I was out a’Stumblin’ across the internets tonight and I came upon this question on Quora:

Is going for a Ph.D. worth it if I’m extremely passionate about a field but don’t really want to spend my 20s poor, toiling away in a lab, and living in a city that I don’t particularly want to live in?

An important question, am I right?

Well, maybe I’m a little bit biased here, but I really love this response written by Mark Eichenlaub (it’s linked right here, but I’ll copy/paste ‘cause it’s important):

I have anosmia, which means I lack smell the way a blind person lacks sight. What’s surprising about this is that I didn’t even know it for the first half of my life.
Each night I would tell my mom, “Dinner smells great!” I teased my sister about her stinky feet. I held my nose when I ate Brussels sprouts. In gardens, I bent down and took a whiff of the roses. I yelled “gross” when someone farted. I never thought twice about any of it for fourteen years.

Then, in freshman English class, I had an assignment to write about the Garden of Eden using details from all five senses. Working on this one night, I sat in my room imagining a peach. I watched the juice ooze out as I squeezed at the soft fuzz. I felt the wet, sappy liquid drip from my fingers down onto my palm. As the mushy heart of the fruit compressed, I could hear it squishing, and when I took that first bite I could taste the little bit of tartness that followed the incredible sweet sensation flooding my mouth. 

But I had to write about smell, too, and I was stopped dead by the question of what a peach smelled like. Good. That was all I could come up with. I tried to think of other things. Garbage smelled bad. Perfume smelled good.  Popcorn good. Poop bad. But how so? What was the difference? What were the nuances? In just a few minutes’ reflection I realized that, despite years of believing the contrary, I never had and never would smell a peach.

All my behavior to that point indicated that I had smell. No one suspected I didn’t. For years I simply hadn’t known what it was that was supposed to be there. I just thought the way it was for me was how it was for everyone. It took the right stimulus before I finally discovered the gap.

I think it’s quite likely you’ve found such a gap. I think that you’ve been given the opportunity now to realize that you are not extremely passionate about your field, because if you were this question would never arise. 
Try these things:

  • Name one hundred questions you have about your field
  • Think of a time when you’ve brushed off work, a social engagement, or some other plan because you got so excited about an idea that you had to work on it right away
  • Think of a time when you talked to someone about your field not to make conversation, not because you thought they’d care, and not because it’s what you know, but simply because you couldn’t restrain yourself despite your better judgment.
  • Find ten diary entries you wrote in which you talk about how many interesting things in this field you learned.
  • Describe an independent project you pursued without hope of ever getting any credit for it.
  • Think of a time when you lay awake at night, unable to sleep because of your excitement about the field.
  • Think of a time when you were frustrated with a textbook because it refused to get to the good stuff, or hid the beauty of the ideas, or otherwise did injustice to the field.
  • Think of a time when you got in a shouting match over an idea.

I wouldn’t expect you could do all these things, since they depend on your personality as much as your passion.  But here’s one more test:  when you read the first item about listing a hundred questions, before you moved on, did you think “I could do that, no problem”, or was there a specific old question you’ve thought about time and again and never solved that immediately popped to mind?   (I assume you didn’t actually do the exercise; almost nobody would, regardless of passion.)  If you’re passionate, you think about questions like those compulsively, and there will almost always be one there.

If you couldn’t do most of the things on the list and you skipped over the first item without an old question jumping into your mind, then you, like I, are missing a piece of the forbidden fruit. You have believed that you are passionate. You’ve told everyone you are and acted like you are and done all the right things, but it just isn’t there.

When I was a kid, I was the only one who couldn’t smell, but I’ve learned over time that there are many people who don’t feel passion about what they do, but never even realize it. It is practically a motif of my generation that we feel adrift, unsure of what to do with ourselves despite endless possibilities. In large part, I think this is because many of us are desperately searching for a passion that we can only partially fool ourselves into believing we’ve found.

If you’ve passed the test and realized that you are passionate, go to grad school because once you’re engaged with great ideas, you won’t care that you’re poor and unappreciated and working long hours and living in Crapville University Town. Or if you failed my test but think it’s bogus, go to grad school for the same reason.
But if you think you feel passion the way I experience smell, do not go to grad school. In that case it will eat your soul.


“I think that you’ve been given the opportunity now to realize that you are not extremely passionate about your field, because if you were this question would never arise.” I really like that.

It’s a little like that “flip a coin to make a decision” thing. If there are two options that you feel are equally desirable, flip a coin to decide between them. As you flip the coin, you’ll realize that there’s one outcome that you’re hoping for over the other.

I think I’ll come back to the topics talked about in this post in a little while when things get a little more settled (you’ll know what I’m talking about when it happens), but I just wanted to post this because a) I like the analogy of anosmia, haha, and b) this is definitely something we should consider not only when it comes to big choices like grad school vs. no grad school but also when it comes to weighing the benefits of making sacrifices in any other aspects of our lives.



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