When do you ‘make it’ ?

When I was young I had dreams of being an astronaut or a famous athlete. I figured I could go to the Moon or win Wimbledon and then I would have ‘made it’ and could spend the rest of my life on my laurels. Of course I was seven and had a penchant for laziness. I still secretly do, the problem is I am too restless to ever rest on a laurel even if I had one – or really understand where that phrase comes from.

Resting on your Laurels

But the problem is I have chosen science research as a career, after several other career attempts, and science research never ends. It never really comes to a nice absolute conclusion where there are no questions left to be answered. That is not how science works. There is always: Yes, but what about this? I know some folks think they can solve everything with science, or rather scientific thinking, but I firmly believe the nature of science and critical thinking never allow us do do that. Quite simply its the way science works.

So in a science career, when do you ‘make it’? Is it when you get your A-levels? High school diploma? Masters? your PhD? Is it when you get your first big paper in Nature? Journal of the American Chemical Society? Angewandte Chemie? Is it when you get your first big grant? Is it when you get elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society? elected a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science? when you get the Nobel?

I don’t know. At each stage of my career (so far), I keep thinking if I could just get to the next step – then I will have made it. But then at each next step I don’t feel anything close to having made it, its more like: Oh my! do I have alot to learn. For me the process of settling into a new position, which I am presently doing, makes me think about all of the things I don’t know and don’t understand, not what I already do know.

There is inherent insecurity associated with this feeling, the good news is I have the (maybe naive) belief that I can figure it out, I can learn or I can at least attempt to figure it out, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily will.

So I don’t mean to shock anyone but there are a few scientists out there with really big egos. Egos are often, in essence, the ugly front face of insecurity. And some of these folks, in my estimation, have come as close to having ‘made it’ as I can imagine. But why so insecure? Perhaps it is because they don’t really feel like they have made it either.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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17 Responses to When do you ‘make it’ ?

  1. Alice Jones says:

    I think this is what drives good scientists – the knowledge that we haven’t finished; that there is always a new challenge. This must be good for our discipline, it’s good for knowledge advancement, but it’s also a characteristic of many of my role-models.

    My favourite scientists are the ones who look at their own work so far, and really push their own theories and findings – often coming up with better ideas as a result. By challenging our own work, we’ll never really ‘finish’, but chasing ideas is what we’re in it for – having the means and the ability to do this is about as good as the definition of ‘making it’ gets for me.

  2. Frank says:

    Simiplistically we can think there are just two states – normal people, and those who have made it. Perhaps this is how we think as kids. But, as you point out, in reality there are a myriad of different states or levels-of-made-it. Each one is an achievement and at the time of reaching that state we can be very happy for the achievement, while not necessarily thinking that it will be the final achievement.

    Perhaps the mark of an insecure person is that instead of being happy for an achievement, they look around at others and become jealous of those people’s achievements.

  3. ricardipus says:

    I don’t mean to shock anyone but there are a few scientists out there with really big egos.

    I don’t think that statement would shock anyone who’s in science. Career success in science is based on competition – for grants, to reach discoveries earlier, with one’s peers for departmental resources, and so on. And wanting to be the best is somewhat self-selected in conventional professor-track academia – best at what you study, sure, but in many cases also best in the department, best in the world. Big ego goes hand-in-hand with that kind of competitive environment, as it does in other highly competitive fields: professional sports, movie acting, pop music, you name it.

    The above is a generalization, and we all (I hope) know scientists who are humble in their success, too.

    You’ll notice I’ve ducked your “made it” question though. I have no idea, although I suspect a Nobel Prize would do it for many who are never likely to win one, and wouldn’t for those who do.

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    This topic, about “never really making it”–which is probably what most of us feel (despite whatever achievements we have made)–I’m not sure is due to insecurity. I’d agree with you that those who put on the super-ego front are clearly insecure. No question.

    It’s like a permanent-mid-life crisis for many of us in science. That feeling, that if a bus mowed me over tomorrow, would anyone miss me (scientifically)? (Perhaps non-scientifically as well!). What I’m getting at, is that today’s science is part of a big clog, a big wall, and if I were gone, someone else would simply start laying the bricks. Perhaps in a slightly different angle.

    Wow that sounds depressing. Too many grants to write today…

    • HI Steve,
      no I know what you mean – I think insecurity is an interesting word – I think we look at it negatively – eg being an insecure mess, but not feeling secure can also just mean worrying about the future and sometime being in the midst of learning something you are ‘insecure’ in your knowledge. But I do see your point..

  5. alice says:


    When I taught a course on science and the child, I’d get students to read scientists’ reminiscences of their childhood, and it was striking how late so many of these ended (like, mid-20s, later) because it takes so long to become “mature” in a scientific sense.

    That said, my father, a professional musician, would keep saying he didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up well into his 50s

    • I always wonder how honest famous people are in reminiscences – maybe I am being to cynical – I am not sure what it ever means to be a grown up… or a grown-up scientist for that matter

  6. I’d agree that the psychology of scientists is likely to be that they never think they’ve made it. Certainly true for me – but then I’ve never got close to making it..!

    On the more generic question of ‘when are you more or less a fully-trained scientist’, this is one I often used to debate with my medical friends… sometimes in the context of ‘years or training required to get there’ and hence (comparative) remuneration (!).

    My standard answer was that I reckoned the biz regarded you as ‘fully trained’ as a scientist – and thus vaguely equivalent to having finished all your required specialist training as, e.g., a surgeon – at the point where you started to get sent referee requests, in your own name, from established journals and from grant-awarding bodies. So this would typically be after a good few years as a postdoc. Anyway, I reckoned that on the basis of ‘peer standing’, that was when the rest of the biz regarded you are a fully-trained specialist.

    • that sounds a reasonable line – for fully trained – but I am not sure you ever could be fully trained, even as a MD – eg they keep specializing and specializing – ? But I am not sure – once you get on a list even as a post-doc and return things on time, then you get more and more papers to referee, but then does that really make you an expert? – I know I used to get more requests to referee but then I have moved so many email addresses I have managed to hide – only for the most part…. but maybe this is just a reflection of the fact I haven’t made it πŸ˜‰

  7. Laurence Cox says:

    I’m sure that there are other indicators that could show that you’ve “made it”, but two that would certainly apply would be if the literature in your field started referring to McLain’s Law, or a species is named something or orther mclainii. I think I saw recently that a horsefly with golden hairs on its abdomen was named after Beyonce.

    • ooh anyone can name a bug after you, but if you name one after yourself – well hmm I don’t know if that is the done thing. If someone else does tho… of course not being a Zoologist (anymore) I might have to settle for a Law, but as that is unlikely to happen – I am stuck with not ever making it; which I sort of suspected anyway.

  8. Frank says:

    Sometimes confirmation that you’ve made it doesn’t come until late in life, or after death. Those prize committees (Nobels, Laskers, etc) can take a while to decide that you really are worthy. Buildings or institutes named after you is unlikely until after retirement (Weatherall Institute) or death (Crick Institute).

    Hence I think a bit of ‘living in the moment’ is needed. Enjoy your success when it happens.

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    The one incident that made me think “wow – I’m really a scientist!” was when I went to a conference halfway across the continent, started to talk to a random person at a coffee break, and he knew some of my papers! That was a great ego boost for a postdoc!

  10. Frank says:

    Nice comment in this article in the Times Higher, on a different subject.

    Chris Higgins, ex-director of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre and now vice-chancellor of Durham Univ, said he had:

    … started training as a violinist at the Royal College of Music before becoming a geneticist – and still considered himself to be a “failed musician” rather than a “successful scientist”.

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