On luck, jobs and getting what you "deserve"

Feb 07 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I'm behind on just about everything recently, so why should blogging be any different? For work related reasons I haven't been able to keep on top on internet goings-ons, so only briefly saw a flurry of activity on twitter around the #postdocalypse hashtag. Since I missed the origin and reason, it looked like the typical venting of the postdocalytes, which, sure, I get it. It's a stressful time.

At some point I caught a link to the post associated with it, from Ethan Perlstein's blog. I've interacted a bit with @eperlste on twitter and have a sense of where he's coming from, but I found this post interesting. The main thing that caught my attention was:

Almost every single assistant professor I know has admitted that it was dumb luck, idiosyncratic departmental tastes or plain old academic tribalism that landed them their job, because they all had impressive CVs, stellar recommendations and solid proposals.

Let's talk reality for a second. As I mentioned in a comment on my last post, the perception of luck dominating a search decision only exists outside the decision making process. There was a time when I held this believe to a certain extent too, but then I got involved in the hiring process. There's nothing random about hiring, but it is subject to the needs and desires of the faculty members with a say in the process. This isn't transparent to the candidates, which might make it look whimsical, but I promise you that is far from the case. Whereas I have never been at an institution that is involved in "boys club" hires, and thus can't speak to those situations, the facts are simple: segments of the committee or department may have different interests, and those may be in conflict, and are almost certainly unknown to most job candidates. So let's put the randomness rumor to bed and accept that much of this is actually dependent on factors you are not aware of. There may be some luck as to which jobs come up in a year you are primed for the market, but search committees ain't flipping a coin in the back room to decide who to offer the job to.

"Dumb luck" is a great excuse if you don't want to think the situation through. Odyssey can give you a math lesson if it helps, but the bottom line is that even ticking all the boxes you thought you should does not guarantee you the job you want. Treating the process as waiting for that job people owe you is not going to help your efforts to obtain said job. At all.

Another typical disgruntledoc talking point is the insistence that only a top 10 department would be worthy of their presence. Anyone who has been around long enough to remember YFS will be very familiar with this mindset. The reality is that those jobs aren't for everyone and not every ivy-bred researcher is a special snow flake to be cherished. If your idea of a job search is applying to a handful of the very best departments in the country every year, you need to own the fact that you are playing a high stakes game with the odds stacked against you. If it doesn't work out, don't pretend that your downfall is economic, luck or unrecognized brilliance. Recognize that it is arrogance.

52 responses so far

  • SearchChair says:

    I completely agree. There is no luck to the process. You need some good pubs (don't need a C/S/N in my experience), a good model and some good questions. You also have to be able to talk Science. About your field and other related fields. There is no best department anymore. And there is no luck involved. The only angle for luck is to be applying to a department that is looking for a new faculty member that is working on your topic. Even though the ad says Neuroscience or Microbiology, they could easily really want some working on Alzheimer's or Influenza and not someone working on E. Coli or HIV.

    You also have to be a nice person to talk to. That may seem weird but your colleagues have to want to have you around all the time. I recently talked to a postdoc who had a Nature paper last year and they thought that was their ticket to a job. They applied all over, mostly big name schools, got a few interviews and then no offers. When you talk to this person all they talk about is "my Nature paper", blah blah blah. This is not someone that you want in your department and I am sure it showed through in their interviews. So in addition to everything else, Don't Be A Dick.

  • So in addition to everything else, Don't Be A Dick.
    Could this be why Ethan Perlstein is facing the postdocalypse despite his prestigious inde­pen­dent post­doc­toral fel­low­ship at Prince­ton?

  • FSGrad says:

    I haven't dealt directly with the job market yet (though I'm lucky in that my dept lets a student sit on hiring committees, so I've had a chance to have an indirect peek at the process)...but I am very familiar with being a fellowship recipient. In fact, I am the recipient of a good many fellowships and grants, some of them relatively prestigious (thanks again, PLS, for posts about NSF grants).

    Some of my friends, colleagues, and professors conclude that I am therefore totally kickass and really awesome and smart. And in fact, I get asked to formally and informally advise people about the application process for these things.

