Redefining Success

“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.”

– Abraham Lincoln

A few years ago I was a miserable post-doc in a microbiology research lab. I was working long hours away from my family with very little pay and my research seemed to be going nowhere. Fortunately, my position came to an abrupt and unexpected end. I was left reeling and feeling like a complete failure. Traditionally, success as a research scientist means working 3-5 years in a post-doc position, publishing several papers, then obtaining a tenure track position at a major university where you continue to work long hours setting up a research lab, obtaining grants, and, oh yeah, maybe teach a couple of classes. After 5 years or so you go up for tenure. If you are deemed worthy you are essentially guaranteed a job for life. In this paradigm of success I had failed.

After some serious soul searching I realized that my definition of success did not fit the expectations laid out by my predecessors in the scientific community. I didn’t want that life. Success has both personal and professional components. In my personal life success is defined by raising well adjusted children and maintaining a healthy relationship with my husband. As a scientist, success is to learn as much as I can about the biological world and to share that knowledge with others. For me that means teaching. If, at the end of the day, I have opened the eyes of my students to the wonders of the world around them, armed with knowledge so that they can make informed decisions in the future and gotten them excited about biology then I consider myself to be successful.

As teachers we have two major tools for assessing success- student outcomes and student evaluations. I take both very seriously. We can determine how well students are understanding the material by writing good exams and other assignments. I am constantly working to redesign my courses so that I get an adequate assessment of student success and there is always room for improvement. On the flip side, I just got back my student evaluations from the Spring term. In general they were very positive, but there were a few that really stood out. They were the ones that said things like “best teacher ever” and “I used to hate biology but Dr. Rosario made it really interesting”. On the days when I feel discouraged and it seems like I don’t make an impact at all I will pull those out and re-read them to remind myself that I am on the right track to success.

How do you define success? How do you measure that success? We each must come up with our own definitions and use them as goal to focus on.

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