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Redefining “success” in academia

By some people’s standards I could consider myself a very successful academic. I have a job I love at a prestigious, internationally-recognized institution, I have a low teaching load, have successfully raised extramural grant money to execute projects, I have brilliant students, both undergraduate and graduate. I absolutely love my research and have fantastic collaborators worldwide and wonderful colleagues at my institution’s campuses.

Yet, I can’t help but remind myself that definitions of success vary. I’m not a fan of “publish-or-perish”, and sometimes I defy the old canon by refusing to engage in it. Yet other times, I just can’t stop myself from writing about a research topic because it really ignites a fire inside me and I’m passionate about it (ask me about my recent work on water privatization, for example, or my career-long scholarship on wastewater governance).

However, I should also admit that this time a decade ago, I was just happy to be alive, and I considered that a success. I had just broken up with my fiance, and my world was crumbling underneath my feet. The pressure of completing a PhD, plus my own personal goals shattered by the loss of the person I thought I was going to marry, were overwhelming. Yet I survived, thrived, completed my PhD, managed to publish a few things and now have a fantastic position, and a research trajectory that fascinates me.

Success in sight....

Photo credit: SimplyCVR on Flickr

In the current environment of higher education, with funding cuts, loss of tenure-track positions, increasing pressure on graduates to find jobs, and grave mental health problems in academia, we cant’ afford to measure success the same way for everyone. For many academics who face disability challenges, just reading one page or writing 100 words per day should be considered a success. Heck, being alive is success.

For many academics, success should include being able to balance their personal life with their professional one. Or having time to spend with their children. OR having time for themselves. Success is such a personal component of life that I find associating it with the professional side ends up hurting us more than helping us. For me, because I was so ill at ISA 2014, success meant having the physical energy to participate in my own panel and comment another one.

Let’s redefine success in academia not only based on books, book articles, chapters, but on what is really relevant to us. My research is policy-relevant. I’m doing what I love and getting paid for it. And I am spending time with my parents, my friends and my loved ones.

To me, that’s success.

Posted in academia.


2 Responses

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  1. Duane Storey says

    I think it’s important for everyone to define what success is to them. I am amazed at how many business owners who think working 24/7 is a sign of success – for me it is a huge sign of failure. I enjoy my job, but there are usually many other things I’d like to be doing – travelling, playing guitar, watching new movies, hanging out with friends… For me success is finding ways to do more of those things, and that often means coming up with ways to work more efficiently so I can have more time off.

  2. Job Seeker says

    I’m all for redefining success for those who are trapped in a ‘R1 tenure-track or bust’ mindset. But how much more accessible is your own path to success than the tenure-track? How many people did you beat out in competition for the job you have now?

    The problem for many academic job seekers is not that we have too narrow a definition of what would count as success. It’s that we can’t find a job that values our skills and provides enough pay and security to build a life on.



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