Career or contribution - title

Career or Contribution – what is more important?

Everybody struggles with the same dilemma: Do I focus on my career or on my scientific contributions? If I concentrate on my advancement, I am seen as selfish.  Yet, if I focus only on my contributions, I will be outperformed by the career guys.

How can I combine my career aspirations and my scientific contributions?

Chess player representing career strategies

You may think, “If I focus only on science, others will pursue a career I want, and I may be left behind. If I focus solely on my career, I’ll get frustrated by my lack of purpose.”

And you are right. Focusing too much on your career path undoubtedly leads to frustration and cynicism because everything becomes a strategic game. This can lead to discontent and is terrible for career fulfillment and a meaningful life.

On the other hand, focusing too much on pure science and your contribution also leads to frustration and cynicism because everybody else is getting promoted; meanwhile, you are not. This is bad for your self-worth and especially bad for your bank account.

How do you solve this problem? The solution is complex – as usual.

Let’s start with the good stuff – contribution.

Pure Science is Pure Contribution

Excited scientist representing pure science as pure contribution

To contribute to humanity, the planet, and your peers is great. PURE SCIENCE – that’s why we do it! We create something that is of value to others. We give back from the wealth of our knowledge, insights, and experiences.

We teach or create essential pieces of knowledge that may improve the human condition. We gain exciting insights into the functioning of the world. We develop innovative therapies for patients or disruptive technologies that create a better future.

Pure Enthusiasm Will Not Last

scientist who lost enthusiasm

This reason is why most scientists are enthusiastic about science! But enthusiasm turns into sour feelings when others get better jobs, prestigious publications, increased funding, and more scientific freedom. Thus, strategic career development is also necessary to succeed.

Unfortunately, “career development” tends to sound sleazy and selfish. But you must care for yourself and your family by taking control of your finances, salary, and pension.

  1. Create a fulfilling career by reminding yourself weekly WHY you are doing science. What will you contribute, and what value do you want to create?
  2. Decide as soon as possible which career you really want. To find your dream career in science, start here:  The 8 best tips to find your dream job in science
  3. You might realize that you can not reach your career goals in your current position and that you should quit your job and find a better position
  4. Learn how to pursue a successful career in academia to provide for yourself and your family. Consider enrolling in a course to learn the career secrets nobody told you.

Only focusing on strategy is a drag

desillusioned scientist after focusing only on strategy

Focusing on strategy can be a frustrating task when everything is centered on:

  • Higher impact factors and more citations
  • Raising more grant money
  • Strategic networking
  • Joining the proper committees
  • Getting influential functions
  • Knowing the right people
  • Making deals with influential players

Phew! Where is the pleasure? Where is the pure interest in scientific discovery?

Developing a healthy balance between career advancement and pure science is challenging.

If you focus strictly on scientific contribution and start getting the nagging feeling that others are progressing faster in their careers, you must become more strategic.

I wrote another article as a starting point for developing a career strategy: The 8 best tips to find your dream job in science

Rediscover the pleasure of scientific discovery

scientist with binoculars representing the rediscovery of scientific pleasure

If you are already intensely focused on career development, do not lose sight of the pleasures of scientific discovery.  If you pursue scientific discovery only for academic accolades and an attractive position, you will experience an emotionally empty career.

Remind yourself WHY you are doing research.

What do you enjoy about science?

Who will profit from your insights?

How do you want to contribute?

The academic path is long, thus, remind yourself why it is worth it to be professor.

Only this WHY will keep you motivated and prevent cynicism and frustration. 

How to integrate contribution and career

scientist reflecting on how to integrate contribution and career

To better integrate career contributions and scientific advancements, begin by analyzing the job description of your current or desired position. Note the areas where your expertise can have the most meaningful impact.

Next, consider how you can employ your particular skills gained from past jobs or studies to make a big difference. Keep in mind every career growth opportunity is a perfect opportunity to extend your contribution to society.

You may also participate in open source projects related to your field. Many job seekers contribute to these initiatives to make meaningful contributions to an area they are passionate about.

At the same time, you learn new skills and demonstrate your problem-solving prowess. This benefits the community and adds significant value to your professional portfolio, showcasing your breadth of related experience. It will support your professional development and help you to climb the career ladder faster.

