When thinking about hopes and dreams for our careers, we tend to assume that the longer we stay in a particular career, the more successful we will be. But how do we define, let alone measure, “career success”? It looks different for everyone and can change over the course of a person’s professional life. And for many people, it cannot be measured using just one metric but rather by a combination.
Money. Science is a quantitative field, and money is easy to quantify. But you need to consider not only salary but benefits and other intangibles. Many people define success as having more money: “Just $20K a year more than I’m making now, and I will be happy.” But once they get it, they want even more money, so they never actually reach their happiness goal. A recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that while well-being rises with income at all levels, the relationship is logarithmic, not linear, so focusing only on financial returns actually brings diminishing rewards over time.
Prestige. For some people, their sense of worth is closely tied to their professional role. To feel successful, they need to be able to say they are a senior scientist, named professor, or have some other high-status title. Others want to be powerful leaders and measure their success by the number of people who report to them. Meanwhile, some may want to lead a major project, feel that their work is helping make the world a better place, or have other significant accomplishments they can point to.
Balance. Career success for some is being able to live where they want, or having flexible hours to be able to take care of family obligations or pursue hobbies. To them, success in a career is measured by the ability to regularly unplug from work without adverse consequences.
Security. Steady work is the most important thing for some people—even if their jobs aren’t the highest paid or most prestigious. They value the security of a reliable paycheck, and remaining continuously employed is their true measure of success.
Moving goal posts. How you measure your own career success will most likely change over time. As you get older, your personal situation changes, your professional and personal interests evolve, and your definition of success shifts. What you want out of life when you are 20 years old will not be what makes you happy at 40, 60, or 80. It is important to take the time to reevaluate what you strive for currently and how you are defining success. Decide what you want to achieve at this point in your life, and don’t be afraid to let go of something you used to want if it doesn’t make you happy anymore.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published monthly in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.