You know the advice: ‘do a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life’. It’s bad advice though, as Miya Tokumitsu has explained in this Slate article and this book, among many others. (It’s not advice from Confucius or Mark Twain or even Marc Anthony, either, so don’t worry you are throwing out some ancient wisdom!)
Still, you might love your PhD. Or you might have been told you are supposed to love your PhD. And love is weird, and complicated. PhDs are messy and complicated. Let’s talk about feelings.
Maybe you love your PhD like a hobby—that passion outside your work that brings you joy. Personally I wouldn’t recommend this kind of love to motivate your PhD project. Rather than making your PhD totally fun and relaxing, it’s more likely to turn your joy into work and then you’ve lost a hobby. Hobbies and passions are invaluable and hard to find; but there is always more work. There are so many things you can do a PhD in, don’t ruin the rare thing you enjoy in your precious leisure hours!
Maybe you love your PhD like a slightly annoying younger sibling. As a kid, loving your siblings often feels like a lot of forced proximity and petty fighting. Or it feels like the two of you against the world. (Usually a mix of both, to be honest.)
If this is how you love your PhD, it doesn’t matter if today your PhD is the worst thing ever, because tomorrow you’ll be having the time of your life. More importantly, as you grow to be adults you get more distance and more perspective on just what a great thing it has become. (Seriously, my siblings turn out to be such impressive adults. And my PhD looks pretty good too, all these years later.)
Maybe your PhD love is the duty-bound love you have for more emotionally distant relatives. You are generally fond of it, and you’d be really sad if anything terrible happened to it, but mostly turning up is a chore, one you just slot into your life because that is your life, at least for now.
Maybe your love turned sour, the bloom wore off and you realised that under the presents and champagne was a bully, or a broken promise. Like, maybe you love your PhD like a boyfriend, and then he turned out to be a bad boyfriend (this is Inger Mewburn’s metaphor from her book How to be an Academic though Amy Poehler has used it about careers in YES PLEASE and this Grown Up Party blog post takes it further.) That sucks.
For some people the best revenge is finishing the PhD, and for others it’s walking away. Both are good choices.
Maybe you love your PhD and don’t want to let it go. With Higher Ed in its current disaster setting, your PhD may seem like the only chance you get to write and think and research and belong to an academic community.
Maybe look at ways to extend that connection to research but without guilt. Can you go part time? Can you ask around to find out if there are ways to stay connected to research beyond the PhD that isn’t an eternal carousel of casual contracts? The answer is likely to be yes. Many people run their research as a side-gig (including me), so there are definitely ways to incorporate it into your ongoing career without having to be stuck with an unfinished thesis.
Maybe the PhD was never something you loved. You just did it as a path to the next thing or because it was practical. It’s a job, and you don’t love your current job either. That’s a practical strategy that you know gets stuff done. Keep it up!
Maybe you have other strong motivating feelings about your PhD that are not love. I never loved the subject of my PhD—I was cooly disappointed at the other scholarship on it. Cool anger or frustration can fuel work just as well as hot passion, and it lasts for years. It’s also motivating to get that thing moving on and out. It’s one reason I finished in 3 years exactly!
So no, you don’t have to love your PhD. If you do love it, there are choices for what kind of love you decide it deserves. If you fall out of love, there are ways to keep on and finish it. Completion can mean graduation or it can mean splitting up—either way, your PhD will not be part of your life forever, but I hope your passions and your people are.
This post was inspired by the section in our new book about the ‘Relief and Grief of Finishing a PhD’. We talk about deciding if quitting is the right decision for you (and it might be!), about what it feels like to say goodbye to a research career you were passionate about, about good and also weird it feels to finish. (There is also a return of my classic post about The Monkey Demon of PhD Guilt.)