How Not to Succeed in … (RJS)

I am in the midst of proposal and paper writing just now (they don’t write themselves) and running out of time for blog posts (which also don’t write themselves).  Rather than put up a poorly written, half-worked, effort I would like to link to an article published earlier this year in Science Careers, a publication of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This article describes the end of a career and the beginning of a life.

Falling Off the Ladder: How Not to Succeed in Academia by Kathy Weston

One Friday evening in the winter of 2009, I ended a 20-year affiliation with a college of the University of London, lugging three boxes of personal possessions and a bucket containing 12 tropical fish from my emptied office. In the face of looming redundancy, brought on by my failure to contribute adequately to my department’s last Research Assessment Exercise submission, I jumped before I was pushed. … My story has useful lessons in it, some of which are exclusive to scientific research but some of which reflect, I think, the experience of women in academia.

The forces and ideals that brought Dr. Weston to this day and this article are not unique to science or to academia. From comments on this blog many other professions, including ministry are subject to similar pitfalls.

Have you ever felt the desire to chuck it all and move to something new?

If so what did you do?

Dr. Weston’s story is personal, but also general, and true of many I’ve known. More women than men perhaps, but both women and men.  Many people in academics in general, science in particular, start with a level of idealism and an expectation for great things.  A combination of factors, a loss of confidence, a loss of direction, a distaste for the constantly competitive atmosphere, the search for weakness in others and fear of showing weakness oneself, the sense of isolation and mediocrity leads to burn-out. The undercurrent of doubt that admitting weakness means one never belonged in the first place.

And then:

My obsession with my work declined as normal life seeped in: I got married, learned to ride horses and play the cello, looked after aging parents, and nixed all hope of redemption by having two children in my late 30s and realizing they were far more interesting than what I was doing at work. By the time I carted my boxes and fish out of the building, I was working a standard 37.5-hour week, which simply does not suffice if you want to stay competitive as a scientist. And I was bored, terribly bored.

The general pattern here can be seen in many professions. Science and academia are not unique. Based on comments I’ve read on this blog I rather expect that similar factors of competition, self-doubt, and burn-out, and even lack of mentorship affect more than a few in the ministry. In science we have an ideal of original research, making a new discovery, respect, awards, advancement, self-esteem is tied up in the recognition of peers, the ability to rise to the top. In ministry there are similar pressures fueled by competition and ambition – the size of the church, the magnitude of the growth, the recognition as a leader, as a preacher, as a speaker, the adulation of others … I could continue.

Realities, for most, crush idealism.

Ambition, competition, self-comparison to others … this way is never comforting. Not even the most accomplished find comfort there. This is true in all There has to be something more and something deeper.

What do you think? How have you seen this play out in your profession or vocation?

Where do we find balance? What advice would you give?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Rob

    Sometimes the side effects of ambition brings positive results, but it sure does come with a cost. sometimes family, relationships and even spiritual life are ruined in the process. thanks for posting.

  • Carol Noren Johnson

    It played out for me. I was working on a PhD in Educational Systems Development and ran out of funds and encouragement and like Dr. Weston other things like marriage came along. My late husband did go back to MSU with me so I could take my comprehensive exams, but a horrible statistic class and the dissertation were never finished in the midst of life.

    However, now at 67 I am well along on a seminary EdD in counseling and am teaching a class, “Counseling Children”. Along the way I did learn a lesson–God gets the glory, not me or my career. He doesn’t require me to be the American success story–just to follow Him.

    Best to you, RJS, whoever you are, as you work on your deadlines.

  • Terry

    RJS, I don’t know that I have much in the way of specific advice/answers to your question(s), as I am brailing my way through my own malaise. As a pastor, which I don’t exactly consider to be my profession, “Realities, for most, seem to crush idealism” pretty much sums up the view from here. Yet, in considering that view, I have given much time, effort, thought and prayer to that new reality, I had to for faith’s and sanity’s sake. Interestingly, reality has been shaped by my former idealism.

    It is cliche, but carpe diem, and the like, has helped. Seizing the moment (as it is, rather than the way I hoped it would be) has also begun to reshape my perception of success. I may be fooling myself, but there’s some peace that has been regained that had initially been crushed with my idealism when the realities did their work. I think it may be a greater peace, and ultimately, a reality that is better suited to my life, than my idealism would have allowed.

