The Importance of Being Interested in Absolutely Everything

At the ripe old age of twenty-two, Kierkegaard wondered (with all the existential malaise befitting an uncommonly smart young person) if he was simply interested in too many things:

“Everybody would like their work in the world to be according to the measure of their abilities in a particular direction, in that which is most suited to their individuality. But what is that? That is where I stand, like Hercules, but not at the parting of the ways — no, here there is a far greater number of ways and it is correspondingly difficult to choose the right one. The misfortune of my life is perhaps that I am interested in far too many things and not decidedly in some one thing; my interests are not all subordinated to one thing but are all co-ordinated.” (1)

While I don’t want to seriously liken any of us to Kierkegaard (the quote is included here more for tongue-in-cheek reasons than anything else), I do want to suggest that the above statement is probably not all that unfamiliar to anyone who has been, currently is, or could potentially be a doctoral candidate. I don’t have any hard numbers to support this supposition — only the anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered from many conversations with graduate students and professors alike.

If you are among the academically-inclined, there is a very good chance that you grew up reading books voraciously, that you obsessed over something new every other week, that you never felt entirely satisfied with how much you knew, and so on, and so on. In short, if you are the sort of person to whom the thought of a career in academia is appealing, you have probably always been fascinated by an untold number of things that may only be tangentially related to one another. It’s a personality trait that can certainly feel like a hindrance when you’re trying to figure out what on earth it is you want to do with your life — I, for instance, tried four separate majors (Chemistry, Computer Science, Psychology, and Medieval Studies) before I eventually settled on my B.A. in English — but I would also argue that innovative academic research could not proceed without it.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, it has been pointed out that many graduate students in Ph.D. programs eventually come to think of academia as their only career option. While this tendency is more than understandable, it is also (assuming that what I have suggested above is true) completely antithetical to the spirit of ever-evolving interest and inquiry that draws many of us to academia in the first place. You are, in effect, doing yourself a tremendous personal and intellectual disservice if your sense of self-worth is predicated on acquiring that elusive tenure-track position after you defend your dissertation.

My advice, then, to anyone who still insists upon doing a Ph.D. despite the plethora of reasons why it might be a better idea right now to give something else a try, is this: do not allow the often unethical decisions made by university administrations and funding institutions to change what is a fundamental part of who you are as an intellectual. Do not lose sight of the fact that if you are intelligent enough and dedicated enough to succeed in a Ph.D. program, you are also intelligent enough and dedicated enough to do so very many other things. Perhaps most importantly, keep reminding yourself that your interests and dreams are malleable, and surround yourself with people who support that idea. If you don’t, it becomes easy to fall into that aforementioned trap of believing that the academic career for which you are training is the only valid option for you, and that going into any other field by choice or financial necessity would signify a failure on your part.

I hear you: it is incredibly frustrating that we have, over the past decade and a half (or thereabouts), reached a point where it is no longer advisable to pursue a doctoral degree if your chief intent is to teach and research at a university for a living. It is incredibly frustrating that university CEOs administrators have ceased to look upon graduate students as valuable contributors to the intellectual community, and now simply look upon them as capital instead — as “bums” to fill an ever-increasing number of seats. It is tempting to want to pursue a doctoral degree anyway, to thumb your nose at the excessively wealthy suits and prove through your work that you are more than just a faceless, funding-securing entity.

I implore you, though: if that is in fact what you end up doing, don’t let the degree or the desired profession define you. Disregard anyone — be it a cocky, self-absorbed peer or a well-established, respected professor — who makes you feel like you aren’t being serious enough about academia if you refuse to hide the fact that you are keeping your options open because you recognize that the hiring system is currently broken. Anyone who cannot see the value in having multiple interests is probably not worth associating with in the first place. And the moment you find yourself turning into that person is definitely the moment when you need to consider taking a break from graduate school, or even leaving it behind altogether; take it from someone who did just that, and is now much better off for having done so.

While there is a lot to be said for establishing a vocational niche for yourself in accordance with your abilities, I think there’s even more to be said for embracing your natural capacity to branch off in any direction, particularly in our still unpredictable post-recession job market. You may find yourself experiencing Kierkegaard-ish levels of angst some of the time, much to the consternation of everyone you know, but you are still (potentially) better off in the long-term than those who are unable or unwilling to redefine their interests if the need arises.

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5 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Interested in Absolutely Everything

  1. I think you’ve really hit on something. It is precisely their interests in so many things that will benefit graduate students outside the academic realm. The ability to delve into the workings of something to understand it, to constantly strive for a new, fresh analytic approach, and the general enthusiasm of learning are beloved and useful qualities in many lines of work. And it can make working outside of academia an enriching experience for these same reasons.

  2. Very well said, Stephanie! This is exactly why I decided to decline doing a PhD right out of the MA in 2011. Academic jobs in the Western world are most definitely not guaranteed–far from it. At the time, I realized this and ran from grad school, naively thinking that, for me, it was all or nothing (i.e. an academic career was the be all and end all of a PhD).

    Having had some experience teaching and living abroad, I now know that there ARE other careers outside of where my graduate research interests would attempt to lead me. Knowing this, I’m cautiously entering back into academia with my horizons broadened, and more peace of mind than in 2011. Glad you’ve found your new niche, too! 🙂

  3. Great post, Steph. I’m still coming to terms with the idea of no doctorate = failure. Or perhaps more accurately, no doctorate = academic failure and personal disappointment. It’s like I’ve given up a part of my future identity. I have a hard time seeing this decision from a position that isn’t reductivist: I choose B rather than A, and as a result, exclude myself from trying out c, d, e, and f. It’s a foolish notion, I know, but one that plagues me. It seems strikingly narrow-minded when I remember that everyone exists as a plethora of collected roles and interests–the only limiting factor is how much time to read all of the things we want to read, study all the things we want to study. As long as the desire to learn remains, the possibilities are endless.

    • A lot of what you’ve said here actually touches on something I want to talk about in a future post (namely, the whole “failure” thing and its possible relation to the numerous psychological issues that so many grad students endure in silence). I can assure you on this: it’s a process that you *will* eventually come to terms with. It took me a while to get there, but I’m there, and it feels so much better. The important thing to keep in mind is exactly what you’ve written in your last line. You can’t fail (intellectually speaking) if you keep learning new things.

      Allowing yourself to stagnate is the only real failure — and you can quite easily stagnate with a doctorate, as lots of senior faculty who should have retired years ago continually prove. The nice thing about doing something like nursing is that constant learning is part of the job. You can’t allow yourself to stagnate or phone it in because people’s lives quite literally depend upon your ability to learn the newest procedures and execute them flawlessly.

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