Educated Woman, Chapter 50: Superstar or Falling Star?

Have you always wanted to be a scientist or engineer--and now that you are coming to the end of your graduate school experience, you realize that your dream may come true?

Have you ever honestly asked yourself if you (yes, you) have a) the courage of your intellectual convictions, b) a big enough brain, and c) your own personal brand of insanity to goad you through the tough times of a career in science and engineering? Do you have what it takes to succeed?

As I'm sure you've figured out by now, to succeed in science and engineering you've got to work for it, and hard. Defining success for yourself isn't easy. Your definitions, especially as a scientist or engineer, are often based on the opinions of others around you. We subconsciously internalize the work ethics and goals of our peers and our advisers, even if they're not truly our own. Although there is no standard for success, we all look around, holding ourselves up to others: How many papers has she published? Is it more than I have? Does he have a job yet? Wow, she's working on a hot new project; I wish I could do that. He has a really close relationship with his adviser; I wish I could connect with mine the same way.

The perceived successes of others shine brightest in the faces of those who think they aren't achieving their own goals. Especially in our instant-gratification culture, it's hard to feel like a successful scientist or engineer in grad school when your friends from college have already gotten great jobs, gotten married, bought houses, and started families--all while you're still living with roommates and eating Ramen noodles.

To keep yourself going, you may have heard (and internalized) the adage, "People who succeed aren't successful all the time; they just don't give up when things don't work out," or something like it. Or maybe the more succinct "Winners never quit, and quitters never win" is your mantra. But it isn't a football game; there are no clear answers, and success is a subjective and personal thing whether you've realized it yet or not, especially once you've passed the age when smiley faces, gold stars, and A's on your report card made you happy (assuming you've passed that age).

My own definition of success is enjoying and excelling at what one does. Not one, not the other, but both together. Maybe that's why in my eyes, my graduate school experience hasn't been all that successful. Sure, I've gotten two publications out of it (there will be more if my adviser has his way and if the reviewers are kind), but--to me--my project has been far from earthshattering. I'm grateful that it has been working these last few years, but I've often felt like I could have done better if I would have just (choose one): worked harder, switched projects, come up with more ideas, stood up to my adviser, switched advisers, switched schools, switched research areas, had a lobotomy, etc, etc. Juxtaposed with my mixed feelings is my adviser telling me how great it all is. Yeah, great. Awesome.

For a slightly different definition of "success," take my friend Wendy. Wendy is a talented woman on her way to a great career. Her experiments are working, she's full of enthusiasm and new ideas, she's passed her qualifiers, she's got one publication under her belt and two more in the works, and she's active in her department and the university community. And she's not even a third-year yet! By the scientific community's estimation, Wendy is a twinkling star on her way up.

But Wendy feels like a falling star. She is working herself to the bone, getting migraines, and freaking out about how things are going. By everyone else's standards, everything is golden. But Wendy doesn't feel golden. She feels like she's not in control of what she's doing. When the project and experiments are working, her advisers are so excited that they're constantly throwing out ideas for new experiments for her to do.

Wendy, being the take-charge woman that she is, keeps taking it all on, working harder, and harder, and harder until she can't think straight because of the migraines and has to withdraw from the world in exhaustion for a week or so. I'm trying to convince her that it's not worth it to burn herself out this early. I want her to finish grad school healthy and sane, but at the rate she's going, she's likely to add ulcers to the migraines before she's done.

Science offers a unique opportunity to achieve something really important, something earthshattering. Even a modest success can be a little piece of truth we can lay claim to. But the pursuit of perfection and greatness can come at a high price. Welcome to the dark side of success.

While building blindly on our perceived "successes," sometimes we, like Icarus, veer too close to the sun--or maybe it's some artificial lamp that just looks like the sun--striving for what we think we want, what we are told we should want, without noticing that the wax that holds our wings together is melting. We neglect ourselves, getting caught up in doing what others want us to do, what will win us notoriety and praise, without pausing to think about how it will affect us down the road.

Because we tend to be big of brain, and we deal in data and ideas, we think that somehow and someway we should be able to figure out what drives us. But it's not so easy to figure out which one (or two or three) of the myriad things available to us as intelligent people makes us want to get out of bed in the morning. I know I haven't figured that one out yet. Many people never will. It's like the quest for enlightenment or inner peace; we struggle toward something our whole lives but almost never achieve it. So what should we do in the meantime? We have to keep trying, but how hard? When is enough, enough?

Many scientists, myself included, are constant evaluators, always assessing and reassessing our positions, our thoughts, our triumphs, and our failures. It's harder for us, because we obsess about things (often needlessly), to see when something has gone right. It's harder for us to celebrate good things, because we're always waiting for the next challenge, the next bump in the road, the next curve ball. And because we're usually pursuing someone else's goals, we usually aren't sure when we've obtained them.

As you continue on your varied paths, wherever they may lead, I encourage you to continue the struggle to find the path you were born for (if it exists) and to be mindful of both success and failure. Breathe every now and then between evaluations. Even if the dream you're pursuing isn't yet your own, you can still stop and appreciate what you've accomplished. Any thoughts on success or failure in science/life/madness are welcome! Please send comments to

Next time, countdown to freak out. I'm defending in a few months. I have a thesis to write. Oh my ...

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Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.

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