Become really good at something

book representing to become really good at something

Passion and a mission develop when you become really good at something. My favorite book on the subject is Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You (affiliate link).

You can be extraordinarily productive with ease only if you are excellent at something.

Concrete examples are becoming an expert in specific software that most people use in your field, in a specific experimental model (in vitro or in vivo), or in a particular disease and its treatment. Read more here on how to become an expert.

The Extraordinary Power of One

Never underestimate the impact of one person. You have the potential to make an extraordinary difference within your field. This will bring you satisfaction and may impact millions of people.

For example, you could change the course of clinical medicine in your country or even the world. Be it through discovering a new drug, developing a new theory, or significant advancements in your particular job – your contributions matter.

Probably, you will work hard. However, by striving for the highest level of excellence in your field, you will build a meaningful career and make a bigger contribution to society.

Develop Your Personal Career Plan

Finding a career is a step-by-step process over many years. In my very personal opinion, crafting a compelling career plan is the best way to start merging your career aspirations and your wish to contribute.

This plan should include a clear career statement and articulate how your specific qualities can meet your employer’s goals. By doing that, you focus on contributing *and* developing your career in science.

For instance, you may be adept at discovering new technologies that could improve the advancement of science in a particular field. This may increase a university’s scientific output (publications, patents) or a company’s sales record.

Your plan should also mention the kind of work you want to do and the most effective way to achieve this. Include the following criteria in your plan: The job title you want to have, the number of people you aim to impact, and the amount of funds you intend to raise for your research.

To get more ideas, you might reflect on whether you do enough for your scientific career.

Networking and Collaboration

Strategic networking plays a major role in understanding what you want, advancing your scientific career, and substantially contributing to your field. You must talk to experts in your area and ask for directions.  There are some books that may help to improve your networking skills. For example: “Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count” (affiliate link) by Karen Wickre.

What will be significant trends in the field, and where are breakthroughs emerging or expected? You can not find this out yourself. It would be best to have input from several experts who probably will not agree on key aspects and may predict contradicting trends.

Attending annual meetings in your research area, engaging in social media discussions about your field, and collaborating with others of similar interests can go a long way toward understanding future developments. Decide carefully which meetings you should attend.

At scientific congresses, you will share your work, engage with other researchers, and potentially collaborate on worthy causes. These interactions can be a perfect opportunity to learn new ways of problem-solving and contribute significantly to the advancement of science. It will probably also help you to get a job.

Simulated Job Interviews to Reach Clarity

Making a contribution needs clarity. If you have no idea what you want, you can not contribute.

A simulated job interview offers a unique opportunity to convey your unique blend of career ambition and scientific contribution. Train yourself to demonstrate your ability to make a difference.

As a preparation, you might write a contribution statement. Discuss your greatest contribution to date and illustrate how these experiences have enriched your current role and how this aligns with the university’s or company’s specific needs. Explain why this is important for your future employer.

This is – no surprise – also an excellent preparation for actual job interviews. Interviewers aren’t just interested in your talent or potential – they want to understand your passion for contributing to your field and society.

What to do?

There is no doubt –  a key ingredient for creating a fulfilling career in science is contribution.

Most scientists just want to do great science and contribute to the greater good. If they get a career contribution award, it is just a cherry on the cake but not the goal.

Do not only ask, “What is in it for me?” Ask yourself, “What can I contribute?” and “What value can I offer to my peers, science, society, or humanity – now and in the long run?”

Therefore, there are three simple rules to combine pure science and strategic career development:

  1. Create a fulfilling career by reminding yourself weekly WHY you are doing science. What will you contribute, and what value do you want to create?
  2. Decide as soon as possible which career you really want. To find your dream career in science, start here:  The 8 best tips to find your dream job in science
  3. Learn how to pursue a successful career in academia to provide for yourself and your family. Consider enrolling in a course to learn the career secrets nobody told you.


I have used AI systems, including Grammarly, Google Gemini, Groq, and ChatGPT, to enhance the English and comprehensiveness of this article. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to purchase through my link. Thus, you support smartsciencecareer at no cost to you!

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