  • Phillip

    This is tough. I am at a teaching college, so scholarly output is only one consideration for promotion and tenure, though it seems it is becoming the more important consideration. In the last year or so we have instituted a faculty development plan that bases raises on a number of factors, including scholarly output. Before, any pool for raises was simply split evenly among the members of the department. I see in this the potential to make us less cooperative and collegial as we compete for our share of the raise pool, were it not for the character of the people in my department. That is, we still cooperate.

    I also made a commitment to myself while a doctoral student that I would not be one of those scholars who has to keep writing apologies for being gone to his family in the prefaces of his books. I prefer to make less and be with family more. But I realize that I have that luxury where I teach. I won’t be fired for not producing as much as others, and my wife has a good part-time job.

  • rjs


    Interesting reflections. Your comment “I won’t be fired for not producing as much as others” brings up another point to note.

    Because I have tenure I can afford to devote some time to writing on this blog and thinking through the science and faith issues.

    Without tenure there would be more pressure to devote 60 – 80 hours a week to work, balance would be much harder to achieve. The competition can be intense.

  • dopderbeck

    I did it. Left a partnership at a large white shoe law firm and became an academic. Just got tenure this year! But I’ve always wanted to go to seminary….

  • Rodney

    I may be stating the obvious, but this is constitutive of (our) American culture: productivity = relevance.

    I wish we could learn a few things from Hispanic culture (siesta!) or European culture (the art of living well–go ahead, take 2 1/2 hours to eat dinner).

    Great post, RJS.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    This makes me think of two things.

    First, is how poorly we help people reflect on the concept of human vocation. The culture tells us we should find ultimate fulfillment in our work. Some in the church come perilously close to this with things like Buechner’s “Vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Sorry, but that just isn’t going to happen for most of us. Work will sometimes be toilsome and tedious. But even toilsome and tedious work that is done each day as participation in God’s call to participate in dominion of the world, can be meaningful. Of course, the flip-side response in the church is to (consciously or not) demean paid work as “secular” (read devoid of godly value) and volunteer participation in “ministries” devoted to evangelism and social justice are what give meaning. We don’t have a sound theology of work and its place in our lives.

    The second issue is life-stage changes. It seems to me that some of the issues you are raising are part of the natural course of moving from one stage of life to the next. Priorities change from young adult, to middle-aged, to senior adult. I’m not certain that having reached middle-age that my priorities in young adulthood were entirely wrong (though some clearly were.) They were appropriate for the time and place. This is a different time and place in my life. There are other time and places yet to come. I think we sometimes mistake these natural life transitions as evidence of previous dysfunction. Maybe … maybe not. Where are the mentors and coaches that help us navigate these waters?

  • Len

    Balance, I think, is over-rated. Rhythm, on the other hand, is neglected at our peril. Lately llistening to old Bruce Cockburn material like ”You’ve Never Seen Everything.” The cut is the second on the album and starts out like this,

    I never live with balance
    I always wake up nervous
    Light comes at me sideways
    I hold my breath forever

    I never live with balance
    Though I’ve always liked the notion
    I feel that endless hunger
    For energy and motion …

    And I think .. yeah, balance is a greek ideal. Why do we think balance is the great virtue? Jesus does not strike me as a balanced individual. He was sold out – had a single passion – a life dangerously off balance.

    But the song continues, and the next time the light comes at him sideways..

    The street is filled with noises
    Life going up and down
    Light comes at you sideways
    Enfolds you like a gown ..

  • Lonnie W. Brooks

    I believe several factors play into not finishing strong. The first if funding, it is difficult in today’s world to afford higher degrees of education. I just finished my D.Min from SBTS and if my church hadn’t helped, it would have been impossible.

    Secondly, motivation, It is hard to keep reading, writing and completing assignemnts and papers when the rest of life is pulling at you as well. I’m a husband, father, pastor, teacher and the list can go on and on. After a while you get tired, you want to do something different. Motivation is key.

    Thirdly, faith is needed. I didn’t believe in myself when I started, but then a mentor told me, God doesn’t call you to what you will fail in, you are equipped for the task at hand. Believing those words helped win the battle.

    Blessings, Lonnie

  • Lac

    I, too, transitioned from being an idealist to a realist in my science career. i resonate with Weston’s story b/c that was my story too, except I leaked out of the pipeline much earlier – I became a stay at home mom after earning my PhD, skipping even a post-doc. Many of my female grad school classmates are also now stay at home moms.

