What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It

What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It

One of the most common conversations among junior faculty, postdocs, and graduate students revolves around the question, “What does it take to be a successful academic?” The most common follow-up question is, “Is the cost worth it?” We are inundated with stories and experiences involving wise and senior academics who speak of 80 to 90-hour work weeks, lack of a family, no hobbies, no social life, and 100% devotion to all things scientific and career as if this approach to life was required for any success in the academic world.

I was inspired by a tweet from one of my colleagues, Dr. J. D. Farrell-Campbell (@Campbell_JD_), who wrote in response to a conversation concerning expected work hours among academics with, “If this is the cost to publish in @nature or @sciencemagazine it is not worth it. @raulpacheco & @Shawpsych are both successful & have a life.” It is extraordinarily kind of Dr. Farrell Campbell to both include me in the company of Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega, and number me among successful academics. But thanks to Dr. Farrell-Campbell, I feel the need to create a meditation on success in academia.

I have written elsewhere in this blog that I may not be a typical academic because I have no real ambition and I simply enjoy the work. I actually learned only two years ago that the vast majority of awards won in academia are self-nominated — I had no idea that was an option. As someone who came to academia relatively late in life (my tenure track job started when I was 42-years-old after having a career as a psychologist for 16 years), I don’t have particularly good socialization as an academic and am used to a different professional culture. I’m just happy to have a job with no heavy lifting.

I do not understand discussions of academic success in general. There are so many roles and functions that an academic can fill that there appears to be little overlap. For example, the environments are dramatically different. Working at a community college (or CEGEP), liberal arts school, state school, R1 institution, or research institute all constitute being an academic, but have few skill sets in common. Roles and expectations also vary among fields of study. The skills required in philosophy, medical education, social work, drama, genetics, and many others are widely different; as are the criteria used to measure success. Research output is a widely agreed upon metric for success. But even within the same university and the same field of study, some academics are successful for being leaders in university governance, outstanding teachers and mentors, involvement in student life, consultation and business partnerships, university-community partnership, and many other measures of success. There are so many metrics for measuring academic success that I am not really sure how success is defined.

There is also an individual perception of success. I am always surprised by how many people are driven to achieve by anger, ego, money, making one’s parents proud, to prove to others that they are not a failure, and other external factors. Most fields even have rankings of the most influential or most productive scholars in each specific field. Convoluted metrics of journal impact are used to quantify and rank scholars. It makes me giggle a little bit that some scholars are competing to be tops in the field of creating new journal impact factors and ranking other scholars (that should be called meta-scholarly studies, if it isn’t already). Different people have different needs for objective success in their field.

When I left clinical work to try academia, my close friend, former partner, and respected colleague berated me for over one hour for abandoning children who need me so that I could write papers for the judgment and entertainment of other people who write papers. That hit a little close to home and hurt, but was a valuable perspective. I have a fairly simple view of success as an academic that revolves around two criteria: I want my students to meet their professional goals and for everyone else to leave me alone. Honestly, there are no publications in Nature or Science, no awards, and no other status that are as productive and valuable as making small contributions and supporting the success of students. A lot of people do not believe me on that one (yes, I acknowledge that this is part of the privilege of tenure), but it is true. And I want to publish enough papers that make contributions to my field, have enough grant money, and have enough academic accomplishments so that I do not become an embarrassment to the department and require the attention of the department chair. I know that I have an h-index, but I do not know what it is and I do not know how many refereed publications I have written. I want to study what I want and with whom I want. Ultimately, the goal is to indirectly influence future professionals and improve the outcomes for many more children than I could ever help by myself. That is success as an academic for me.

There is the second part of the equation. Is it worth it? Do I actually have a life? I work fairly long hours, but I don’t keep track because that would probably be a little bit depressing. About 50-60 hours per week, I guess. I come home every night to cook dinner for my family (my wife doesn’t cook). I am still married after 25 years. My children still seem to like me and we have conversations every day. My dog is probably little bit undertrained and I do not socialize much, but have good friends. I have simple hobbies of training judo three hours per week along with my younger daughter and I go to the gym three days per week. So that’s enough for me.

Many thanks to Dr. J. D. Farrell-Campbell for considering me a successful academic with a life. By objective measures, I am a fairly mediocre academic and I am okay with that. Yet, I believe that I am successful and the work is worth it to me; but only for my context, specific definition of success, and desired quality of life.







8 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It

  1. Guess the key metric is “to be successful = to make a living”.

    In physics in certain topics seems sometimes that you cannot make a living if you don’t have a number (not a single one) of Nature/PRL first name papers.
    If you don’t you will not have your contract renewed/you will keep be a postdoc over 40 y/o and in any case you will have a barely living wage if you don’t climb the ladder (try to feed and cloth children in London with 39k£ of the “junior” faculty salary). Simple as that.

    And in order to do that you need that sociopathic attitude in terms of metric and work that cannot let you take your relaxed stance on life.

    It simply baffles me that there can be people that can come to academia even late in life, I would like to know how to manage the transition and how to land a interview to a faculty job without a stellar h-index to back it up…

    • You are right, that is the culture of many fields. Deviating from the cultural norm is always hazardous. I am still a bit lost on why publishing a lot of papers and bringing in grant money = sociopathic (but I know what you are saying, I see that a lot, too).
      To be fair, I was publishing before coming into academia, produced some papers that are considered seminal, and was fairly well-known in the field before becoming a professor. I had 7 interviews and 3 offers before deciding on McGill–my field does not have the ridiculous glut of scholars that most field have. The junior faculty salary was eye-opening and the pay cut was hard–after 11 years as a professor my salary is now up to what it was as a clinician. I wish you the best of luck, satisfaction, and happiness in your career.

      • “why publishing a lot of papers and bringing in grant money = sociopathic (but I know what you are saying, I see that a lot, too).”

        Because for a number of years you work terribly long hours (even more than 50/60, but let’s suppose your 60), you are paid terribly, you have absolutely no job security and not even an hedge of stability since postdoc fellowship often even require that you change country after 2 years.

        You might be not a sociopathic person, but the environment you’re in and what is required of you to succeed is the total opposite of a sane social environment.

    • I have made a few friends since taking an academic job. A couple are academics and a few are from the neighborhood. They are not nearly as close as the friends I had before becoming an academic, but that is not a big problem.

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