    Yet, my first reaction is "oh, I was just lucky...I mean, I know my application was great, but so were many other people's..."

    Why? Because I don't want to come off as arrogant. And although that might be a trait more associated with females, I think that many people would do the same thing when asked how they got their job / postdoc / giant pot of money. So the fact that most professors say there was an element of luck involved doesn't either shock or inform me very much.

    The fact remains that for every position or grant there is a set of things that committees are looking for, and someone who best fits that bill, for a variety of complicated, multivariate reasons.

  • anon says:

    Would you say the same thing about grants? Because I've also heard a lot of people say those results are pretty random as well, including faculty.

    My sense is that the outcomes are "random" as in they are opaque, as you mentioned, and that so many qualified applications (or grants) are submitted, that move from medium-list to short-list (since there is always some fraction that is a no-brainer rejection) is more or less random depending on what different people present pick up on (then on the short-list, the interviews tend to clarify things immensely in terms of picks for jobs, and are heavily debated for grants).

  • jipkin says:

    Be careful when conflating "luck" with "randomness".

    When people say something involves luck, that doesn't mean they think the process is random or semi-random. It is, as you say, more a case of "jobs com[ing] up in a year you are primed for the market" that causes the stress. That is luck. Your experiment working can be lucky. A surprising discovery that makes your paper look more original is luck.

    People in general are complaining that the hiring system values factors that feel more luck-based than that relate to their own skill as a scientist. Can you really blame them for wanting to be judged more on the strength of their skills than on the particularities that are outside their control?

  • Bakermind says:

    Search Chair is right in that a candidate's particular topic must match with an appropriate opening in a recipient department at the time that the candidate is on the market. Moreover, search committees are looking for the candidate with the right "fit", who will serve as an excellent colleague. Some applicants have just not learned how interact in such a manner.

    When I invoke the word "luck" in this case, however, I am usually referring to the capriciousness of nature and not the search process itself. The "slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact" has hobbled the future marketability of many a qualified scientist looking for a profound example of natural phenomena. On the other hand, choosing an experiment that is guaranteed to work will likely lead to pedestrian results and an unremarkable publication record. Although chance may indeed favor the prepared mind, I don't believe that only 10-20% of PhDs have prepared minds... it is more likely that for some of them the Truths they observed were not of sufficient impact for an extraordinary application. This is not a Problem that can be solved, it is simply the Way Things Are.

  • namnezia says:

    Anon: I think that some of the "randomness" in grants is that once you get to the top 20%, it is very difficult to choose one over the other.

  • MCA says:

    I think the key is defining "luck". Nobody thinks the search committee picks one candidate per member then plays rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock.

    But from the perspective of an applicant, there are many determinants of who gets a job that are either beyond our control (who would "fit" in the department) or otherwise unpredictable. As a future applicant, even if I have a strong application, a portion of the outcome is beyond my control and thus, for me, indistinguishable from the aforementioned game in outcome.

    I'm reminded of Raup's views of mass extinctions. Species will only evolve to suit their current environment, as evolution cannot "plan ahead", so if a climatic shift suddenly occurs, they're faced with a situation they could not prepare for, and intense selective pressures radically different from before. It then becomes largely a matter of luck which species happens to have useful traits, either because they were used for something else in the original environment or because they were hanging around as evolutionary leftovers. From the external perspective, which species lived and died was predictable, but from the species perspective, survival was determined by uncontrollable factors that were largely a matter of luck.

    If I'm in Subfield 1 of Field A, then that's where I am(A1). If the job ad only calls for field A, even though there's perfectly good reasons why the committee picks someone in subfield A2 or A3 rather than me (A1), that's beyond my control because I can neither go back in time and change fields, nor change my field to suit each application (especially if said application is vague). I could have 8 sole-author Nature papers and I'd still not have the job because I'm not in A2 or A3 and that's what they really want.

    TL;DR - "Luck" in these complaints is just an imprecise wording, and rather than indicating an accusation of true randomness, is just an acknowledgement that decisions are made based on factors beyond our control. Even with full knowledge of the entire application pool, without knowledge of the search committee's inner mental states (largely unknowable unless you're on the SC), the outcome cannot be predicted. Ergo, "luck".

