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Editorial: Purpose over prestige

by C&EN editorial staff
May 24, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 16


Photo taken from behind a crowd of people wearing graduation gowns at their graduation.
Credit: Shutterstock

Another academic year has just wrapped up in many countries around the world. College graduates and newly minted PhDs are donning robes and preparing for the next phase of their careers. Undergraduate students may be heading off for summer research internships. If you’re one of those folks, or if you’re a mentor to someone who is, consider this a reminder to consider the messages you’ve absorbed about success as a scientist and if they’re truly serving you or the community as a whole.

The purpose of science is to make the world better through exploration of how it all works. Defining success primarily by markers of prestige—awards or citations or the name of the institution on a diploma—misses the point and, arguably, the beauty of science.

Prestige can open doors, for sure, and the pressure to compete for it is present throughout one’s research career. If you do research as an undergraduate and publish that research before you graduate, you’re more likely to get into a well-regarded graduate program. That may put you in a better position to win fellowship funding or get an influential principal investigator to accept you into their group, where you’re more likely to publish your research in top journals, which . . . you get the picture.

Competition for internships and publications is fierce throughout the world. Outside the US, competition is especially tough among students who want to go abroad to continue their education. And precarity in the academic job market exists no matter where in the world you are.

But awards and fellowships aren’t prerequisites for a successful scientific life. And institutional bias often creates disparity in who gets certain accolades. For example, US National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships tend to be concentrated at R1 universities or otherwise well-resourced institutions. Likewise, academic awards and funding also tend to perpetuate gender and racial disparities, which impedes diversity in science.

In an interview with the newspaper Aargauer Zeitung in 2022, Katalin Karikó—who struggled to get a foothold at the beginning of her career but went on to share the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on messenger RNA vaccines—says that a scientist’s goal “shouldn’t be to get a certain tenured position, or other titles, but to really research and understand” a scientific question. Most people are upset when someone publishes before them, she says, because then they don’t get the credit. But from a purely scientific perspective, every new publication means new information and data to learn from, so it’s a net gain for the community.

Chasing prestige also doesn’t leave much room for people to take time off to care for their health or families without paying a penalty. Scientific research has been having a reckoning in recent years with burnout and the roles that institutions and individuals ought to play in maintaining a healthy work culture. But many of the harmful underlying norms that couple a person’s worth as a scientist to flawed indicators of success still persist.

Success can look different for everyone. The roster of working chemists is full of folks who maybe weren’t the top of their class but found their stride a little later. Jesus Moreno, one of C&EN’s 2024 Talented 12, got a C in his first organic chemistry course but kept at it. Now he’s doing important work at Bristol Myers Squibb developing new cancer treatments and mentoring chemists from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

On the flip side, some people collect early accolades but end up leaving research to pursue careers in other sectors (several of them work for C&EN). Anytime someone finds their niche in science, in or outside the lab, should be considered a success story.

It’s impossible to deny that scientific research can be extremely competitive. But perhaps it’s time to reframe what it means to win. We can pass on to the next generation of chemists a more expansive and collaborative vision of what success looks like.

This editorial is the result of collective deliberation in C&EN. For this week’s editorial, lead contributor is Brianna Barbu.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of ACS.



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