I am currently pursuing a physics major in college. My question mostly applies to those working in STEM, but I am definitely open to hearing answers from others.

Right now, in college, most of the work I am doing involves solving math/physics problems. I have an easy way of measuring my success on this work: if I get the "right"/"correct" answers (or at least one that agrees with my professor's answer), I can say that I am doing "well".

This ability to measure success keeps me motivated. I was wondering what the analog to this in the real world is? When working in academia and pursuing unsolved problems, how do you measure your success to remain motivated? There is no answer key for you to check at the end of the day, so how do you know if you are "right" or "doing well"?

  • There is an answer key - the real world. – Patricia Shanahan Nov 20 '18 at 4:18
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    On the flip side: academia.stackexchange.com/q/108543/49043. But anyway, without exams there are still metrics like salary, promotion, publications, grants, supervising students to completion etc – astronat Nov 20 '18 at 8:21
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    Eventually you (hopefully) learn to check your own work. – JeffE Nov 20 '18 at 12:06
  • This question is probably too broad and too subjective for SE. That said, I measure my success by 1. The success of my students; and 2. Perception of the value of my research, in my own eyes and the eyes of trusted mentors. – David Ketcheson Nov 29 '18 at 12:07
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    Isn't "success" most accurately measured by how pleasantly you are able to spend your days? Granting that, surely anyone would find powerful motivation. :) – paul garrett Nov 29 '18 at 23:26

Unfortunately, and as it happens for most jobs, there is no such a thing, or at least, not as immediate and clear as a grade of an exam.

While one can argue that the number of publications, and the quality of the journals\conferences you publish at, can be good ways to measure your worth, this can often be biased by many factors.

  1. If you do not work completely alone, publications are often the result of team work. There are cases where it is hard to see who worked the most, or who gave the key contribution that made the paper be accepted. I have seen people with many published articles move to another group and loose productivity all together. This probably because the previous group supported the PhD way too much and they did not learn from their colleagues. I have also seen the opposite.

  2. Despite everything, publishing papers to journals or conferences (even the best ones) can really feel like a lottery. Usually, when you study a lot for an exam, you are almost certain that you will get a good mark, this is not true for publications on any level. A paper can be hardly rejected by conference A and, instead, accepted by conference B. This can be because of many factors. Maybe conference A was not the suited one, or reviewers just did not like the paper despite its contributions, in any case, as you can see you cannot really value your work on this type of outcome. You can, for sure, improve from reviews, but I would never use it as a way to evaluate yourself.

  3. Depending on the specific topic of your PhD, there are different standards expected regarding the number of publications you should have. Maybe, you just need a couple and, in that case, it is pretty hard to motivate yourself for years with just two inputs (two accepted papers). Moreover, even the best PhD students have to deal with rejected articles, sometimes, even more than they have to deal with accepted ones.

I would also like to add that PhD students are pretty prone to mental illness such as depression, anxiety disorders and so on [1]. In my modest opinion (as an academic), these problems are also caused by the fact that many doctorate students evaluate their worth depending on this hard numbers (number of publications, number of paper not accepted).

Overall, I think that self motivation is a very personal thing. It is up to you to decide what motivates you and what makes you worth.

[1] http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/03/graduate-students-need-more-mental-health-support-new-study-highlights (one of the many)


My answer is focused on research in the context of UK universities although it may hold more generally.

I sometimes find it useful to consider an employers view point for successful academic staff members. Usually this comes down to how much money you bring into the department you are working in. (In the UK) this comes from three main sources:

  • In many countries there are mechanisms for giving funding to universities based on how many good publications are written by their staff. In the UK this is called Research excellence framework. So writing good papers means more funding for the department.

  • Most research requires some external funding, either for extra researchers, specialist equipment or travel and collaboration. This can come from many different sources. Built into most grants is some extra funding which is paid directly to the department for admistration/overheads (in theory things like heating, electrics, library access, ...). In more applied fields this can be done after the research has been performed with patents and spin off companies too. So getting people to fund your research means more money for the department.

  • The biggest contributor to (UK) finances is student fees. If you do some teaching your are doing your bit for the department to justify these fees. If you are a good teacher (making sure the students are happy and well educated) this leads to good feedback scores which potential new students will see and judge a course/department/university on. So doing good teaching means more students and more money for the department.

There are other income streams by doing things such as outreach activities, knowledge exchange or generating impact of your research. These all count to generate more money for your department.

In summary, you are a successful researcher (academic) if you write good papers, bring in grant money and do good teaching. Of course these are quite broadly defined criteria (how do you define a good paper? how much is enough grant money? what is good teaching?) but should give an idea of some metrics which you can use to judge yourself. In fact, these are often the criteria which job applicants and promotion panels will consider so these really are the way the employers think about defining a good researcher.

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