Sometimes, I like to introduce acute panic and anxiety in my life by browsing the LinkedIn profiles of people who have jobs that I wish I had, or people who I consider much more ‘successful’ than me. As I run the cursor across the smiling faces of professional smug bastards (I often pretend to pick their noses) one word keeps popping up – passionate.
Now, I normally associate that word with the moments between wanting to kiss someone and offering to fall asleep in the wet patch. Clearly, there is something wrong with me if I’m unwilling to fall asleep in the wet patch of my research. Is it a fundamental flaw in my plan that I am not passionate about what I do? Should I be the smug smiling bastard, looking soullessly down the lens of a camera? I would argue that being passionate is not a prerequisite for success and, in some cases, it can hinder the career progression of early career researchers (ECRs).
Being passionate about the research you are doing is every scientists dream. The fact that a person is genuinely passionate about their research normally implies that they are very lucky, or have developed some sort of sweaty palm Stockholm syndrome towards their research captor. Ultimately, whatever the reason, I am in no doubt that these people will end up living with cats and their many turds.
I get the feeling that it’s much easier, and more common, for someone to say they are passionate about their research than actually be passionate about it. That one word acts as a Teflon shield easily explaining why someone would be willing to enter a competitive job market, with fewer and fewer jobs, and seek funding which is becoming harder and harder to come by. It may be difficult to admit to Auntie Jane, during the annual Christmas pilgrimage to her strange smelling house, that you never had a plan and you don’t know how you got to where you are now. So yeah, Auntie Jane, I’m passionate about thin film coatings, that’s why I cry myself to sleep – they’re tears of passionate joy.
Being forcefully passionate about a vanishingly small part of the world will limit the opportunities that ECRs allow themselves to be open to. In the same way that telling your mum you like blue limits the type of presents you get. You will find yourself receiving the same blue-themed presents, every year, for 10 years’ worth of birthdays and Christmases when, actually, you stopped liking blue 5 years ago – you just can’t bring yourself to tell her the truth.
In today’s increasingly unstable research and academic job market, the ability to still find enjoyment in whatever you turn your hand to is much more valuable than pretending that finding the chemical composition of toe nail clippings rocks your world. You can still do your job, be good at it, and not want to fuck its brains out.