Cross-posted (with minor editing) from Teche.
With the luck (or otherwise) of the Melbourne Cup behind us, my thoughts turn to luck of a different sort. I came first in our $2 office sweep, so I am feeling pretty lucky. But am I ‘lucky’ to be an academic?
Over the last ten years, first as a PhD student and then as an academic, I have listened to lots of academics talking about their careers – on panels, at conferences and in workshops. These discussions are usually framed as advice to aspiring academics on negotiating career paths. And I have learned a lot from them. But at almost every one of these sorts of events, senior academics have described themselves as lucky. A typical comment goes something like this: “I have not been strategic in my career, I have just been very lucky.” As an audience member, this used to make me feel angry – if it is luck that gives you an academic career, how can I get lucky?
Two recent things got me thinking about my response a bit more deeply. What’s wrong with luck as a measure of academic success?
First, I attended an early career event where Catherine Lumby talked about her academic career, warts and all. At one point, she said she had been very lucky. She was pressed on this point: what do you mean? And replied something like this: I said yes to opportunities that came my way, even when I had too much on my plate already.
I was thinking about this combination of luck and hard work, when a second thing occurred. This video was shared on Twitter: A Tale of Two Women and their Careers in Science.
There is a lot to take from this video, including its important message about the impact of caring responsibilities on women’s academic careers in the Sciences. But here is how I shared it on Twitter:
This video makes a great point: inflexible career paths in academia mean that luck dominates (rather than hard work or capability). https://t.co/ewZoXvYR0R
— Agnes Bosanquet (@AgnesBosanquet) October 11, 2016
When career paths are inflexible – as is the case in academia – talent and work are not sufficient for success, and luck dominates. So next time I hear an academic say their career is down to luck, I am going to ask for their thoughts on these questions: do you have to work too hard or take on too much to get lucky? Can a slow academic be lucky? And how can we change academia so that capability, rather than luck, is the secret to success?