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Defining your career wins

Achieving goals is more fulfilling when you set the terms of success

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
June 9, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 22


An image of a trophy.
Credit: Shutterstock

I finally did it. This year, I earned the title of “full professor.” Because I navigated a challenging tenure process earlier in my career, the gravity of this promotion is not lost on me. But the time directly after tenure or promotion can also be a time when faculty feel most lost, as we’re suddenly faced with the question of “Now what?”

If you recently celebrated a graduation from college or graduate school or reached some other milestone, you may be experiencing similarly mixed emotions. The reality is that no matter where you are on your career path, achieving goals can feel somewhat empty if you’ve never taken the time to define what a win is for you.

What does it mean to win? If you’ve competed in sports, you might say that winning is scoring the most points or having the fastest time. But I would argue that even in sports, winning is more complex than that. You may have the highest score or fastest time, but it’s not a win unless you also played by the rules. For example, cross-country runners cannot truly savor a trophy if they know they cut through a field to finish first.

In other contexts, the definition of winning is even less clear. As an amateur distance runner, I recognize that I am not likely to place first in any of the marathons that I enter. But that does not mean I cannot win. For each race, I have a target finish time, and coming in under that time is a personal victory and how I’ve chosen to define winning.

Defining your vision of success is also important in the case of your career. Some of the indicators may seem obvious—publishing papers, being chosen for awards, having projects funded, earning a degree, or receiving a promotion.

The reality is that no matter where you are on your career path, achieving goals can feel somewhat empty if you’ve never taken the time to define what a win is for you.

However, just as in sports, the integrity with which we do these things also matters. Achieving our goals is a true victory only if we do so while adhering to ethical behavior and treating those around us with respect.

Many of my metrics for success aren’t even visible to other people. Yes, I love publishing papers and getting grants funded, and arguably both of these are essential for the continued existence of my research lab and the success of each member. But my win is all about the relationships that I have built and the impact I’ve had on the lives of those around me. I want people to view me as a helpful mentor, trusted colleague, or caring friend.

So how you do define your win? It is absolutely OK to have goals that involve earning a degree or securing a patent. But take a moment to also mentally fast-forward to the midpoint or end of your career. What do you want people to say about you at your retirement party? Do you care more about having made a discovery that improved people’s lives or hearing how your teaching led someone to choose a career in chemistry? Do you want people to talk about your high-impact publications or the times you mentored or otherwise supported them through a period of struggle? These goals are not mutually exclusive, but how you prioritize them will affect the decisions you make every day.

Once you articulate what you consider to be a win, then you can think about what daily steps you can take to work toward your goal. Importantly, the feeling of accomplishment is not reserved for only the end of your career—if you know what winning looks like to you, then you will be able to celebrate victories along the path to getting there.

Now may be an especially appropriate time to think about success. The last year has brought intense challenges. It may have also provided increased clarity and focus on what is truly most important in your life and career. Rather than simply return to your prepandemic normal, this is a great time to stop and evaluate your goals. Running the race and ultimately crossing the finish line will be much more rewarding when you are the one who has defined winning.

Jen Heemstra is a professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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