Defining Success

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

For my last post with the NIH BEST team, I’d like to pose a question to the readership, “What is success?” It’s a simple enough question, but for most people, the answer isn’t straightforward. Life has thrown a lot my way over the last few months; I find myself, once again, at the departure lounge of BWI (my airport) waiting to fly home for a funeral, the second in 4 months. Without wanting to come across as overly dramatic (this is a Ph.D. and postdoc careers forum after all) the last few months have caused me to reflect on what it means to have a successful life: both in a professional and personal sense. We talk a lot about work/life balance at NIH BEST, and I believe a healthy definition of success should address both.

A recipe for success?

Without a doubt, success means something different to each and every one of us. Perhaps your idea of success is to obtain funding and start your own lab. Perhaps your goal is simply to be known for your work? Maybe your goal is to get that next Nature, Science, or Cell Publication? Sure, all of these could be considered examples of success and might be admirable goals, but I think that there is a misalignment between how we define success for ourselves and for others. I think this arises because of a disconnect between long term definitions of success and short term definitions of success, as well as the injection of a healthy dose of morality. Let me explain what I mean.

For the sake of argument, let’s say you obtain funding from the mob to set up a drug lab in your basement. Congratulations! You’ve just met many young scientists’ definition of success. You’ve got your own lab with your own supply of funding. But I think most of us, both in the scientific and non-scientific communities, would probably argue that this doesn’t make you a successful scientist. Most would probably say that manufacturing and supplying illegal drugs doesn’t benefit society as a whole.

So what about becoming famous for the work you’re doing? Let’s look at Francis Galton, a notorious eugenicist, for example. By all accounts Galton was good at what he did: statistics, anthropology, sociology, the list goes on. He is well known – though these days perhaps more so through his connection to Charles Darwin. He was a prolific writer, with more than 300 publications to his name. But again, would we call him successful? With a reputation tarnished by eugenics, I think probably not.

What about those glamorous publications? You can probably guess where this is going. If you are capable of the caliber of research necessary to publish in a top tier journal, hats off to you, I think we’d probably consider you a success. But what happens if the next year you fail to obtain funding and your lab shuts down? Still successful? What if a rival lab disproves your findings? What does that success mean now?

Although it is important to appreciate these wins in what can often be a grueling career, we run the risk of staking our happiness on the ephemeral. We often say something along the lines of: “I’ll be happy when…” or “I’ll consider myself successful when…” Perhaps this increasingly stringent definition of success is part of what’s contributing to the mental health crisis in academia. To me, success is something that must be worked at continuously. Set your sights on short term goals and appreciate the little wins, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture and definitely don’t stake your happiness on meeting a narrow set of career goals.

Paradigms of success

So having looked at the common definitions of success, let’s take a look at some people that society has deemed successful. What are the commonalities and what can we learn from their stories?

Let’s look at some examples of people that we generally consider successful; scientists like Gertrude Elion, Marie Curie, or Linus Pauling. Or tech moguls like Bill Gates or Elon Musk. It is doubtful anyone would look at these examples and not consider these people to be successful in their own right, but it’s not the fame or fortune that links them. Instead, I would argue, that it is the tremendous positive impact that these individuals have had on society. Therefore, if you want to be perceived as successful by society you must have outward facing work, something that impacts society for the better. Irrespective of how we define short-term success, it is this long-term success and positive societal impact, comprised of short-term achievements, that we collectively perceive as success.

Tiered Success

In thinking about what defines success I propose that we need a tiered system of goals, both short-term and long-term, as well as goals that are broad ranging. As mentioned earlier, it is risky to define success solely on career achievements. By broadening your horizons you are setting yourself up for success in multiple different fields. Hedging your bets is planning for happiness. You can define success in your hobbies and activities outside of the lab. For example, I enjoy ultramarathons and I get a kick out of running a little bit further or a little bit faster in all of the events that I take part in. I also volunteer at events so that others can do the same. I don’t expected to be running in the olympics anytime soon, but to me a successful running career means having short-term goals as well as outward facing goals that benefit the rest of the community.

If you want to be perceived as successful by society then your career (and life) goals in the short-term (e.g., setting up a lab, publishing in a prestigious journal, helping your colleagues and students complete their experiments) need to align with the long-term goals that others in society deem successful: broader societal good. I think, as scientists, we go into this profession with the best intentions, but it can be easy to get caught up in the nitty gritty of the day-to-day and lose sight of the bigger picture. That said, there are a million ways to be successful outside of the lab; you need to think outside the box and plan out how to meet those goals daily.

Closing remarks

I’ll sign off by bracketing this post with the statement that these are my ideas and my reflections on success. Yours are likely different, but I would encourage everyone to think about what success means to them. Set your short-term and long-term goals. And hopefully, without sounding too corny, you can be successful at whatever you do; it all depends on how you frame the situation.


You can find me on Twitter @SciMJHarris


The featured image is shared under Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0.

Image attribution: Alpha Stock Images –

Original Author: Nick Youngson –

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