professional success and benchmarks

I’m obnoxious when it comes to success. Not externally, I don’t think. Externally I think I am able to advocate for myself while avoiding arrogance, through a carefully monitored cocktail of social graces and impostor syndrome. I didn’t mention the name of my fancy post-doc institution during interviews unless directly asked, because people can get a bit weird about it*.  I am very unlikely to waltz into a junior colleague’s office unannounced to spend 15 minutes expositing on my relative fame and success**. I would not say I am humble, but I really am conscious of how my discussions of success can be viewed***.

Internally though, I’m a jerk. I have impossibly high standards. It is not enough to do well, I have to be best. It’s not enough to achieve, I have to win things. THEN I am happy.  I was pleased to hear my first grant was funded (50% success rate because Canada is awesome that way), but then dispirited to hear I’d been allocated the “usual” first-time funding package.

This is not a sustainable mindset for academia. Good and done is better than perfect. Taking a leap that might fail is important, and critical. I need to retune my expectations in the next few years or I risk being permanently unsatisfied with something perfectly satisfactory, which, let’s face it, is all one can reasonably expect for pre-tenure research life.

* both people at the school: “We will never have trouble in life, because we are at Fancy Pants U!”, and people not at the school: “You must hate the idea of being here after being at Fancy Pants U!”.  Neither of these are good assumptions to make.
** as happened last week with not one but two of the senior members of my department at separate times. 15-20 minutes straight of chest-puffing blowhardiness, my input not necessary to the conversation. Both mentioned my media-darling paper briefly, so I assume that was the reason they were in my office in the first place. Self-congratulations as a proxy for actual congratulations is an odd method.
*** this has never been more true than when sharing war stories about the academic job market. I am employed by the first university I applied to. My war story is The Pig War, minus the death of a pig.

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4 thoughts on “professional success and benchmarks

  1. rainbowgoblin

    This makes me think of something Steffen said to me the other day: “my family thinks I’m a success, despite everything.” This was in reference to his career, and to his extended family. “Despite everything” meant “despite the fact that I don’t publish as many papers as I think I should.” Which, you know, his less successful relatives don’t care about (or know about, for that matter, or have any sense of how many papers an academic should publish). It’s all related to imposter syndrome. When your yardstick for evaluating your success is a moving target you can’t possibly ever feel like you’ve gotten there… But I’m not sure you can really stop setting impossible standards for yourself, I think you just eventually get used to knowing you’re fine while simultaneously not believing it. And those guys who go on and on about how amazing they are: I suspect they’re over compensating for their own imposter issues.

    Reply
    1. labmonkeyftw Post author

      It is hard. Academia selects for self-driven people and then gives them amorphous but intense benchmarks to measure their success with. It is no wonder so many of us claim to work 80+ hours a week (despite, I guarantee, none of us actually working that many hours).
      It felt like a peeing contest (the blowhards). I didn’t rise to the occasion, as it were, so I think they left reassured as to their alpha status. They might have been welcoming me to the alpha club, but I really don’t speak their language, so missed the RSVP button..

      Reply
  2. Turia

    It has taken me ages to have time to reply to this, but I had to tell you just how much your description of the unexpected visitors made me laugh. Like tears pouring down my face laugh, because I could just picture it. I wonder if they were even aware of their actions or whether it was just an unconscious need to reassert status as soon as they were made aware of your paper.
    Q. is bad for impossible standards too, but he has mellowed a bit since getting tenure and since realizing he simply CAN’T do it all and be a good husband/father too. He is also becoming more aware that he needs to pace himself and make time for other things (like swimming) and take proper vacations (not just visiting family). Hopefully you will figure out a balance in the future too.

    Reply
    1. labmonkeyftw Post author

      It was amazing. It was EVEN MORE amazing the second time around, when I knew what might be happening earlier. The first visitor I spent the first ten minutes trying to figure out why they were in my office. Once I realized “Oh they want me to know they are successful”, it got easier. Well, funnier anyway.

      Reply

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