Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article  and my most recent article  to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!
Dear Dr. Clemmons:
I am not certain how to feel about the supposed theory of "self-sufficiency" and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps when I feel that there are a number of barriers facing me that are beyond my control. On one hand, I want to be in the driver's seat when it comes to my career and personal destiny; on the other hand, I am painfully aware that certain barriers do exist that may slow or hinder my progress. I have experienced the devastating effects of all types of barriers firsthand in both work and in my academic environments.
What would you suggest as the best course of action in order for me to shine? I am at my wits' end trying to figure out how to successfully navigate the dangerous minefield of personal responsibility versus being able to really take advantage of opportunities as a scientist.
-Extremely Capable, but tired of having to do twice as much to get half as far
Dear Extremely Capable:
It is an understatement to tell you how sorry I am about your predicament and how much I understand what you are going through. In fact, there are many others in your shoes. That being said, the first thing I must tell you is that you have to take personal responsibility for reaching your goals. Why? The simple reason is that no one else is going to do it for you! Sure, you are frustrated, burned-out, and even angry many days, but so are a lot of folks. The difference for you is that you do not want this resentment you are feeling to hinder your success. The fact that you want to see your way through this quagmire instead of simply giving up on your dreams speaks volumes and in my opinion makes you an exceptional person.
You see, the kind of thing you are talking about (in terms of being an "outsider" in the current system) is something that you, I, and others have had to get used to in life. Others, however, have never had our experience, so you have to try to understand their perspective as well. To them, having connections, wealth that has been passed down from one generation to the next, and adequate opportunity are par for the course. It seems to me that you have to start from scratch, which is most certainly harder but very doable. The key is not to let resentment and anger cloud your judgment or hinder your progress. Remember, slow and steady wins the race.
Your question reminded me of the current debate surrounding Dr. Bill Cosby's remarks about the very real effects of personal priorities on a community. My interpretation of his message is that regardless of what society thinks of you and how you are treated by society, it is your duty to achieve. Don't expect anyone to be your substitute in life and perform actions for you that you should be doing for yourself.
For instance, do not put yourself into a compromising position if you know that you are going to be scrutinized. Also, do not accept any ridiculous ideas perpetuated by people who have not achieved anything themselves. Make sure to check out who is telling you what and what their motivations may be. You would be surprised at how many folks don't want you to succeed and will give you wrong-headed advice just to make sure that you are in just as pitiful shape as they are (see box below).
Dr. Bill Cosby's Recent Comments
Eight Cities Media and Publications  circulated a transcript of Cosby's remarks made at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Cosby's public relations representatives provided the transcript, which may be found by scrolling down the left side of the Web site. George E. Curry's article, " Bill Cosby Stands Behind Critical Comments ," was published on the Atlanta Daily World Web site on 27 May 2004 and provides commentary on the speech.
Surely, the bar is set higher for you than for others, but it also makes you a better human being for having higher standards. In addition, you become much stronger than the competition because of the added hurdles. No, it isn't fair, but I don't see this changing anytime soon. Also, people such as Bill Cosby are emphasizing personal responsibility because those of us who understand the bigger picture realize that all people create their own destiny in the end. Success is defined by each individual, and each person should work to ensure his or her own progress, including seeking resources. Also, keep in mind that the way you treat yourself is how society will treat you. Even more important, if you do not even respect your own ideas, family, or self, how on earth do you expect anyone else to respect you?
You asked for tips on how to approach the proverbial "personal responsibility and bootstraps" issue versus "existing barriers" problem, and my tips are as follows:
1. You have to get up each morning realizing that you have to work at your craft and do the best job you can do that day.
2. Everything you do each day to make an incremental step in the right direction counts toward the final goal.
3. If you choose to do nothing about your situation, you can guarantee the results. Nothing good will ever happen for you if you don't actively work for your own success.
4. Don't squander opportunities. Learn to recognize them and learn the fine art of turning lemons into lemonade.
5. Learn how to network! Networking is not a dirty word or a brownnosing affair. Networking is a give-and-take situation that allows everyone involved to benefit.
6. Do not listen to naysayers. Eliminate those people from your life, both professionally and personally.
7. Always give back to others; by doing so, you learn as much from them as they do from you.
8. Spend time with like-minded individuals. You cannot get ahead dealing with people who do not understand your dreams.
9. Use your spare time to pursue opportunities that will strengthen yourself as a well-rounded individual. In other words, watching TV all day just because it is Saturday is a waste of your precious time.
10. Always keep it moving. Every day, do something that furthers your cause.
Now, to be fair, there are those out there who will tell you that you have every right to feel the way you do about yourself and will say that it is not your fault you can't achieve anything of significance. In my opinion, that is hogwash! The word can't does not have any business in a person's vocabulary. Sure, you have the right to feel the way you do, but it is your fault if you don't eventually achieve most of your goals. Just because it takes more work for you to achieve something than it does for someone else does not make the goal unattainable! What it does mean, though, is that you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work at making the best of a not-so-ideal situation.
Without more specific detail about your personal goals and challenges, I cannot give you any personal advice, but I hope that the general principle I am trying to get across is clear: "Life is what you make of it." You can take advantage of the opportunities that do come your way if you learn to be savvy about them. The problem is we often don't know how to recognize a blessing or we spend so much time looking a gift horse in the mouth that we don't take advantage of it. Also, limit the time you spend complaining. Spend your time trying to find ways around the system that is currently in place and you will find that it is time well spent.
I wish you the best, and if you want more specific advice, please feel free to drop another e-mail to me or another person you consider a mentor. If you don't have a mentor, make it your business to find one. It is never too late to get on the right track. Take personal responsibility for your situation and over time, you will reap rewards.