The most illuminating lesson that I have learned from my PhD-supervisor was to differentiate between a successful scientist and a good scientist. The golden qualifier-duo of “good” vs. “successful” is not just for categorizing celebrated scientists. It can serve as an eye-opener for a much broader domain. It is like a magnifying lens with which one can look at every entity with an illustrious goal, be it an individual or a whole organization. Once you start looking at things through this lens, it is hard to stop.
Before I continue, I must also admit that in the good or successful evaluation church, it is much easier to preach than to practice. Making an honest confession in this church, however, helps even those who believe success is a justified goal at all conditions.
Being “good” and being “successful” is not a dichotomy. One can accommodate plenty of both or fail on both grounds. In the mind of every single individual, there is a “good”-seeking side and a “success”-seeking side, which are continuously consulted to make personal decisions. Sometimes the two sides point in the same direction, other times they give conflicting advice. The two qualifiers, however, are undoubtedly distinguishable.
Being “good”, is in the same category of being authentic, original, perfect, or fulfilling. A degree of “good”-ness usually comes out of an internal evaluation and it is often difficult to compare good things with each other. “Success”, on the other hand, is mostly an external and relative identifier. When comparing the success of two individuals or two enterprises, one often faces metrics and measures. This has always been a common practice for businesses since market shares and profit can be computed on a regular basis. Therefore, there is little ambiguity in identifying a successful business, at least in certain quantifiable terms such as profit, growth, and market share. But how can one define success in academia? And how important should that be in distributing the (limited) available resources?
Here I try to present a few examples, on different organizational levels, of the use or misuse of “success” as a decision-making criterion.
1- For an individual academician, it is almost impossible to escape from the barbarous struggle over “success”. For example, the number of prizes and honors divided by the total number of scientists has grown exponentially in recent years (which has made it essential to highlight some of them with the adjective “prestigious”). In this artificial race, which serves no academic goal on its own, even the word prize has been the subject of manipulation. Acquiring funding has been sometimes relabeled as being “awarded” a grant (just imagine walking out of the bank after being “awarded” a mortgage.) Having some of those “awards” and prizes on your CV is more essential than ever for securing a job, even if you do not really need the money for pursuing your research. Even getting tenure, which is nothing in essence but to sign a legal contract, is nowadays seen an equivalent to “success”. The temporary staff and adjunct professors are hence treated as second-class academicians irrespective of their intellectual merits. Ironically, so many of those with temporary appointments also see securing tenure as the equivalent of attaining success in academia, while history is full of brilliant scientists that had no permanent jobs when they were working on their ground-breaking discoveries and many more (comfortably tenured) scientists who never made any significant contribution to their fields.
2- To be a “successful” department inside the university, nowadays, its management has only to reach moving “targets” earlier than its neighbouring departments or just be closer than the rest. A long list of grant and prize winners and their public interviews in the yearly report definitely helps, but the single most important success indicator is the external funding influx. Similar criteria are applied for evaluating “success” at the university level, which in the Netherlands is strongly linked to the number of students (read: budget) and more recently to international rankings (read: citation records and number of articles in glossy journals, often privately owned and/or publicly traded for profit). Interestingly, to rank the success of study programs, departments, and universities, the generalized grading criteria are deliberately chosen as far as possible from the trends and customs of each individual discipline, in order to make a “fair” (read: digitized) comparison.
3- Even an academic movement that opposes the malpractices of commercialized higher education or sexism in academia can be scrutinized through the lens of good or successful . A successful movement organizes strong lobbying networks, secures several seats for its members in the formal governance structure, and takes extreme care of its public image. A good movement, however, needs to motivate a broad change on the work floor by fighting the common misconceptions and try to change the attitude and the culture that cause malpractices.
Do not get me wrong. I have no objection to being successful and I also believe that success, kept within proportions, is the motor of progress and even essential for survival. But to my mind wherever “success” has been prioritized in academia over “good”-ness the results has been tragic or at best counter-productive. I have watched as the Stapel data-fabrication story unfolded and as Obokata’s stem-cell scandal ended up, tragically, in the suicide of her lab-director. I have met brilliant scientists who have joined the flying circuses in their most productive years, and by doing so have tarnished their professional and personal life for years. I have toured expensive pet-projects that suck up large sums of national research budgets. I have watched poorly planned and poorly supervised ego-projects destroying the motivation of a whole group of exceptionally talented young students. I have seen universities rising in the ranking lists while their students do much worse in the very same examinations of the previous decade. Bitterest of all, I have watched all these and more mishandlings happening in my own surrounding and I did not raise my voice because I did not want to risk my own chances of success. I, too, have lowered my standards and I, too, have compromised my dreams for success.