The love for your subject

When starting on the path to academia, you generally know, broadly what subject area you like.

First you realise you like science.

Then you figure out that you prefer biology to chemistry or physics.

Somehow a few years later you’re studying the intricate details of spider gait (and realise that all the sciences are inherently interwoven anyway).

As with every profession, I think it’s fair to say that your passion for the subject will fluctuate over time. In academia though, especially when there’s a tendency for the edges around your work and personal life to be blurred, sometimes you really can fall out of love with your research subject.

I’m certainly not speaking for everyone here – I’ve known people who are so unbudgingly enamoured with their work that I wanted to throttle them – but it’s okay to be a get a bit sick of your subject from time to time. That’s just one of a long list of reasons why the culture of overworking in academia is dangerous – it really can result in you hating your subject, and being unable or unwilling to continue with research.

Sometimes I’d sit out in the garden to have lunch, and my spidey-senses would tingle, and sure enough a couple of feet away a spider would be darting about in the sun. On some occasions I’d excitedly grab a camera and try get a decent photo; on others, I’d have to go indoors because the sight of it made me feel almost physically sick with worry about my thesis.

In the toughest days of my PhD, the last thing I wanted to do was to talk about spiders. Which was upsetting, because it was good science communication practice for me to chat about my research to a friend of a friend over a pint, a good way of learning how to answer unexpected questions. And people LOVE talking about spiders, whether they’re an arachnophobe or arachnophile.

It was on these occasions though that I realised that at my core, I do love my work. Rather than tell someone I didn’t want to talk about it, I’d humour them and just in the act of engaging and answering questions, I realised that yes, sometimes working on your subject can suck, but ultimately taking the subject away from its ‘formal setting’ of a degree or a PhD or a research career can reignite your passion for it.

That’s what venturing into science communication did for me – it helped me through the really rough times of my PhD, and reminded me why was doing it (because spiders are really really awesome). It’s a great opportunity to engage with likeminded people who study a ton of different subjects, and a great way of going back to when you first just loved ‘science’ – a reminder of what just being curious about something feels like, and not knowing all the answers, and learning that it’s okay not to know.

Honestly without my somewhat accidental stumble into science communication, I don’t think I’d have stuck with the PhD. With every talk I saw or gave, every event I attended or participated in, it reminded me that the core of science is simply being curious. And being curious is for everyone.

Michelle Reeve

Michelle is the host of Clutter, and a recovering spider scientist. She now does a whole bunch of science communication things, and still regularly wrangles arachnids.

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