The unlikely President-elect Donald Trump has, whether you or I like it or not, led a successful campaign that has landed him in one of the most powerful positions in the World. Which makes me question what is required to be a success? Do values have to be sacrificed to be a success? Is controversy needed to muster interest and thus lead to success? And can self-promotion without substance ultimately lead to success?
My success as a teacher was always measured in terms of the achievements and failure of others. Praise and recognition was received when students under my tutelage gained high grades but explanations demanded when their grades didn’t meet expectations. Accountability for student success in terms of attainment often fell disproportionately on the teacher. Professional accomplishments were intertwined with the accomplishments of my students. Yet success was often measured in a more personal way. As a teacher it is rightfully expected that values are demonstrated and expected of others. Values such as tolerance and respectful debate. And when students displayed inclusion without prior thought and intelligent opinions shared in a considerate manner, success had been achieved without a measure of attainment. Now, my success in academia is largely measured by my own personal achievements in attainment and discussion. Success or failure, I will have only myself to congratulate or to blame. Although this is not strictly true as collaboration is central to research but for me it is a move towards more independent measures of success.
The aim as an academic is to get your research published. Publications which will hopefully lead to citations which will ultimately lead to status within your field of research. Posters and presentations delivered at conferences have been the traditional way to further share research. But as it has been highlighted to me numerous times, conferences are places to network. As a teacher networking is largely a foreign concept to me. Yet within academia it is required to make connections for future collaborations, to aid knowledge exchange but ultimately I see it to raise status. Conferences are no longer the only place to do this. Status is increasingly enhanced through self-promotion using social media: the number of hits on twitter, or reads of a blog or connections made on sites like Research Gate or LinkedIn. The substance on social media however is largely self-regulated rather than peer-regulated as in publications through journals. There is no filter other than that imposed by the individual. Status and social media have been attributes credited with helping Donald Trump to lever his way into the White House. I am not advocating the use of social media for the demagoguery displayed by the President-elect however use of social media sites to enhance status and reputation is likely to correlate with professional success.
Standardized metric measures of success exist across professions. Primarily for comparisons and judgement to be passed. Whilst in teaching success was measured in comparisons of student attainment or progress made according to targets set. League tables subsequently made freely available for broad judgements to be passed on student and teacher capability. Tables based on figures and statistics but detached from the personal stories and the values behind each grade achieved. Similar metric measures exist within academia that I will be judged upon. The h-index it appears is the primary comparative measure of personal success as an academic. It is a measure of the number of cited publications discounting the disproportionate weight of highly cited papers or those not cited at all. A h-index of 20 basically means the author has 20 publications each with 20 citations. Not only are papers published judged on the number of citations but also on where it has been published. Journals can be ranked in many ways but perhaps the most widely used is the impact factor. This is a measure of the average number of citations given to articles published in a particular journal. The higher the impact factor the greater the journal is ranked. This means greater difficulty for publication but also greater prestige for the author if a paper is published in such a journal. Any research to be published in highly ranked journals will inevitably be of high quality. Yet novel science, controversial science and even perhaps popular science may be more likely to be found in highly ranked journals. So to be a successful scientist should controversy be sought? And are well deserved but less captivating research questions neglected as a result? Collaboration and reticence are juxtaposed within science. As individuals strive to be the first to discover and the first to share findings in order to succeed.
Status was not something that really appeared on my radar when considering success as a teacher. The pressure to create novel science, to disseminate research findings and have influence within a field of research demands status. A status created through publications and peer recognition but also increasingly through self-promotion and the use of social media. The anxiety that perceived status creates is more eloquently described by Alain de Botton and I suspect contributes to the increasing levels of mental health problems in academics and society as a whole. Sadly perhaps a lack of willingness to self-promote and to achieve a perceived high status may ultimately lead to a lack of professional success.