Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Ruining" one's career

A while back, FSP and Drugmonkey had posts about "ruining one's career". These really hit home with me in a deep and personal way and I've been trying to figure out how to blog about it ever since. You see, my name is Professor Chaos and I am an inveterate "career ruiner". I have violated almost every 'rule' out there for how to have a successful career. We've all heard these 'rules'. They range from topics to avoid for your dissertation, to not taking a postdoc or phd position at your ph.d/undergrad institute, to not having a baby before tenure (if you're a woman, this rule doesn't seem to apply to men). The exact details of the 'rules', and how severe the consequences for violating them are, vary from field to field, but for my field I have violated most of them.

Along the way, I've learned a few things about  so-called 'rules for success'. 1) They often assume only one type of success: becoming a high-powered R1 rockstar. However, there are many types of 'success' even in just academia and definitely in science more broadly. The key is deciding what your definition of success is. 2) People seem to confuse correlation with causation. The guidelines are correlated with people who have been R1 successful, they are not causative. Which leads me to: 3) By far, the most important thing is to publish interesting research in good journals. Everything else is window dressing. Window dressing only goes so far if you don't have windows (or even a house).

I won't say that violating the rules didn't have its costs. There isn't a stage in my career where someone hasn't used one of the violated rules to argue that I'm not actually as good as I might seem or to tell me I was ruining my career.  I'm sure there were many people over the years who felt like I was Nero fiddling on the rooftop while my career went down in flames. And I know for a fact that this has cost me various postdoc fellowships and jobs. But each time I violated a rule, it was for personal reasons - preferring to follow my own curiosity over scientific trendiness, balancing an academic couple, etc. In the process, however, I have carved out a career I am very happy with, professionally and personally. I have also come to grips with my own definition of success. I no longer strive to become a rock star. Instead, I've created my own category that I strive to be successful at: Indigo Girl. Like the Indigo Girls, I strive to produce high quality product on my own terms. If that's ruining one's career, well, it works for me. In fact, perhaps I should work a little harder at ruining my career. I'm sure there must be at least one rule I still haven't violated!


Karina said...

I love it! I want to be an Indigo Girl too :-)

gigirose said...

thanks for this validation that being mindful of your own sense of what is valuable can lead to a meaningful career, even if it means your path is not as "cookie-cutter" as some other people who get publicly lauded for their success.

Patchi said...

Thank you for this post, I need to start (re)defining success too... What a great reminder!

"There's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine."

Anonymous said...

Papers aren't enough.

You need to turn ideas into grants into papers, it appears.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I'm in the 'bloom where you're planted' school of thought and it's nice to hear the same from other ecologists. After all whatever institution you're at - you get paid to do and teach science - how cool is that?!! That's success!

Candid Engineer said...

The Indigo Girls are my favorite band. The hardest [rules] to learn are the least complicated.

Tina said...

Well said, Prof. Chaos. I'm with Karina... can there be more then two Indigo Girls???

madscientist said...

This is very interesting. I am glad that others think about "success". I think that success should be more closely defined with what brings happiness to you. I don't think that we actually consider that very often, and end up making ourselves less happy to become more "successful", which is obviously stupid. I do this all of the time, but am trying hard to not do this anymore.

Cloud said...

This is a great post.

I stumbled on your blog because I've been bothered by the recent discussion at FSP (and the follow on at Dr. Isis' blog) about kids and careers in science, particular careers in academic science. So I've gone out looking for blogs written by scientists who are also mothers. I'm starting a list on this post:

I hope you don't mind, I'm including you.

I, too, think that there are multiple types of success. You've written abut it much more eloquently than I did!