  • miko says:

    In defense of Ethan, luck =/ random. I think it just means everyone knows there are unknowns you can't control and aren't aware of (see the Rumsfeld taxonomy). Thus, idiosyncratic. If that isn't luck, I don't know what is.

    Whatever it feels like from the SC side, for the applicants, I think luck is a fair definition. It doesn't mean there aren't things you can do to increase your chances, but given the current numbers, there is obviously only so much you can do, and I don't think the perception that factors you can't control begin to predominate at some point in this process is wrong.

    Second, maybe it's because I avoid assholes, but I do not know any postdocs who are 1) Restricting their search to elite institutions, 2) Feel they are in ANY SENSE "owed" a job, 3) Think they are more deserving than others to get a job.

    Everyone acknowledges that there are deep, systemic problems in the funding and training systems in biomedical science. In less than 30 years, we've undergone a rapid shift from PhDs having -- with hard work and flexibility -- a Reasonable Expectation of obtaining either a tenure track or professional researcher position, to having no realistic expectation of that outcome.

    Pointing out that that sucks and that it'd be nice if universities, funders, and professional societies gave a fuck about it is not "entitlement."

  • Joshua King says:

    The the search process is capricious, but not random. PLS gives too much credit to the certainty of faculty and excellence of search committees (of which he was a part, of course) and post docs without jobs give too much credit to factors beyond their control (because they all can't possibly suck more than the next candidate). The truth lies somewhere in between and until there are fewer PhDs produced and more funding and jobs available we'll all just keep railing and wailing and claiming we know more about the process than we really do. None of us are really all that special, statistically speaking.

  • DJMH says:

    BakerMind, I don't think that whether or not your experiment is interesting has nearly as much to do with "luck" as all that. Good scientists strategize their experiments to fall into a couple of major categories:
    1) An experiment which will be interesting to the community either way it turns out--maybe in one case more interesting, in the other case a bit less interesting, but still publishable in a good (society?) journal.
    2) An experiment which will only be interesting if it comes out a certain way, but if it does, is pretty much a lock on a high-profile paper.

    If you're only doing experiments of category 2, you're doing it wrong. And that has nothing to do with luck.

    That said, I agree with miko's general point that if you don't KNOW the factors guiding an institution's choice (and you never will), there can be a certain capriciousness to it all. Don't even get me started on how I perceive "lucky" from the standpoint of a two-body problem.

  • t says:

    anon, Miko, and MCA all hit the nail on the head. What people mean when they say there's a large element of randomness to the hiring process is exactly what they mean when they say that there's a large element of randomness to the grant funding process. No one is suggesting that a random number generator is driving the process in either case; the point is that the outcome depends to a large extent on starting conditions that are unknown (and often unknowable), and that with very minor and essentially arbitrary perturbations to the system, could have turned out very differently. You concede this yourself PLS when you say the outcome depends on factors unknown to the applicant (or grant-seeker). Well, in what sense is that not a matter of chance--or luck--from the applicant's perspective? If I have no way of controlling--or even knowing about--the factors that determine my fate, it's perfectly reasonable to say that I'm at the mercy of 'luck'.

    Now it's certainly true that in the long run, these random factors will average out. But the problem is two-fold: (a) the run people are getting now is not always long enough, and (b) the odds have gotten much worse in recent years. This is true of both faculty positions and grant applications. As has been pointed out many times (perhaps even by you), nobody thinks that one can reliably discriminate between a grant in the 8th percentile and one in the 10th percentile. When success rates were at 30%, this wasn't such a big deal, because researchers could still feel relatively secure in the knowledge that if they didn't get this particular grant, they probably just had to write 2 - 3 more applications to keep their lab going. So the randomness was easy to overlook, because it averaged out relatively quickly. But when paylines are at 7%, it's a very different ballgame. When the expectation is that it will take, on average, 8 - 10+ proposals to get one hit, applicants often run out of time through no fault of their own, simply because they happen to find themselves in a shitty environment. Naturally, many of the people who fail in the current climate would have failed in more pleasant climates too. And of course those people will now have a convenient scapegoat for their failure (it's the climate, not me!). But it would be burying our heads in the sand to pretend that many of the people who fail in the present climate are failing through no fault of their own, and would have gone on to outstanding careers in better times. Since we don't choose when we get to be born, it's hard to escape the conclusion that it is bad luck to want a career in science now as opposed to 30 years ago.

