Department of Physics and Astronomy, George Mason University

Celebrate Success

After a grueling week in which we submitted 5 observing proposals, what are we thinking about now? The next set of proposals of course! Why is this? Who among us will take a moment and celebrate our accomplishments?  I suspect very few of us. Marie Curie, one of the most extraordinarily productive and driven scientists of all time, and the first winner of two noble prizes wrote :

 “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”

While there is no doubt that curiosity is often accompanied by some degree of restlessness, and that maybe even existential angst drives scientific productivity, taking time to celebrate success is valuable. In fact, taking a momentary pause from your ever growing “to-do-list” to conduct a mental inventory of recent accomplishments can even allow you to make better scientific decisions, identify and fill in gaps in your knowledge, or come up with more creative ideas in your future scientific endeavors. Here are some tips on how to celebrate success.

1. Come up with your own definition of success. It is all too easy to measure your professional value by the usual official measures – the grade you got in a class, your GPA, your GRE score, admission to a prestigious graduate school, the number of papers you have written, the number of citations, the number of proposals awarded, the number of  invited talks you gave, and the list goes on. But is that really what you truly value? I have come to realize the importance of finding your own definition of success – perhaps it is the understanding you have of a certain field, the creativity of a piece of work, the way you work with others, your kindness or integrity, your commitment to community outreach, how hard you worked, how often you push yourself out of your comfort zone, and your resilience in the light of failure.

2. Keep a journal of accomplishments. Of course it is important to regularly update your cv or resume, but how many of us keep track of all the work we do that never gets officially acknowledged? What about the hours you spent trying to learn a particular topic that somehow did not show up on the final exam but enabled you to gain a much deeper understanding of the material? Or maybe you had the courage to ask questions in a class or at a large conference? Maybe you silenced the imposter syndrome voice in your head while you wrote a paper? What about all the proposals you wrote that never got funded yet you wrote more? What about all the letters of recommendations you wrote to support your students or colleagues , or the hours you spending helping your students with genuine caring for their futures? And of course, what about all the hours you spend reading scientific papers, updating your coding or data analysis skills?  In many ways, these are the experiences that lead to greater understanding, personal growth, or what ultimately fuels greater scientific productivity. If you wrote 5 proposals this year, make a plan to write 6 next year. Measure your success by how many you wrote despite past failures, not by how many that were awarded.

3. Take time for celebrations. So you wrote 5 Chandra proposals last week, go celebrate! Your students or colleagues just published a paper? Take them out to dinner!

Gaby Canalizo and Jenna Cann celebrating near the beach

4. Celebrate the success of others. I have great admiration for my students and colleagues. Find ways to show gratitude and celebrate their success – nominate them for awards both internal and external to your university. Do you think your colleague is an amazing teacher? Recommend them for a teaching award. Is your administrative support invaluable? Consider nominating them for staff awards, or email their supervisor supporting a raise. Sometimes even just sending an email to someone to acknowledge their good work makes such a difference to their life.

Jim Williams, Ryan Pfeifle, and Jenna Cann celebrating after Ryan’s 35 page ApJ paper gets accepted

Here’s a look back at our celebrations over the past year:

  • Jenna and Ryan published their first first-author papers in just their first year of grad school.
  • Ryan gave two fantastic talks at international conferences in Chile.
  • Jenna gave an excellent talk at the United States Naval Observatory.
  • We submitted over twenty strong proposals, despite broken bones, pneumonia, qualifying exams, coursework, and other life happening.
  • Jenna held her ground and fought a challenging referee report, and many revisions later, published her second paper. And most importantly, she was smiling throughout.
  • Ryan now understands the “re” in research by redoing the analysis in his 35-page paper nearly 35 times.
  • Jason won a teaching award for his phenomenal teaching of the Astronomy labs.
  • Jenna won the Cosmos Scholar and Sigma Xi awards for research.
  • Ryan won the Sigma Xi award for research.
  • Jenna got to go to Hawaii on her first observing run to Keck with our UC Riverside collaborators and went snorkeling for the first time.
  • Ryan survived the longest roller-coaster ride as his data got reduced and re-reduced over and over again, and came out on top.
  • Ryan learned to paint and has been beautifying our office with his new paintings.
  • We designed canvas prints of Hubble galaxy mergers to hang around our department.
  • Shobita continues to be grateful for all of the amazing students and colleagues around her and nominates them for every award she can think of.
  • Ryan and Jenna continue to spend their nights giving tours to undergraduate astronomy students at the campus observatory to spread their love of science.
  • Jenna learned how to reduce NIRSPEC and NIRES data and has a good network of people to ask for help when needed.
  • We continue to be grateful to be surrounded by all of our fantastic collaborators who are both experts in their field and the nicest people to be around.
Celebrating a hard day’s work at UCR