Reclaiming Success

By Hannah Dickinson, Laura Shipp and Viktoria Noka


At this year’s RGS-IBG annual conference, the outgoing PolGRG postgraduate reps set out to ‘reclaim success’. In what was perhaps an unconventional session, we set out to create an open and honest space for attendees to think about what success means to them, and how we can collectively ‘reclaim’ it. This session was inspired by the 2018 ‘Emerging Voices in Political Geography’ session held at the RGS-IBG annual conference in Cardiff, which started a discussion about the importance of being more honest and open about failure. The subsequent discussions considered how the process of conducting academic research can present what feel like immovable barriers: whether in fieldwork, ethics processes or everyday life as a PGR or ECR. It was a wonderful and productive session that helped to break down the stereotyped-ideal of the heroic researcher, and gave all in attendance an opportunity to be reflexive about the things that haven’t gone to plan for them.

Last year’s session Discussant, Dr. Kim Peters (University of Liverpool), followed her own honest account of the bumps in the road of her research journey, with a call to arms: for us to focus on and celebrate success.

So, when designing this year’s emerging voices session, we decided to follow-up on the discussions about failure, challenges, and barriers, and turn our focus towards success of all kinds. We felt this was in-keeping with one aspect of the RGS-IBG’s 2019 annual conference theme: ‘Geographies of Hope’.

The ‘Emerging Voices in Political Geography’ session offered us a platform to catalyse discussions around celebrating success, in a way that dealt with some of our own experiences as PhDs students. The session focused on challenging the dominant neoliberal discourses around success. We recognised that too often we are made to feel in competition with our peers in an ever-shrinking job market and, as a result, success becomes defined in very narrow terms. The aim of this session was to challenge these predefined ideas of success and to re-think how we might renegotiate success on new terms.

We set out an abstract with this brief, and then swiftly found that no one, early-career or otherwise, felt comfortable talking about success. This in and of itself, was a clear sign to us that redefining success and opening up a discussion about success was of critical importance. As a result of no submitted abstracts, this meant that we had to take on the challenge ourselves. We each had to think about what success means to us, and we swiftly realised that this is a difficult task. Success feels uncomfortable to think about, let alone write or speak about. Being forced to confront the challenge head on, however, became a critical first step for us individually, but also collectively, to reclaim success.

Viktoria discussed how we might learn to celebrate the small successes of daily life that are easily taken for granted. Making it into the office, getting good feedback, taking time off work can all be understood as everyday successes.

failed journal

Viktoria’s ‘failed’ attempts at writing a daily research journal revealed some significant insights into the successes she accrued through daily research life.

Laura used her position as an interdisciplinary researcher to think about intangible successes and overcoming barriers as success. Hannah and colleague Laure Joanny discussed the collaborative and supportive co-working environment that they have focused on building with other peers and colleagues. They provided practical techniques for building supportive co-working environments, such as establishing Writing groups, and reading groups. They emphasised that reclaiming success doesn’t have to be an individual endeavour, but that successes can be collaborative and collective.

Critical to our approach to reclaiming success was, however, for us to go beyond our individual experiences and also open up a broader discussion about success. In small groups we discussed how we might redefine success, how to challenge the neoliberal academy’s ideals about success and the importance of forging positive, collaborative, co-working research environments. We then reflected upon the key points from the group discussions with a discussion amongst the whole group.


Laura pictured with some of the points raised during the group discussion tackling the question: ‘how do we define success’


The session drew to a close with honest thoughts from Dr. Rachael Squire (RHUL) and Dr. Dan Hammett (University of Sheffield), who each reflected on their research journeys from PhD to where they are today – and discussed what success does (and does not) mean to them now, and what it meant to them along the way. Their reflections reiterated that success can be self-defined, be grounded in being a good colleague to others, or simply getting through a really awful day.

But from the discussions that arose from this process, we not only realised how unusual it was to talk about success (in whatever form that might take), but also how incredibly cathartic it felt to do so. We realised that the practice of talking about success should be normalised and we felt justified in our belief that talking about success would be beneficial for the wider academy.

Admittedly though, running a session at the RGS conference can only reach so many. So in an effort to keep this conversation around reclaiming success alive, we wanted to use this momentum to open up a broader discussion.

It is for this reason that we want to invite anyone who is, or has been, part of the academic system, whether it be 1st year PhD students or seasoned professors, to think about ‘reclaiming’ success, in order to create a dialogue to diversify its meanings. We will be releasing a series of provocations that allow us to reflect on these concerns around success. The aim is to create both a platform that allows us to personally reflect on what success means to us and create a resource others can seek inspiration from.

If you’re interested in contributing to the project, feel free to use the following questions as a guide or use any other format that works for you. Please send responses or contributions to us at  We would love to publish them either anonymously or with your name attached, and they will appear in a dedicated series on the PolGRG blog. In answering them we hope we can begin to celebrate successes beyond its often narrowly defined terms and open up a space for a positive, productive, and constructive dialogue.

Name (Optional):

Twitter (Optional):

One boring fact about yourself: 



What didn’t go to plan this week/month?

What is one thing you achieved today/this week?

What is success to you?

What are you proud of?

What advice would you give your younger self?


This is what success looks like to me:

(Please include an image/photograph/etc of what success means to you)