Our favorite Educated Woman, Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, in her last column on 3 August, talked about her need for external rewards, what she calls "gold stars", from advisers or supervisors. Here are two responses to Micella's column that we got via our Facebook page, hosted by José Fernández ...
I am all about giving back to better humanity and society, however, it is just as important to meet your own personal needs! The thing about living up to someone else's standards is just that, you are doing things to support the needs of others and not yourself. There is a quote that I like to use with my undergraduate research students, "Power is the ability to define a people's reality and have them accept it as their own." Ask yourself, who is defining your reality and what are your important life goals and objectives? Who defines your reality??
Intrinsic motivation is, in the end, a very personal matter; there are always going to be different reasons as to why one is drawn to a scientific career. One of the points that often comes across when I'm discussing careers with my peers is that a science career is very much a vocation, not just a career--it's a life passion.
It might be idealistic, but if you're doing what you're love, you're passionate about finding answers and solutions to what you're working with, and you have a supportive network, these factors can be interdependent to strengthen your own confidence in what you're doing. A motivated employee is going to be more productive, working smarter rather than harder, than one who is uncertain about where they're headed. So much the better, if that motivation is intrinsic and compelling.
Accolades and awards are nice--indeed they are the way that one progresses up into the field--but sometimes the greatest of achievements occur after a lifetime of research, and sometimes aren't even acknowledged in those lifetimes. And in the world of interdisciplinary fields and collaborative research today, not only does a sense of independence and strength need to be fostered, but an appreciation of what you can learn and pass on to others.
Gold stars can be easily obtained from all manner of careers if you push yourself to be the best. To push yourself to be the best in what you do, and contribute original and independent insights that can benefit the world, takes a certain kind of additional self-belief that a lot of us search for at times. That kind of strength, I believe, needs to not just come from a career alone, but from a solid and supportive network of those around you.
Maybe in this case, if Micella chooses a career that does please herself, that she knows she cares about and doesn't hesitate over, those loving rewards--and yes, I agree we are all searching for that in some degree--may come naturally. Enthusiastic, driven, and passionate scientists make for excellent role models--their excitement for their work is infectious--the kind that younger students still making up their minds can look up to even if they won't necessarily follow in those same career footsteps. Rewards are great; they tell you that you're measuring up to an expected standard in your field. In a world where we need to learn from each other and mentor one another, though, leaving a legacy is just as important, be it the independence of running your own lab or just proving to be a great mentor and sounding board for younger undergrads or budding scientists still making their own decisions; who knows, maybe these will prove to be more fulfilling than gold stars and carrots.
In the end we really do have to look within ourselves and ask ourselves the hard questions: what is is that brought us here? Is this what we really want to be doing? What am I lacking; why is it that that we feel the need to push ourselves for me ... and ultimately, how can we improve things so we can continue to the make the most of what we've learned over our years of study, and contribute to our field, even if it wasn't necessarily the path that we set out on in the first place? I wish Micella the best of luck--it's a question I ask myself all the time, the answers change as I grow up and mature, and the kind of honest answers I can draw from myself aren't always the easy ones.