Tag Archive: grad school


Working With Passion

This is where talent and passion can get you.

Last week, in my post about how modern society hates silence, I briefly mentioned the assumption that, after a hard day’s work, we need mindless activities to distract ourselves from work.  I said that was a subject for another post; well, here it is!

At the beginning of 2010, a survey revealed that only 45% of workers are satisfied with their jobs (I know this was over a year and a half ago, but I do not believe things have changed significantly since then).  That means that 55% of the workers surveyed were dissatisfied with their work.  That’s tens of millions of people in the United States alone!  If work is an important part of who we are – and in the U.S., at least, we tend to define ourselves by our work – is it any wonder that the overall mood is is so pessimistic lately?

A year ago, I was in that 55%.  I was just finishing up an internship which was an exercise in frustration, and unbeknownst to me I was in for an entire semester of more of the same.  So, from June until about Christmas, I felt like I was in a cave, pushing against a huge solid boulder that refused to budge.  Sometime during that time, I promised myself this: I was going to finish my master’s degree as soon as possible, get a job that didn’t require too much thinking (or, more importantly, programming), and get myself out of the research field as soon as I could.  I was burned out, discouraged, and had no hope of the situation improving.  When I wasn’t at work, I was doing everything I could to take my mind off of it.

Now, things are very different.  I’m getting results.  I’m much better at programming.  My thesis topic changed fairly significantly and I find this one much more interesting.  During idle time, I find myself pondering obstacles I will encounter in whatever analysis I’m doing and coming up with solutions.  The result?  I’m no longer dead set on leaving grad school; in fact, I’m seriously considering going for the Ph.D.  Once again, I am passionate about atmospheric science.

That passion makes all the difference, I think.  Passion is what causes the scientist to ask and answer deep, complex questions about the world around them.  Passion is what drives my dad, a tax preparer who works 80+ hour weeks during tax season, to go to work before dawn six days a week for three months and still do taxes for friends and family on his (very limited) time off.  Passion is what drives someone like Michael Phelps to not just swim for fun, but to train with an intensity very few of us can comprehend in order to be, quite literally, the best in the world at what he does.

Humans are created to be passionate.  Think about it – how easy is it to be passionate about a sports team, a relationship/person, a belief system, a video game?  Work is just as much a part of our lives as  a close relationship or a favorite hobby.  It might be harder to be passionate about our work – particularly if the job is not that exciting or fulfilling – but that does not make it any less necessary.  Whatever job you are doing, you have control over whether it is a lousy job or a fun and rewarding one (I only wish I had understood this more when I worked in fast food).  It’s your choice; are you going to be in the 55% or the 45%?

Giving Significance

As a grad student, I often feel like my work really has no significance.  I feel like anyone could do it, so I am not anything special.  This is an unfortunate side effect of being at the top of my class in high school and college, only to become solidly mediocre in grad school.  It’s not true, of course, but it’s too easy to listen to the little voice telling me that I am not good enough, not smart enough, not good enough at programming, etc.

Luckily for me, I have a fantastic advisor.  I think there are two types of professors that everyone likes: the easy ones, and the ones that challenge you and make you want to give up until you finish the task and realize how much you learned from it.  My advisor is, without a doubt, the latter type.  You take his classes and you stay up until 3 am doing the homework, you don’t sleep for 3 consecutive nights because you have a huge project due, you do 7-page derivations that make you want to gouge out your eyes with a rusty knife.  But after all of that, you realize you have learned more in his class than in just about any other class you have taken.  People sometimes feel sorry for me because I am his student, but I would not have it any other way.  As I’ve worked for him, I’ve wanted to quit grad school so many times – but I also want to live up to his expectations, so I keep going.  All this to say…

I was sitting in my advisor’s office on Friday afternoon and we were discussing the results of some analysis I had just completed.  As he was explaining something to me, his office phone rang.  Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in professors’ offices – when the phone rings, they stop what they are doing and take the call.  This time, though, something strange happened: he ignored the phone.  We continued to talk about my results, all while his phone was still ringing.  My mind was completely blown.  I know this seems like a really tiny thing, but it sent me a loud message:  “Your work is significant.  I care about your work.  I care so much that I’m going to ignore whomever is calling me right now, even if it’s a hotshot from NASA.”  Wow.  There are other signs of this – printouts of my results scattered all over his desk, relevant papers showing up every other day – but I think that, in this instant-gratification society in which we can’t seem to keep ourselves from being connected to as many people as possible, ignoring a phone call from who-knows-who to discuss research with a lowly grad student speaks volumes about how my advisor feels about the significance of my work.

For someone who struggles with feeling insignificant and at times incompetent, this was like ice cold water on a hot summer day.  This ten-second incident got me thinking about how we, as leaders, treat our followers.  If you’re reading this blog, odds are good you want to reach out and help people in some way.  As you do that, ponder this thought: If you want people to believe that they are significant, it is your job to show them their significance.  There are more effective, and simple, ways to do this than a simple banner in the hallway or giving everyone an award.  The key is one word: Focus.  Focus on those you are teaching, mentoring, and/or leading.  Focus on what they are doing, how they are doing it, and how they are feeling about doing it.  If you can give them your complete, undivided attention, they will take note.  And imagine what could happen if everyone in the world truly believed that their existence, their life, their work, had significance.