Repost: On Ambition

Aug 01 2009 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring, Tribe of Science

This post originally appeared on Nov 13, 2007.

BikeMonkey Guest Re-Post
I was going to reply to the DM's query on "ambition" in science careers (motivated by FSP here, followups here and here) in a comment but it got a bit lengthy. So, I present my ambitions for your general derision:

1. Earn a Ph.D. We so often forget or overlook or even sneer at this accomplishment for accomplishment's sake. Many of us were never really in doubt about getting into our undergraduate institution of (top 5) choice, about obtaining the bachelor's degree or perhaps even about getting into graduate school. But attaining the Ph.D. may represent the first actual academic challenge. It may represent a significant event for a family in which there are no post-graduate (or even bachelor's!) degrees. It may represent a significant event for a member of a family in which "everybody" has a doctorate of some kind or other. The Ph.D., in and of itself represents an accomplishment and we should respect that in ourselves as well as in our trainees.
2. Publish a Paper. When I was in graduate school there was a rumor passed around that the modal number of papers published by Ph.D.s in our field was ... zero. That's right, that a majority of Ph.D.s never published anything. Now, if this anecdote was actually true I never saw a reference for a paper but nevertheless it has a certain relevant truthiness about it. We should validate and respect someone who has been able to contribute to even just one peer reviewed scientific article!
3. Get Paid to Do Science. Meaning the limited version of "I just want to have a career at the bench but not be a PI or a Professor or any of that nonsense". Okay, in full confession I never actually had this one personally for whatever reason, hence the italics. But I include it here because the original discussion over at FSP was what to do about one's trainees. Despite it not being a personal ambition, I do feel quite strongly we should validate a trainee that really just wants to have a bench job for a career...
4. Become a Professor at a Small Liberal Arts College (SLAC). Substitute community college, small non-research state college/university, etc for your circumstances. I didn't end up going this route although there have been times when it was looming large. Certainly through early grad school and in late post-doc this was my focus. It didn't happen that way for me but I would likely have been happy to go that route. And who knows? Maybe someday...
5. Get Paid to Do My Science in My Way. This is how I describe the ambition that was satisfied by a research appointment in which one is the authority in how every aspect of one's own research is to be run; ofter this requires obtaining a research grant from the NIH to support the research. In my case I consider "a" research grant to mean just the first one that I thought of as uniquely mine (i.e., not necessarily components and cores although for some these might qualify). The point being that we need to validate this accomplishment in ourselves and trainees even if we/they never get a grant renewed, never get another grant or get denied tenure. When I wasn't thinking about SLAC professordom in my training stages, this was it, the pinnacle as far as I was concerned. It has at times been a hard struggle to remind myself not to move the goalposts. It is far too easy for us to sneer at ourselves at this point and say "Well, yeah, but you aren't really in the game until you get grant renewal and tenure and pump out a grad student or three". Don't fall into this trap.
6. Reputation Job. Meaning that it is important for some people not just to be a Professor at an R1 University but that it has to be a University with an appropriately prestigious reputation. Nope, never had this one. Although I suppose some would consider my current institution to qualify in "rep" terms so you'll have to trust me on the personal impact that "rep" has.
7. Have a Full Career in This Biz. Meaning to retire at a ripe old age (or die) having had continuous employment in jobs related to academic science. Not that for me personally I need to have the exact same type of role. I certainly have a scale in which the current research-focused career is paramount. But I don't think doing the SLAC thing or even changing to a more research/teaching balanced University setting at some point would be "disappointing" to my life goals. Another reminder not to move the goalposts I suppose.
8. Answer Big Science Question X. This is a sort of followup to Ambitions #5 and #7 in the sense that there are questions I'd like to answer that run beyond even 5-10 years of work. Mine are mostly motivated by personal interest I will admit; I feel little need to accept or validate anyone else's opinion as to what I "should" work on. Beyond getting grants funded and papers accepted for publication, that is! I'm not trying to cure cancer although my work does have a fair bit of Public Health Relevance. In a sense this is the ambition that we need to elevate over other more usual measures of "ambitiousness" and "success". The science can be big or small, requiring huge amounts of resources or just a couple of research assistants. Who cares? This is the great thing about investigator initiated science. The scientist gets to define the problem and the scope and nature of the investigations. So we should validate our trainees' ambitions in this regard and not sneer that they are not "thinking big" enough with their research goals and approaches.
9. Create Science Clones. The sense that this was some Professors' sole ambition for trainees started FSPs discussion and there was much jeering. I'd chime in as far having only this one view and being "disappointed" when highly promising trainees do not want to be one's clone. Still it is an ambition and a valid one. Why not? What better validation of your basic approaches to science than that it supports more than just your own career? What better personal validation than that someone sees you as a role model as expressed in more than just facile words? What better way to expand scientific inquiry into the general areas in which you are interested?
10. Mentor Trainees for Their Own Good. At first I was thinking this was going to be the full roar of my point here. I ended up with confusion. Why? After all, I think that mentoring is important to me. Or at least I used to. Maybe not anymore because at this particular juncture I'm feeling ambivalent about science careers, scientific training and the phenomenon DM referred to as "loser postdocs" amongst other issues. FSP has something in her last post about the difficulty in sorting out the intellectually incapable from the lazy from those with unfortunate circumstances. This is an issue with which I contend as well. In writing #1 and #3 above I confused myself some more. A graduate student who does the bare minimum and coasts along with little scientific engagement might just have a more limited goal set, i.e., that of "just" getting a doctorate. Shouldn't we validate these individuals? Are they "wasting our time" any more than a postdoc who "settles" for a community college teaching gig?

5 responses so far

  • whimple says:

    My ambition is to do something in science that has some direct benefit for people outside of science. This has turned out to be surprisingly difficult...

  • msphd says:

    Thanks for reposting this. I am terrible at giving myself credit for what I have managed to do, namely 1,2,3 and dare I say, 8 and 10 (to some extent). So if I don't get to 5-7, it's not like I did nothing. It just feels that way when I'm surrounded by other people's misplaced ambitions all day, every day.
    But I'm with whimple. I would like to see the fruits of my labor helping society in some tangible way, saving lives, that sort of thing. So far I don't see that happening, and not getting to do 5-7 means I might not get a chance to ever see it. And that's a little bit heartbreaking, since I chose PhD over MD and now it's a little late to go back and do the MD. But I probably could have helped more people more tangibly if I had done that in the first place.

  • Pain Man says:

    tangible schmangible. anybody can be an MD (by that I mean anyone with the requisite intelligence, skill, and perseverance). because you didn't take one of those med school spots, someone else did. that sprained ankle got bandaged, that script for ampicillin got written. in short, that job still got done by another placeholder. as a scientist, I think you can create a much more unique butterfly effect on the universe. for better or for worse is another question. at any rate no one has done the exact same research you have done in the exact same way, and no one will come up with the exact same ideas as you will in your future research. that's gotta count for something of value to you.

  • paul says:

    Great article and good comments to follow. I'm still unsure of how I feel about this. Ambition is a very important personality trait though that's for sure!

  • JSinger says:

    A graduate student who does the bare minimum and coasts along with little scientific engagement might just have a more limited goal set, i.e., that of "just" getting a doctorate.
    If you're going to hold up a PhD as a worthwhile end in and of itself, be aware that the degree will automatically exclude you from many jobs, particularly in industry. Getting a doctorate in chemistry or molecular biology may turn out to be a step backwards for someone without the ambition or talent to work in a PhD-level position.

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