    Obviously, what goes for grant funding also goes for faculty hires. In fact, it's arguably more justifiable for job-seekers to complain than for grant-seekers to complain, because the likelihood of getting a faculty position is much harder for a trainee to estimate than the likelihood of securing grant funding. NIH and NSF publish paylines regularly for various fields and programs, but nobody has great data on the likelihood of obtaining a tenure-track job in specific fields. Moreover, the job market is just as if not more susceptible to shifts of policy or market. While things are tough at NIH and NSF (and may get a whole lot worse in a month), at least the funding budgets have been flat. North American universities largely froze hiring between 2008 and 2010, which means that if you happened to be graduating during that period, you suddenly found yourself competing with a disproportionately large pool of applicants. Again, this is no more the applicant's fault than it would be an early-career PI's fault for just happening to stat doing science at a period of contracting NIH/NSF budgets. And if Congress tomorrow decides to double the NIH budget, the slew of extra hires universities will immediately embark on will have fate to thank also, and not the fact that they were somehow twice as good as the people who graduated 5 years earlier.

    None of this is to deny, of course, that trainees bear much of the responsibility for their situation too. I agree with you that no one should feel entitled to a position. But I suspect very few people really believe that it's a huge injustice if they graduate with a PhD and can't find an academic position. The more common sentiment--and again, one that's common to grant-seekers too--is that the climate people find themselves in is not the one they were led to believe (by the people around them) existed. Most people don't think they're entitled to a job; they feel they deserve a reasonable shot at a job if they work very hard and perform at the same or higher level than the people who came before them did. Now you can certainly quibble over what "reasonable" means, but simply pretending that luck plays no role in who gets a job or a grant, and who gets to stay in science and who doesn't, flies in the face of the facts staring us in the face, and is grossly lacking in the empathy department.

  • odyssey says:

    But the problem is two-fold: (a) the run people are getting now is not always long enough, and (b) the odds have gotten much worse in recent years. This is true of both faculty positions and grant applications.

    Do you have data for this for TT positions? It's a common assertion, but then again, it was >15 years ago when I was looking for a job. I'm not saying it's not the case, I honestly don't know if it is. I'd like to see the data.

  • JaneB says:

    I will continue to use the word 'lucky' as part of the rationale for my successes, such as they are.

    In the context of job-hunting - I had a decent c.v. and references, I applied widely for every opening which might suit my field, and I did the Right Things with regard to networking etc. But I have particular laboratory needs and teaching areas I can cover, and where luck comes in (mostly) is whether any place that is hiring sees those things as managable/desirable. I see this from the other side as part of a panel, too, and as the former supervisor/mentor of post-docs job-hunting - what particular combinations of needs is attached to the job openings during the period when the applicant is on the market are largely down to chance, and certainly can't be controlled in any way by the applicant and only in small ways by the panel. We often have 2-3 people who COULD do the job, who we'd like as colleagues, who'd bring something valuable, and yet only one job to offer. Also, denying that luck plays a chance in how you perform at interview, and in the particular chemistry between the candidate and the chosen panel, seems arrogant in the extreme - I can be very prepared, but a) I am human so will not always get it right and b) not everyone will like/value/appreciate me and my self-presentation in the same way. One man's confidence is another's arrogance.

    On grant-awarding panels? Oh please. At least in the systems I use, where the panel who decide on the grants are drawn from a pool of a few hundred, the composition of the panel, and especially of the person chosen to champion your proposal, can have a huge effect on the outcome and is completely out of the control of the applicant - I'd call that luck. Surely we've all had sets of references for papers or grants in which one referee says it's a great project but the idea is dull and has been done before whilst someone else says the idea will never work, or one person says the model organism is irrelevant and the other person raves about what a wonderful choice it is, or whatever the equivalent is. If your beautifully honed grant is assigned to one of those people rather than the other, its odds of funding (especially under current circumstances where everyone agrees there are far more great ideas/applications around than can be funded, so tiny differences really matter) are changed. That, to me, is luck.

