Purpose: In the highly gendered academic sector, womens’ high participation rates have not translated into equal career progression with men. Existing literature suggests that early career publication success is a good indicator of long-term publication success. This research is intended to provide a better understanding of whether the notions of success espoused by neo-liberal universities align with the subjective measures of what constitutes academic success for women ECRs (early career researchers). Design/methodology/approach: The study examines the perceptions of nine successful women ECRs at an Australian university. It uses collaborative autoethnography with thematic analysis of participants’ self-reflective narratives on being a successful ECR. Findings: Five themes were identified. One focussed on objective academic success, which included publications, grants and citations. The other four themes – living a balanced life, making a difference, labour of love and freedom and flexibility – offered more subjective views of success. These included: research making a contribution to society, undertaking research they are passionate about, having autonomy in their role and achieving work-life balance. Practical implications: The findings demonstrate that women define success in broader terms than neo-liberal universities, and future studies should consider these divergent definitions. Universities committed to equality should understand differences in how women may approach career progress and incorporate this into support processes and in alignment of individual and university goals. Originality/value: This research offers unique insights into the experience of post-doctoral employment for women in the academic environment and the factors influencing their success in this early career phase.