Is it just me, or am I now getting spammed lately by invitations to become an “editor” of some journal or book edition, or as a distinguished “invited speaker” for some conference I haven’t heard of before? Don’t get me wrong, nothing would be more flattering than being recognized by your peers in the field. But, dyosme, as I am a scientist, wouldn’t you expect me to have a fairly objective idea of my own relevance? I am way past the point where I jump up and down with glee each time I get a paper published, or merrily float to cloud nine whenever I get acceptance for my paper to be presented in some exotic location somewhere in the world (perfectly understandable if it’s your first time, but after the nth time, you sort of outgrow it). It is just routine now, all part and parcel of the profession which I have chosen for myself. Admittedly there was a time when it seemed perfectly valid to brag about it to my peers, or even to close friends who did not even understand what my work is all about. But years have taught me to be aware of exactly where I stand, and as far as I could tell, there is definitely still a long road ahead of me. If you have been around for as long as I have, then you will understand exactly what I mean.
So, yes, I get suspicious whenever invitations like those appear in my inbox. My first thought would be: what exactly have I done to deserve it? Someday, sure, when the time is ripe. And I’m fairly sure that by then, those invitations will come from someone I actually know. Sometimes a career in science is not a race, but a marathon. Matira matibay.
What would it take to actually be considered successful? Number of publications? Prestige of journals published in? (I know there are those who merely list the number of their papers published in Science and Nature as a measure of how important their achievements are. Fairly objective, wouldn’t you say?) Amount of grant money received? Number of students advised? Election into elite societies or groups? All of the above, perhaps.
Unfortunately we can’t all be superstars, despite our sincerest aspirations. Some of us are meant for stardom, some of us are meant to remain in the shadows wearing our old dirty lab coats and doing mediocre work. While working really hard may give us a fairly good shot at attaining some degree of success, the reality is that there are also serendipitous factors that are simply outside our realm of control. Sometimes we just get plain lucky. We get to work with the right people, be in the right environment, and on top of it all, the right opportunities presented themselves at the right time. It just doesn’t work that way for everybody.
But as I have said in an interview for a magazine some years ago (no, I was not interviewed because I was famous in any way, and yes, there were other women scientists who were interviewed for the same article!), no mother would ever say on her deathbed, “I wish I had written more papers.” Substitute any of the success parameters I mentioned above, and it boils down to essentially the same thing: those which may make us proud in our lifetimes are not necessarily the ones that can make us happy.