    And yeah, knowing it's partly down to luck makes me less arrogant. But I don't say it to not look arrogant, because... well, DENYING the element of chance in any success makes me look stupid, and I try to avoid that.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Would you say the same thing about grants? Because I've also heard a lot of people say those results are pretty random as well, including faculty.

    Grants are a different beast with very different constraints.

    Second, maybe it's because I avoid assholes, but I do not know any postdocs who are 1) Restricting their search to elite institutions, 2) Feel they are in ANY SENSE "owed" a job, 3) Think they are more deserving than others to get a job.

    You should read more disgruntledoc blogs.

  • miko says:

    "You should read more disgruntledoc blogs."

    Ascertainment bias.

    Data almost 20 years out of date, but safe to say this trend has at least continued if not accelerated:

    Biomedical PhD outcomes 1973 ----> 1995:
    TT, Phd institution 46% ----> 21%
    TT, other institution 13% ----> 9%
    Industry 11% ----> 19%
    Fed/govt 11% ----> 6%
    Other 19% ----> 45%


  • Okay, a little off-topic light humor for you: postdoc I know got food poisoning the night before her research presentation. Now THAT'S bad luck in the TT-hire game.

  • namnezia says:

    In that vein, a friend was giving a chalk talk for job interview, when after spending 10 minutes locating a dry-erase marker that worked, the whiteboard came crashing down from the wall just as he was getting started. That's bad luck.

  • Bashir says:

    A certain person I know got sick in way that, how do I say thing, required changing pants.

  • geranium says:

    I wanna second what everyone is saying about the "luck" thing. As a mid/late stage postdoc who participates an awful lot in departmental goings on, I know full well the many factors that go into selecting a faculty candidate. Just because it's a deterministic process from the SC's perspective doesn't mean -- as everyone else has said -- that it doesn't take luck for a particular candidate to get a particular job. Luck that the research focus the SC decides to favor is the research focus of their career, for example. Duh, PLS!

    "Grants are a different beast with very different constraints."

    I kind of disagree with this. When the payline separates the top 7% from the 8%, what's getting funded is based less on intrinsic merit and more on the idiosyncrasies of the review group. I would call that arbitrary, just as I would call it arbitrary when Candidate A is deemed a better fit (maybe even a much, much better fit! a legitimately better fit!) than Candidate B. Maybe the spread of candidates for jobs is broader, whereas grant apps cluster together. Maybe that's because there's an awful lot more about a person to have feelings about - Were they nice? Did they deliver a clear talk? Did you understand their research? What did their letters say? Will their research compete with the department? Will it complement? Is it flashy? Is it solid? Would you like to sit next to them for the next 20 years at faculty meetings? That's a lot of stuff to feel strongly about, and so the decision making process is necessarily a lot different for SCs than for grant panels. Doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of arbitrary factors playing a role (who's already in the hiring department, for example).

    Or, are you saying that SCs the continent over will routinely pick the same top candidates? I guess that does happen, more or less, at least at the very top (where we all know who gets all the offers). Well, great. So the writing's already on the wall. I wish I knew precisely what it said.

    And anyway, even if that's *roughly* true (it's a largely deterministic process, such that different SCs favor the same candidates, for better or worse)... on an individual level, the experience feels tremendously arbitrary. Suppose the same six candidates are the top choices at five different jobs. That's clear evidence of non-random selection but the sixth candidate who ends up having to leave research, or the country, or their spouse... well, that's bad luck.

  • jakester says:

    This Ethan Perlstein guy is delusional. The fact is that Princeton gave him a lab for five years and a million bucks, and all he churned out was a couple of papers on the level of PLoS One. A hiring committee would conclude that he's not capable of independently producing the type of high impact research that he was publishing while in Stuart Schreiber's lab. Even if "luck" was on his side, he'd never get a job at a top tier school.

