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Future MDs and PhDs: Follow your passion – or don’t

Rock_Climbers_on_High_Neb, don't think I could explain my "passions" with a straight face. The word itself seems so trite - but one that must be pulled out for cover letters and interviews, I thought.

Not to say I don't get the sentiment. Passion seems like a key ingredient of any worthwhile pursuit - and a word that career counselors, particularly ones who counsel future MDs and PhDs, likely dish out quite liberally.

Yet they shouldn't necessarily do so, Stephanie Eberle wrote recently in an essay in InsideHigherEd.

Eberle leads the career counseling center at Stanford's School of Medicine, and anytime someone tells her they want to follow their "passion," she demands a definition:

While being passionate about something may inspire you to strive longer and harder toward success, it does not mean you will actually be successful. Nor does this mean success will be worth it in the end. Plenty of starving actors, divorced faculty members, and depressed venture capitalists exist, despite their passion.

Likewise, she argues, one can have a perfectly pleasant career with very little passion at all. One woman became a doctor to support her family in India. Or a man who became an accountant to save up for a pleasurable retirement. And a job might wind up sparking a bit of passion sometimes.

Eberle also notes that career development is much more complex than thinking about passion - it's a "lifelong process, the culmination of myriad decisions about how your interests, skills, and values connect to real-world opportunities."

She sums up with some sage advice: "We spend about one-third of our lives strutting and fretting at work, hoping for that one, passionate hour upon the stage. For life to signify something, don't follow your passion. Instead focus on the many hours which make up that life and trust the process ahead."

Previously: Stanford's senior associate dean of medical education talks admissions, career paths, Starting a new career in academic medicine? Here's a bible for the bedside: The Academic Medicine Handbook and Former professional ballet dancers find a thriving second career in science
Photo by Andy Beecroft

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