Today I had an argument with a colleague about the concept of ambition. He and another colleague had been discussing their shared opinion that many young scientists today, especially women, lack ambition. That is, young scientists are easily derailed by obstacles and/or choose an unambitious career path; i.e., one that doesn't involve seeking a faculty position at a research university. This lack of ambition is caused by many different factors, including: lack of confidence, laziness, an inability to deal with obstacles, lack of passion for Science, or poor choice of partners (e.g., women marrying unsupportive men).
I must first note that both of these colleagues are strong supporters of women in science and equally apply this definition of lack of ambition to men and women. For example, I don't think they believe that lack of ambition is a major reason for the so-called leaky pipeline that results in so few senior women in science. Even so, I disagree with their view of what it takes to be a successful science professor.
When I argued with my colleague today, I objected to his definition of ambition and his characterization of young scientists who choose a different career path as unambitious. By this definition, only those who have successful careers as professors at research universities are ambitious, and anyone who 'fails' at this (or doesn't even try) lacks ambition. My colleague used me as an example of someone who didn't let obstacles derail her career as a science professor at a research university. That is, there are obstacles to succeeding at this career, but they are surmountable (with ambition).
I hate it when people use me as an example to argue that the current academic system is fine. If the current academic system were just fine, there would be a lot more FSPs than there are. It does not follow that just because I "made it" as an FSP, academia is a family-friendly place that fosters the careers of women in science. That would be a bizarre and unscientific conclusion for anyone to make. That is where the argument today kept reaching an impasse. I would say "What does ambition have to do with it if a young woman decides she doesn't want to spend her life dealing with sexist men?" and my colleague would say "But you did that. And you did that because you are ambitious."
I have never felt particularly ambitious. There was never a point -- not in college, grad school, or even during my postdoc -- where I had my sights set only on a faculty position at a research university. At my graduate and postdoctoral universities, the faculty were not people whose lives I aspired to emulate. I continued doing research because I love the discovery aspects of it -- the creative thinking and the always-learning-new-things aspects. I think I have always been more driven by curiosity than ambition.
If young scientists today do not find the prospect of being a science professor at a research university appealing, perhaps this is because universities have not changed sufficiently from the days when all it took to succeed was to be a white male with the right academic pedigree (and perhaps a wife to take care of things at home). Some people probably lack sufficient passion for science -- surely this has always been so -- but I don't believe this has anything to do with ambition. For example, considering the pluses and minuses of a career as an FSP -- 'get to work on interesting scientific problems' vs. 'get to work daily with sexist trolls' -- some women will decide that such a career is worthwhile and conducive to an overall happy life and career, and others will decide it is not worth it. The latter may not indicate a lack of ambition so much as problems with the academic ecosystem.
I hope at least some of this discussion makes sense. This afternoon, I had a long and frustrating meeting that was an excellent demonstration of an obstacle to enjoying life as an FSP, and I would not be surprised if my ability to be lucid were severely impacted.
9 years ago