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 on my contributions, I will be outperformed by the career guys.

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

You may think, “If I focus only on science, others will pursue a career that 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 feelings of discontent and is bad 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.

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.

This reason is why most scientists are enthusiastic about science! But enthusiasm turns into sour feelings if 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.

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

  • Increasing impact factors
  • 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 a challenge.

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

This article is a good start to develop a career strategy: The 8 best tips to find your dream job in science

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?

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

Passion and a mission develop when you become really good at something (I recommend reading Cal Newport’s helpful book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You). A key ingredient for creating a fulfilling career in science is contribution. 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.
  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.

What to do with your PhD?

Get clarity about your career! Find your dream job in science!

Career in academia?

Learn the rules and become a professor!