Full disclosure: the prompt for this post was a situation that occurred last week in which I learned that I had been given the wrong information about the status of my SSHRC application. Without going into too much detail, I will not be considered for an award this year. This got me thinking about how we gauge student and academic success, so here goes.
I don’t need to repeat the edict that scholarships and awards are not the only measure of academic success or failure. There are many brilliant academics out there who self-funded their way through graduate school without any (or little) help from external funding sources. These are the kinds of stories Lifetime movies ought to be made of. However, the self-funded PhD is a rare beast indeed. In most cases, a student will have had at lease some financial help from either their institution, government, or other forms of funding. What this all means, though, is that the number of scholarships and bursaries or the amount one wins/receives does not necessarily make some research more valuable than others. I am certain that there are departments and colleagues out there who will try and make people feel this way. Even though I have neither of these things, there is an insidious feeling of failure every time I do not get an important scholarship or award. The fact of academic funding — at least in Canada — is that funding begets funding. Basically, as the unwritten rule goes, once you are in the federal government’s “funding stream” you are more likely to stay in that stream. Perhaps there is a study floating around out there on this topic, but I really don’t have the wherewithal right now to go and look for it, mostly because I don’t care and I prefer kowtowing to the anecdotal evidence in this case.
Even after establishing in my brain time and again that nobody in my department or academic life thinks any differently about people who do not receive major scholarships and awards, there still exists an awful, likely self-imposed, feeling of inadequacy as a scholar. This doesn’t come from nowhere. It is a real thing and is palpable because there are those who do judge a person’s work by the awards they have or have not received. This is one of the many poisonous things in academia that is only slowly changing.
The remedy, as I see it, is to shut the hell up and keep doing your work. Yes, it sucks to be passed over for things, even if it is the result of some sort of avoidable error, but, as they say, you’re not in it for the money. There aren’t many positions in life where going back to my former career as a high school teacher looks like this:
How do you measure your success as a grad student? Well, if you feel like your work is progressing, albeit slowly, and it still excites you, that’s one definite marker of success. As cripplingly lonely as it can be sometimes, there are various times when you get so caught up in whatever it is you’re reading and can’t believe that you’re the person who gets to do this. That sounds cliche only because it is. Academics get to do incredibly valuable and rewarding work because, if we’re doing it right, we’re doing something that has never been done before and if that doesn’t scream success I don’t know what does.