  • Busy says:

    the perception of luck dominating a search decision only exists outside the decision making process.

    Having been in both sides of the game, I would describe the search decision as a die loaded according to te quality of your CV. The more accomplishments you have (publications, pedigree, awards, boy scout badges) the higher the chances are that your number will come up. However there is still plenty of room for noise and capriciousness. For example, I've witnessed first hand a very inferior candidate being hired because the chair leaned heavily on the SC, while I've seen a wonderful candidate not been picked up because the senior member in the SC was unimpressed for one reason or another, even though pretty much anyone else thought the candidate was a walk-on-water type.

  • tree guy says:

    From my experience, another thing that postdocs do is limit their search geographically. Living in a great metropolitan area/great school and considering moving to bf egypt clearly limits a lot of people's search. I've always been baffled by this. When you enter this field, you clearly have to be cognizant that there are a limited number of positions and that might require you to move somewhere you have never been nor never saw yourself living. That said, most of the folks in those places that no one ever thought they would end up are there because they got the job. I've heard many times from people in those places that "I never thought I'd move to bf egypt, and after I got the job, never thought I'd stay" say they actually like where they live and don't want to move. Geography matters I guess, but if you are committed to your science, given the limited number of jobs, it shouldn't matter as much as it seems to.

    The "luck" thing might be true, but the "fit" thing is more true. Schools hire people because they think they will work well within the existing structure of a department and will be able to succeed and not be an a-hole i.e. rock the boat, threaten existing hierarchy, etc.. Might be cliche, but also true.

  • physioprof says:

    It doesn't involve "dumb luck" in the sense that winning the lottery does. But it does involve "good fortune" in the sense that winning at blackjack does when you are playing optimal strategy: you have a lot of control that allows you to maximize your odds on each hand, but winning the hand still requires that the cards fall your way, and thus you can lose through no fault of your own.

  • frija says:

    I think you've misunderstood what is meant by 'luck' in this context. I am a new Assistant Professor at an RUVH and fully feel that I was incredibly 'lucky' that the department I'm in was looking for someone that happened to do the type of research I do. This is luck. I was better suited for this particular position, but in no way did I necessarily have the best CV, papers, credentials and letters of the entire applicant pool. I know the process wasn't random. But I also know that this was my only interview and that I nailed it. Sure, I have a competitive CV and top-notch training, but it was 'pure dumb luck' that this department was looking for someone like me.

  • Mac says:

    I think physioprof's point is an important one. I disagree strongly with the post that it's all luck, tribalism, or whatever else but I also think (some) academics are too quick to judge that if someone doesn't get an academic job it's because they weren't good enough. Good people - people with the creativity, brilliance, and work ethic to amazing profs - don't always get jobs. Sometimes it isn't luck - they can't give a talk, they're rude, they apply to 5 schools a year and only at R1s on a coast - but sometimes it is just bad luck. Right now there are a lot of people who either left the field or are in positions very different than what they wanted or hoped for because of the 2008 collapse which came on top of a general slow-down in TT hiring. It's important for postdocs and grad students to do what they can to prepare - luck will NOT get you a job - but it's important for all of us to recognize that bad luck can keep good people from getting jobs and not add shaming to the difficulties they're facing.

  • phagenista says:

    I have a job that I love at an R1 in one of my top choice locations. And I only got the offer because the first person they offered the position to turned it down. I guess you don't have to call it "luck," but I remain incredibly grateful that the very qualified mid-career person my department understandably tried to get first turned my job down. When our paths cross again, I owe her a very expensive bottle of wine.

  • physioprof says:

    OK, I just took a look at Perlstein's CV. His problem is not bad luck. Rather, his problem is that he took what amounts to a decent-sized assistant professor start-up budget, and failed to turn it into publications in high-quality journals. And his grad student publications are much more substantial than his post-doctoral ones.

    So he has empirically demonstrated that he is not a good bet for a department to hire, since his trajectory post-grad school has been all downhill.

  • miko says:

    "From my experience, another thing that postdocs do is limit their search geographically..... I've always been baffled by this."

    Well, one example is that many of us have spouses who also care about their careers and whose careers we respect.

