Competence is underrated


Academics spent a fair amount of time focusing attention on people who do exceptional things. Fauci’s h-score. Doudna’s career of research that led to the development of CRISPR. Banner’s masochistic desire to stay in grad school. The fawning over Nobel laureates in general.

This makes sense. After all, exceptional things are, well, exceptional. They stand out. It’s hard to not notice this stuff.

But you know what I find really impressive in a scientist? What really makes me jealous and wish I was like them, and what I aspire to? Competence. People who straight up have their act together and do all aspects of their job in a fully professional capacity, meeting the needs of the people they work with and work for.

In academia, thorough competence isn’t that common, perhaps because we don’t value it enough. We spend so much time focusing on feats of extraordinary accomplishment, we fail to appreciate those who are ordinarily accomplished. The folks who deliver the goods on a daily basis are the ones who are the real heroes.

It’s really hard to be fully competent as a science professor. That’s because it’s not just one job — it’s more like ten different jobs rolled into one. Being a professor means being a teacher, researcher, administrator, grant writer, academic advisor, lab manager, secretary, mentor, outreach specialist, accountant, travel agent, and social worker.

When I have a colleague who manages to do all of those things at an acceptable level – this just blows my mind. It might be nice to have a genius as collaborator but it’s more valuable to have someone who is competent — who will respond to emails in a timely fashion, who will debug code, provide useful feedback on manuscripts, is kind and generous to your students, who can listen, and can do all this without neglecting their families and their own health.

There’s a classic argument about whether you can be a successful academic while also having a complete and fulfilled personal life separate from work. And this is layered onto the fact that women academics continue to do far more domestic labor, parenting, and institutional service than academic men. I think that it’s possible to have both a successful career in academia and a complete family and personal life. But I don’t want to get into a debate about this, because I think this classic argument is built on the foundation that being a “successful academic” means that you’re one of the exceptional and extraordinary ones. The reason that I think it’s possible is that I see so many of my colleagues who are clearing this bar — who are good scholars, good parents, and good human beings. Is it possible? Sure, it is! Just look around you. If you don’t think it’s possible to be successful while having a normal life, then does that mean all of your colleagues with normal lives aren’t succeeding?

We need to reconsider what constitutes academic “success. How many people are in environments where being a success means being better than everybody else? When perhaps being a success it’s doing your job well. Think of the academics who impact our understanding of the world with their research, impact the lives of their students with their teaching, who help fulfill the potential of their colleagues and build a stronger community. You can do all that stuff in the scope of 40 hours per week. How do I know? Because I work with a lot of these people, and I admire them.

It doesn’t help that to advance to a sustainable academic career, some of these absurd metrics of success are used for gatekeeping. That being a published author as an undergraduate matters for grad school admissions, that a stack of pubs are needed to become a postdoc, and academic search committees might be using our highly flawed template of “success” when fellow professors instead of choosing colleagues who are highly competent. And it’s hard to stay in the game unless you play the game. I get this. We can at least be more clear and more vocal about what we truly value in colleagues. And be less impressed by a CV with a ton of papers, and more impressed by colleagues who are doing very solid science while tending to everything and everybody else in a capable manner.

What do the people who experience genuine success — that is, well rounded competence — have in common with one another? My guess is that they don’t aspire to greatness, but to just serving others well. The process of working towards that goal of competence and fulfilling their obligations to others is a better route to actual outstandingness.

3 thoughts on “Competence is underrated

  1. And the Ecological Society of America, to name one society, had/as meetings themes about rising stars and upstarts, or whatever it was that year. Fine to honor people’s work but a meeting theme and popularity contest is too much. Then there is twitter and the tweeters…

  2. I really love this piece. As a senior communicator/administrator in higher ed, we’re under so much pressure to praise/reward/feature the academic rockstars, but that comes at the expense of the tireless-good-citizen types, who get considerably less light and love. Major drag.

  3. Great article….”What do the people who experience genuine success — that is, well rounded competence — have in common with one another? My guess is that they don’t aspire to greatness, but to just serving others well. ” I like the spirit of this observation, yet it sounds a bit at odds with the rest of the article that competence is greatness, which I deeply agree with.

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