  • Bob Longman

    Sounds like she discovered life, and found that it was more rewarding than the more contrived realm of academia. Surprised?

  • DRT

    I too made the jump. A successful executive with everything I always wanted in a career except happiness. I got a golden parachute, started a company, and the stress on my wife and family significantly increased. The interesting dynamic was that the stress of my previous career was largely borne just by me, but the new life forced everyone to realize what was going on. As my wife threatened me, “Look DRT, you were the only one here that was not happy. The kids and I were fine!”.

    I am now doing double duty with a consulting job, a full time career again, and still the business. But, I have been able to successfully put the pressure back on me and take it off the family, much better now.

    It reminds me also of when I got my MBA, did it at night and the pain was much worse on the family than on me. Sure I had to go to school, but they had to get along without me there for quite some time. Very hard on them.

    But I appreciate things much much more now. I am someone who learns best through experience and I enjoy the actual experience. Yes it has been very hard, but easy is not what it is cracked up to be.

    I did not want to look back at a successful corporate life with plenty of money and material success, only to regret that I did experience much of what life has to offer.

  • rjs


    That is a little dismissive – for one thing it implies that those of us who have not walked away from science or from academia have not discovered life.

    I am not questioning her decisions for herself, but such isn’t the appropriate path for all to “discover life” or even parenthood.

  • DRT

    …er, in the last sentence “only to regret that I did not experience much of what life has to offer.

  • DRT

    rjs#14, you are right. I would never recommend walking away for most people. Everyone is different

  • Daniel

    Good post rjs. Reality does affect idealism. Some of us earned our PhD and have come to the realization that if we want to live the life God has called us to it may never include a full-time gig.

    I have been working as a gypsy-prof for 10 years. At times I have had adjunct work at 5 schools in the same semester. At most of the schools I have worked at adjuncts are invisible to all but the students in the one class I teach. There is very little interest on the part of the regular faculty to get to know an adjunct. In the series Band of Brothers one episode is called “Replacements.” The veterans of D-Day said they never got to really know the replacements because they might be knocked off tomorrow. It is weird to work at a company where nobody knows who you are. The Chronicle of Higher Ed has interesting and often depressing stories from adjuncts. If one does not have the Lord at the center it is real easy to fall into the Slough of Despond.

    One way of making it work is to accept the reality of my work situation and the reality of my non-vocational life. The Lord has shifted my focus from vocation to my wife (no kids) and being more supportive of her rough work life. After her being unemployed for 3 years we have moved across the country to be poor in a better part of the country. She has family here and has made some friends here. This is a huge deal for her and I can see how the Lord’s hand has been active in our life.

    Michael @8 made some real good points. All of our life is sacred and should be committed to the Lord. Even if we never get a full-time teaching job or full-time ministry job. I think God holds us accountable for our faithfulness more than for how many books and articles we write or how many conference papers we give. In these bad economic times there are forces at work on our employment that are far greater than just the quality of work I do or the performance reviews I receive.

    Our identity and worth are not reflected in the job we have. I hope you have success in getting your proposal together!

  • Pat Pope

    As one who recently left the church where I served as an elder, I have seen this play out. Devotion to the task was unfortunately rewarded with disrespect and slander. I’ve chosen not to join another church for now. I’m quite weary after the experience and just need a break. I’m confident that God will lead me to the next place and I’m keeping my mind open for just what that place will be. It may not even be an institutional church. Or, He may lead me to fulfillment in some other way–possibly education–and then I will just attend a church not getting involved in the hierarchy.

    A year or so prior to my leaving some had expressed the concern that I might burn out. I guess you could say that happened, but at the hands of others. Not just because I worked hard, but because I worked hard and was rebuffed and not accepted. I’m reminded of the scripture that says a dream deferred makes the heart sick. Sometimes you just have to walk away, but in walking away there is so much freedom and peace and God is faithful. The worst part is the agonizing that takes place leading to making the decision. But I’m convinced I made the right one.

    What is the balance? Hard to say, particularly when you’re passionate and giving up my passion is not an option. But having healthy realism and finding a healthy place to channel one’s passion seems more like a worthy goal.

  • Daniel Willson

    I am presently coming to grips with the fact that I will probably pass up a spot at one of the top divinity schools in the country due to funds. So financial aid and the already staggering loans taken out for my M.Div. – these are the things crushing my academic hopes at the moment.

