Do you consider yourself to be successful? Is your career a success?
During my career workshops and 1-2-1 coaching sessions, students and researchers sometimes ask the question or reflect on what they can to do to achieve career success. Leaving academia is considered by some to be a failure. In other instances, people feel they have failed to succeed because of a lack of progression and seniority or because they’re not earning as much as they think they should be. But what is career success? And how do we know when we’ve achieved it?
In a review paper I published last year (Blackford 2018), I included a definition of career success derived from the work of Gattiker and Larwood (1989), who distinguished between different perceptions of career success: ‘Objective career success refers to observable career accomplishments that can be reliably judged by others, such as pay and ascendancy. Subjective career success is more concerned with individual appraisals of one’s career success. This subjective judgement is not only influenced by objective criteria, but also by individual aspiration levels, social comparisons to relevant others and situational constraints such as opportunities for advancements in the profession.’
We all tend to measure ourselves against each other, weighing up our own comparative successes. Some of those who have left academia to pursue careers in areas such as industry, management, communication and enterprise may have thought their careers were unsuccessful at some point along the way (perhaps assessing themselves in terms of publications). However, research studies, surveys and personal career stories tell us that the vast majority don’t feel that way once they have experienced life on the ‘outside’. However, very likely, in their new non-academic careers, they start to measure their success against new criteria within that organisation and alongside a new group of peers. And not only that, the weight of expectation from family, friends and society can also add further pressure to ‘succeed’.
This is where the “should” word comes in. It’s the burden we place on ourselves to reach for goals that we feel will prove our success, giving rise to anguished statements such as : “I did a PhD so I should aim for professor, otherwise it was all a waste of time”; “Now that I’m over 35 I should strive for a top management position”; “I should be mobile and change countries to be successful, even though I will have to live away from my family”; and so on. You get the picture. You probably have your own “should” conversation going on.
These are all ‘objective’ perceptions of career success, where we aspire to reach for aspirations such as advancement and status. However, taking a ‘subjective’ perspective of career success can help to release us from this burden and bring us back to a more genuine and honest appreciation of our achievements. In my career workshops and coaching sessions, students and researchers reflect on what they enjoy doing in their work and in other associated activities. This helps them to determine what is most important in their everyday lives. Underpinned by values and what matters most to them, they usually discover a deeper sense of what career success means to them. Examples have included: having variety, a good work:life balance, helping others, working independently, the opportunity for personal advancement, having security, being able to use specialist skills and being appreciated. Even pragmatic factors have figured, such as being able to cycle to work or wear casual clothes.
Factoring in these more subjective views when making career choices shifts the focus from simply assessing jobs in terms of their job title, status and salary to consideration of more in-depth aspects of the role linked to personal values and motivations. It may be that an academic career is a perfect fit for some, where generation of research ideas, publications, awards and funding are considered as the primary measures of success (Bowden 2012). For others, career success may mean building on current skills towards becoming a technology specialist, being able to apply science for practical solutions, expressing science creatively as a science communicator, organising and supporting the scientific community through science management and administration roles or teaching and inspiring students to become the next generation of scientists. Some might turn down a job or promotion because it doesn’t align, for example, with their wish to remain a specialist, their desire for autonomy or because it would mean less time spent with their family.
In reality of course, both objective and subjective career success criteria determine our career decisions and sense of achievement. What’s important is to get the balance right.
So, what does career success look like to you?
Blackford S. 2018. Harnessing the power of communities: career networking strategies for bioscience PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. FEMS Microbiology Letters, 365(8):1-8.
Bowden R. 2012. How Would You Define a Successful Career in Science? 2012. Naturejobs blog.
Gattiker UE, Larwood L. 1989. Career success, mobility and extrinsic satisfaction of corporate managers. The Social Science Journal 26:75–92.