How do we define “success” in science?

One topic I’d like to consider on this site is what is “success” in science? Although the academic model as the pinnacle of success is changing, in many fields success still means a tenure-track position and research lab in academia. While this seems outdated, even my husband, someone who’s guided students and post-docs and who’s run a long-term field study for over ten years, but as a federal scientist, occasionally feels the stigma of being “outside” academia. And then there are, of course those of us on the opposite end of the spectrum, we work part time, we write, we consult, we teach, but we are outside of the scientific mainstream.

It’s easy to say “success is how you define it,” but for many of us, no matter how many times we tell ourselves that external validation doesn’t matter – it does to some extent.

Over the years I’ve known many (mostly women) who have worked scientific odd-jobs – unlike an academic or even a government researcher – they’ve jumped from project to project – or from one organization to another – in part because of circumstance (the dual-career thing) or choice (decide to work part-time or decide that they will be or can be the more flexible one.)
Even those whom I’d consider successful don’t always feel that way. Maybe this is self-serving – but I consider many who work like this to be an asset to the educational or scientific community. They’re like pollinators – buzzing around from lab to lab, field to field (so to speak) or even dodging in and out of various classrooms – picking up a little from many different fields, and adding a little from their own.

In some ways it’d be nice to acknowledge this group of workers – provide them a space to interact, support each other, even maybe create a more “formalized” space for them within the scientific community.

What do you think?

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1 Response to “How do we define “success” in science?”


  1. 1 annieb January 28, 2008 at 1:03 am

    I think this topic generalizes to women in all career fields who choose to be moms first, professionals second. I suggest “success” is being able to make that choice work, and (successfully) dealing with the inevitable “what if” reflections on our choices. Our time will come and while it might be frustrating to watch professional first, parent second counterparts (whatever sex) become more secure in their careers, we have to remember it’s not all about us. And that’s why we made the choices we made….


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