Success & Failure

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A professor colleague of mine recently reflected on a “revise and resubmit” decision she had received from a journal: “why does success so often feel like failure?” Although her article had not been rejected (success!), the external readers or editors found things with which to quibble (failure!) And because publishing an article is one more step on the road to tenure, wavering on that path, even a bit, causes anxiety, shame, envy, fear, what have you–a whole bevy of negative emotions. Or was that just me?

Success has a very narrow definition in academia: PhD, tenure-track job, dissertation revised and published as a monograph or article series, publication in highly ranked journals, tenure.
Missteps, detours, and layovers can delay the journey to success, of course, or make it an unpleasant and difficult journey. More importantly, and to keep the metaphor going, crumbling infrastructure and unscrupulous highwaymen can prevent you from arriving there at all. And neither of these issues takes into account that your own ideas about where you’re headed and how you plan to get there might change along the way.

My professor colleague is fortunate, they are on the tenure track and happy with the direction their career is headed. Even with that level of satisfaction, however, they, like many of their peers, are uncomfortable defining success on their own terms. Instead, the narrow definition of success, full of boxes that can only be checked off on a CV, determines not only the road they try to travel, but how they feel along the way.

Success, defined SOLELY as the tenure-track job, steady stream of well-reviewed publications, and a 2-2 teaching load has got to change. One reason, of course, is that there are very few tenure-track jobs to be had, regardless of your field. The jobs that exist are temporary, teaching-intensive, and poorly compensated. Publishing is its own minefield, with principled calls to submit to only Open Access journals competing with how you think or know a hiring or tenure committee will evaluate “born-digital” research. Teaching, at least at the institutions I’ve been at, suffers from constant pressure to teach more students with fewer resources, to convert material to online formats, with instructors increasingly expected to not only be experts in their field, but instructional design whizzes, too.

Whether you’re in that full-time, tenured or tenure-track position or on the increasingly populous “margins” of the academy, it is worth your while to examine what success means for you. What kind of career do you want to have, whether you’re inside the Ivory Tower or out? What parts of a job are most important to you? What matters less?
Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What did you want to be when you were 5 years old? 15? Why? What about those careers or that life appealed to you? Are any of those still valid?
  • Think of times in your professional life when you were profoundly happy, when you experienced joy. Write down what was happening. What do you notice? The work? The emotional connection? Feelings of accomplishment? Focus on the adjectives you use and see what they tell you about your values and what makes you happy.
  • Look at your average week. Write down all the professional tasks you engage in. (including emails and your commute to the office and talking to colleagues and eating lunch, and and and). If you could have any job in the world, how many of these elements would you retain? How many of them would you chuck right out the window?

Now, if you look at your list of adjectives from your profoundly happy experience and your list of elements of your job that you love and would retain, what’s there? It might be a sort of blueprint for your individual definition of success. Mine, for example, includes things like communication and feedback, intellectual rigour, feeling appreciated and supported, and, above all, autonomy. Some jobs in the academy foster those qualities and some don’t. If we are clear on what we value most in our daily lives and in our professional lives, then we are one step closer to defining success for us. Having that information can help us decide next steps.

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