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!