking to people in local groups like Women in Bio, Graduate Women in Science, and the NC Biotech Jobs Network.  Ask them what they like about their jobs, and what they don’t like.  Ask them what their first job out of grad school was like, and how their career has progressed since.  Ask them what they thought they were going to do when they were in school vs. what they are doing now.  In short, conduct an informational interview.  I think you will find that most people are pursuing very different careers than what they envisioned in grad school.  And you will also find that most of those people are quite satisfied with where they are now.   In other words, passion is overrated.

Molly Starback is the founding Director of the Office of Postdoctoral Services. Her office frequently collaborates with the Graduate School and Career Center to provide professional development programs and resources to the postdoc and grad student community.