Who rewards you?

by Alison Munson


Our professor’s union recently tabled a discussion about how career professors find their «rewards» or recognition in their work. Well, after almost 30 years in academia, I surmise that there cannot be a single answer to this, since different individuals place different emphases on what they consider recognition. Do you believe mostly in the strength of your h-index? Do you enjoy recognition from invitations to present nationally and internationally? Are you nominated for a teaching prize from the faculty or university, or an honor from your scientific society? Personally, I have not looked for rewards or recognition from my own institution. In my own department, unless one is in open conflict, doing something morally wrong or illegal, we are generally left to our selves and our lab enterprises. We annually report what we are going to do, and then what we have done, and share at least our formal course and project workloads with our colleagues. I am appreciative that during my career I have had great département directors who understood a woman’s challenges in a 85% male world (and how family or sickness affects productivity), but none of them congratulated me for anything (oh maybe once….).

I eventually realized that in a competitive environment of grants refused or not, manuscripts accepted or not, and frequent teaching evaluations, I had to find my own rewards. My greatest are those related to successfully training students who are already the next generation of credible and respected scientists, in their own right. Several are professors in Canada and the States, many others are researchers with the provincial and federal governments, or with private agencies. Many have kept in touch in different ways over the years. A rewarding day is when a graduate student of 15 years ago calls me up to ask how things are going, just for news and to see how I am. A reward was when in the last year, two former PhD students with whom I had not worked with for over 10-15 years asked me to be collaborator on new, exciting projects of their own making or when a PhD student wrote in her acknowledgements that my humanist approach was so important to her.

Another main source of recognition of my own making is a successful ongoing international graduate course in functional traits, almost at its ten year anniversary. Since a sabbatical in France back in 2008, I developed the course with several colleagues at home and abroad, which attracts 30 graduate students, postdocs and sometimes teachers in different countries each year. I have met wonderful colleagues and students from around the world through this course. It is a group that feeds me new ideas, pushes me hard, and respects me. Other collaborations with usually small teams have been superb but ephemeral experiences, since we do not have a permanent structure for teams as in Europe. Some experiences with practitioners and companies were singularly rewarding, igniting an exchange that was profitable for all, not a «transfer» of knowledge from the tower. I am also rewarded by invitations to student juries elsewhere, or international review committees where I continue to learn and gain perspective.

So, I have found my own rewards, and I suppose that most of us as scientists are doing or have done the same. In this incredibly demanding environment, it was so important for me to find my own way to do this, my own pleasure in my work, and to understand that I could fix my own principles and values, not look for them elsewhere. It took me awhile to figure this out, that I was not working for a university or some other nebulous academic structure with its own priorities and values that did not always match my own. I have mostly worked for my students, then, to help them find their own excitement in science and their own values and path. That is just fine for me, more than enough.

I would love to hear your own stories of how you reward yourself, or more generally, your thinking about rewards in academia. What is recognition for you?

Author Biography: Alison Munson is a professor of forest biogeochemistry, working at Université Laval in Quebec, in boreal, temperate and now urban forests. In her spare time she writes fiction; where did that spare time go?

Image Credit: Open source photo by Alexander Filonchik on unsplash

Categories: Career

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