Dr. Sue Fletcher-Watson, University of Edinburgh
Winning the 2016 Margaret Donaldson Award was first and foremost a deeply humbling experience. Not just because of the honour of the receiving award itself, and the association with a pioneer of developmental psychology, but because of the waves of congratulation that poured in from friends and colleagues after the announcement. They were all thrilled by my success, and this got me thinking about that ‘success’ and its nature.
I am certainly not the first person to point out that ‘success’ in the context of an academic career is a tricky thing to measure. Success is often viewed through the lens of REF returns – still heavily focused on journal publication with a reliance on impact factor and other metrics as a proxy for scientific quality. It is true that the last REF incorporated more on the research environment, giving Universities a chance to get credit for such things as systems to support students and early career researchers, or networks to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. In addition, impact case studies provided a way for researchers whose work has led to policy change or community benefit to share their success. But the relative weighting given to these domains, and the ease with which they can be fudged by the use of clever rhetoric, means that the high-impact journal article remains a staple of our notion of success. Of course, the other main marker of success is grant income. This seems less important in the REF context but certainly plays a major role in individual career progression.
Sue meeting Margaret Donaldson for tea!
So, here I am. 2016 winner of this illustrious prize. That makes me a success, doesn’t it? Well, as any academic will tell you, it certainly doesn’t feel that way, at least judging by those two metrics of journal output or grant income. One recent paper was submitted to five journals, receiving a total of 16 reviews over 18 months. In 2015, I was principal investigator or a co-applicant on no less than ten grant proposals, of which just two received funding. My academic career to date is littered with similar experiences of rejection and failure, though to the external observer it may seem that I have followed a smooth and ‘successful’ path.
If you are an academic, this is almost certainly not the first time you will have heard this message. But it is a message so important that it bears repeating, especially to anyone in the early stages of the academic career. These rejections – the tough reviews, the grants which aren’t awarded – these are not failures. This is not just an inevitable, but also an essential part of the research process. No matter how brutal, I cannot think of a time when I didn’t learn something useful from a reviewer’s comments (even if what I learnt was “this type of research is not acceptable to that type of academic.”) Every time you re-draft an article for a new journal, you are honing your craft as a writer. When you stay up into the wee hours pulling together a grant proposal in time for the deadline, even if it isn’t funded, you have created ideas and built a network of professional partners which will lead on to bigger and better things. You may feel you are measured by your output, but your success comes from your ability to identify problems and generate ideas to address them. To make an intellectual contribution to your discipline and to the world.
So next time you hear your paper or proposal didn’t make it, remember, you are a success.