  • DRT

    The worst thing that can happen to a man is that he never gets what he always wanted before he dies. The other worst thing that can happen is that he gets what he always wanted before he dies.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I don’t work in academia (or ministry) but have often struggled with these feelings. I think I’ve long been in a nearly chronic state of discomfort. Honestly, it may even be mild depression (I did suffer a bought of depression in my late teens and have had reoccurring problems with anxiety and panic attacks). But, I think its something else as well. I have a relatively short attention span. While sometimes I dread change, I get bored with the same things and no new challenges. My interests will drift dramatically in sometimes just a matter of months. I originally went to college thinking I might get into anthropology or archaeology, but ended up with a degree in History, thinking I might get into teaching (high school). I gave up on that (probably for the better) and have been working in the corporate world for over a decade — and 7 years since my degree. Bored, and feeling like I wanted something else, I decided to go back to school to get my Masters (in Information Science). After a year of that, I got bored. I plan on finishing (I have another 3 semesters), I sorta regret it. Now, I think I’d rather stay in the corporate world and pursue a business analyst career path. But, likely, I’ll feel different about that in a year or 2.

    The one thing I learned over the last few years is that I don’t really find fulfillment from work/career. And now, I’m not sure the dream of doing a job you “love” is really a valid pursuit for me. Because anything I *HAVE* to do just becomes work and less enjoyable. If any of my hobbies or interests became my job, I’d likely just not enjoy them as much (or at all) anymore. Instead, I just want to find a job that I like (or at least don’t mind doing), that offers good pay, benefits and good work/life balance. Then, I will find my fulfillment and enjoyment outside of work.

  • Thomas S. Gay III

    “the worst part is the agonizing that takes place leading to making the decision” Amen! I was drated in 1968 and was anti- the Viet-nam war. Eventually I submitted to the draft, and became a helicopter ambulance pilot in that war(Dustoff 20). The decision was more agonizing than some horrific war experiences.
    And to the point of finishing strong. Amen! How do the secular hang in there? I really don’t know how.
    This is a very important post, and a deeply personal one on the intuitive level.

  • DRT

    Kenny#21, while many of the things you discussed are unique to you, I do see one thing that I find in most people whom I coach. They often hear from others that they should have some grand plan in a subject area and that subject area needs to be the thing they are pursuing.

    While that may be true for some, my experience in work is that the subject is rarely the driving thing for people. Instead, learning, interacting, analyzing, planning, doing, reacting, and things like that are the driver to work happyness. Figure out those types of characteristics that you enjoy and find situations where you do that type of work.

    The things you mentioned as jobs seem to vary wildly in the type of thing you do while employed in those jobs. What is the thing in each of them that you liked? What did you not like?

    If I could be so bold, you may like to learn new things and that is why you change majors, and you want to be a teacher because it is about learning, and you want to do BA work because it is somewhat an exploration. Think more along the lines of jobs that allow you to learn new things…..but there are many more avenues to discuss.

    Get a coach! They are worth it. Don’t get someone who asks you if you like computers, or banks, or irrigation systems. Get someone who asks what you feel and what you are doing when you are enjoying your work and education.

  • Kenny Johnson


    Thanks for the advice. I think you’re right. I do love learning. I think it’s one of the reasons I switch interests so often (though I usually still remain interested in them, I just don’t focus on them). And I’m sorta a pseudo business analyst right now and like it. I like the problem solving aspect. Solving puzzles and finding solutions is interesting (and sometimes frustrating) to me. Plus, BAs can make good money — so there’s that. :)

    I find that jobs that don’t have a specific end-point or goal tend to be less fulfilling for me. I worked in Accounts Receivable for many years and its frustrating because it’s just the same thing over and over and you never feel any sense of accomplishing anything. At least with doing BA type work, there is usually a project or issue I’m working on to the point of resolving.

  • rjs

    Daniel (#17),

    Great comment, thanks.

    I have a tenured faculty position, and am reasonably successful, although not always where I “want” to be professionally (no Nobel prize in the offing for sure – or even lesser prize).

    Parts of your comment and Dr. Weston’s article hit home. There are always doubts and questions and compromises. The big question, at least for Christians, is how best to be faithful what ever may come and in whatever circumstance. We all stand accountable. Identity isn’t (or shouldn’t be) tied up in career or success.