Monday, November 12, 2007

More On Success

Speaking of ambition and success (Friday’s post).. Last week I got a nice but bizarre email from my former advisor. He wrote: Among the pleasures of my life as a prof has been the opportunity to witness the great successes of some of my students, and you and Superstar Guy come to mind immediately of course. That was nice of him to say, even though I am not in the same league as Superstar Guy (you’d have to use a log-scale to plot us both).

My former advisor has had a lot of Ph.D. students, but only a small fraction are professors at R1 universities. [maybe he sent us all emails saying that he is particularly proud of Superstar Guy and (insert name)?!].

I am quite sure that my former advisor is proud of me because I have done well as a professor at an R1 university. He is definitely of the success is being a professor like me school of thought. If I had been spent my career thus far being an excellent teacher at a small liberal arts college, I am quite sure that he wouldn’t see me as so much of a ‘success’. Even so, I should say that although I don’t agree with that point of view, I am nevertheless pleased that he is proud of me. I have worked hard, I love my career, and it feels good to have accomplished what I have done so far.

The bizarre aspect of the email is that it came from someone who never said anything personal and never gave any but the lamest of praise ('nice effort') when I was a student. Even more bizarre, there is not a chance in the world that, back in the (grad school) day, my advisor would have imagined that he would one day consider me among his most successful students. It would have been too absurd to consider back then. Not remotely possible. Laughable.

When I was a student, my advisor had a large research group, including several ambitious male Ph.D. students with their sights set on jobs at R1 universities. I was quiet and, if asked, stated that my goal was to teach at a small liberal arts college, assuming I even got my Ph.D. from this program, which back then chewed up and spit out its few female grad students at an alarming rate. Among my advisor’s research group from that time, the only ones who got (and kept) jobs at R1 universities are Superstar and me. This fact amazes me to this day.

I hope that one day I am in a position to look back at my career and think similar fond and happy thoughts about my former students. In my case, though, I think that I will be equally proud of the science writer as the science professor. The point of this job isn’t to clone oneself and define success accordingly. That said, I admit that I would very much like to help increase the number of FSP’s in the world.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Isn't it natural to define success on the terms of what you have accomplished & what you would like to accomplish? And to be proud of that success when you actually participated in the training that it might result form?

I think what we get into here with definitions of success is not whether a science writer or a teacher is a success, but whether R1 training as a graduate student is the appropriate training for that success. I'm not taking a general position on that -- I think it depends on the field and the training. In my own field, I find the argument that R1 training & post-doc is appropriate training for a job other than being an R1 prof pretty slim. Yes, people can achieve enormous success in other positions, but not worth the training investment, if that was your original goal. I do think the question is field specific, though.

Global Girl said...

You are excused from being too narrow-minded in wanting to populate the world with more FSPs. Your motive for that is another than your advisor's reasons for defining ambition and success, and one that addesses a completely different issue. Although I am very industry-oriented, as you know, I also think there should be more FSPs. (Yes, I do feel guilty for engineering my exit ASAP from the pipeline sometimes.) That has nothing to do with your or my ideas of success, that has to do with the right of those individuals who do want to stay in academia to do so in an equal and dignified manner. Just because I'd rather be CEO than Professor Emeritus doesn't mean that you should get smacked around in your quest to excel as a FSP, and my choice to go for CEO ought to be just that - a choice. Although I believe I'd still choose CEO if things were more equitable, relativel levels of sexism shouldn't be a factor in the first place. They are. Although more FSPs isn't 100% of the solution, it is a necessary step.

MSPs have tried to convince me to stay on as a prof in circumstances where it's been clear I want to change the atmosphere. That just made me feel like a ritual sacrifice. If an FSP I knew approached me about it, I would give her my full attention, despite my comments here about marble floors and private jets. I might not change my mind, but I would listen to what she had to say. An FSP would have the credibility factor of being able to better assess just what she's suggesting I do, and more realistically what I might be able to achieve not only scientifically, but socially as well. If FSPs don't actively build networks, I don't see their numbers going up very much.

Robin said...

Thanks for your posts on graduate school and the absurdly narrow definitions for "success" and "ambition" that circulate in academia. I'm in a humanities discipline, but still find your posts to be rigorously clear-eyed and utterly helpful.

Beth Robinson said...

So how do the success definers in academia feel about PhDs that go into corporate research work, maybe even becoming head of their own R&D area? Considering how you describe your field there must be some that do. Just curious...

Lisa said...

Similar to defining success as what you have accomplished, when I was a kid, I pretty much thought that whatever mental skills/talents I had were the important ones in being intelligent. That definition made me one of the smartest people I knew :). I like to think I've grown as a person to recognizing that we all have important and different abilities, and I now think that there's no completely valid way to gauge intelligence. Similarly, there's no universal definition of "success", but it's very convenient for the ego to define it in terms of what one has accomplished.

Anonymous said...

I do think there is some drive for self-cloning in academia, at least in fields with big theoretical wars. I don't think that drive is incompatible with an awareness that different people may want different things in life and that the differences are not necessarily reflecting an underlying difference in ambition.

I also question whether the training investment is ever a waste. For one thing, sometimes one needs to try something out to know it is not as one had imagine. But also, a variety of experiences can sometimes enrich one's professional lives in unexpected ways. My own trajectory has been a little off the norm, and I am about 5-7 years older than most people at my level. I won't say everything I have done has been useful, but a lot of it has, some in direct ways (letting me be multidisciplinary by actually being an expert in more than one field) and some in indirect ways (letting me know I have the ability to slowly shift focus and go into new fields of interest, and how to go about it more or less efficiently).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

My best friend in grad school had a super-productive wunderkind of an advisor who, when she went on the job market, was forever pushing R1-type job ads under her nose. She had a very hard time convincing him that this wasn't the kind of job she wanted. To his credit, he supported her in *her* ambitions (small teaching-oriented school), even though I don't think he ever understood them.

Ambition is too often defined in terms of what the field sees as important, rather than what the individual does.

The Woman of Science said...

It strikes me that the most ambitious use of a PhD would be to find a job in a largely unrelated field with it. For example, a friend of mine wrote his dissertation about pure aluminum (very theoretical) and is looking for employment in the semiconductor industry (very practical). To me, that seems more ambitious than looking for another theoretical research on metals job like a professorship. You really have to sell yourself and your skills to make a transition like that. But maybe that's just my impression as a current grad student.

Mr. B. said...

Hear,hear!

Bonzo

Ms.PhD said...

Hey, take the praise wherever you can get it, and however ironic.

I love the line about "I'm so proud of Superstar and [insert name here]". I've worked with people like that, who just can't refrain from bragging about their one star performer.

ScienceGirl said...

Defining ambition by *where* you end up seems a bit odd to me. I prefer to define ambition by *what* I would like to accomplish, and the *where* part (R1, government or industry research labs, teaching institutions) is only one of the means of achieving it.

Anonymous said...

I'm a beginning graduate student (in my second year) and your post was really encouraging. It's hard not to worry about whether or not you have what it takes to make a good researcher, and I often worry that my publication record won't be good enough by the time I graduate.. I'm also in a large research group, and I'm certainly not the superstar, and I'm sure I won't be.. but it's really comforting to know that things can change, and I still have a chance to make it as a professor. Thanks for your post. it's really encouraging to read that someone who succeeded in academia wasn't always the best student during her entire career.

Anonymous said...

"When I was a student, my advisor had a large research group, including several ambitious male Ph.D. students with their sights set on jobs at R1 universities."

Have you any tips/suggestions as surviving as the most quiet/invisible student in such a research group?