    This "postdoc that only applies to 5 jobs at R1's" might exist in the wild, but I've never seen one (and I know a lot of postdocs in BSD labs), but is a total fucking strawman in this discussion.

    I applied for jobs in 6 countries and all kinds of institutions. Every one I've heard back from received hundreds of applicants.

  • One of the things that bothers me about the "luck" argument is that I only hear it from people who didn't succeed. I have colleagues who refuse to review papers as students, who don't go to conferences, who don't apply for funding, who think blogging and Twitter are a waste of time, who don't organize symposia or sit on committees, and who think taking several vacations a year during your PhD and working <8 hours a day are perfectly okay things to do. Then, when someone gets a job, they complain about how it's all "luck." There may be some stochastic element, but I have always striven to do whatever I can to make my own luck. All of the activities I do get my name out there, help me develop collaborations, tip me off to new funding sources, and increase my visibility with journal editors. None of these things hurt me when I was on the job market.

    I'm not saying that's what was going on with @eperliste, but it's common amongst grad students and postdocs I know. The ones that say "Oh, I never read papers!" or "I submitted 45 applications last year but never had anyone look at my materials," or "I don't need mentors" -- the ones that disagree with me, in other words-- just happen to be the ones with bad luck. Imagine that.

  • Terry says:

    Some of this is nitpicking about the definition of luck, whether or not it requires a random element. You can have bad fortune but still be deserving, even though the process may be nonrandom. There are so many good people out there, that departments can pick the exact kind of person they want, and it's difficult to build your doctoral/postdoc career to suit that particular thing years in advance.

    Recently, so many spectacular researchers (in my subsubfield at least) have taken jobs that their analogs wouldn't have taken ten years ago. The market's getting tighter, in a Malthusian fashion. I'm at a non-R1 by choice (at least I tell myself that) but some people pick non-R1s over unemployment. At some point, most folks are going to have to get over the conceit that they belong in one of a small handful of universities.

  • sara says:

    As a scientist, what is often construed as stochastic (random/lucky) can actually be quite logical once all the variables are observed. For the trainee, the 'right' way to go from college graduate to TT prof is hard to figure out, so many things seem to occur based on luck when really they are a result of hard work, smart moves, huge personal sacrifice and most of all, savvy mentorship. For a prof who sits on hiring committees and knows many other profs who might have had different paths to TT, it's easy to say that of course it's not luck, but rather specific factors that impact each hiring decision.

    Ultimately it comes down to inconsistent mentorship of trainees -- so many are just totally clueless about academics and often believe that they are 'different' and won't end up like me (or the subject of the latest academic horror story).

    I for one am "lucky" I learned during my PhD that no amount of hard work and sacrifice will translate to successful science/career and that there are other factors at play. I really think this type of lesson is necessary for any career (except maybe actuaries? I hear they are all test based), but it's good to learn early nonetheless.

  • jakester says:

    It's interesting that in this case Perlstein's super-awesome pedigree is actually a detriment. He did his PhD in the lab of one of the Biggest of the BSDs and got glamour mag pubs at a rate that would be next to impossible anywhere else. Yet that rate is the standard he's held to, so of course his trajectory is now seen as downhill.

    I did my PhD and postdoc both in not-s0-famous labs in great places, got good papers, had recommendations from the famous people next door, and had two TT job offers this past year. I didn't necessarily do all of this purposefully at the time, but in my experience, avoiding the ultra famous labs means search committees give you more of the credit for your publications.

  • becca says:

    'So in addition to everything else, Don't Be A Dick.'
    "Could this be why Ethan Perlstein is facing the postdocalypse despite his prestigious inde­pen­dent post­doc­toral fel­low­ship at Prince­ton?"

    I doubt it. He comes on strong, and ask difficult questions, but he's a white d00d in the Ivy league. Hardly eye-brow raising dickishness for the course. If anything, not aloof enough.
    Full disclosure- he remembered me from American Society of Microbiology when I met him at the New York Academy of Sciences meeting on autophagy. Which I think means 1) he doesn't care if your a BSD, he'll still talk to you and remember you and 2) he's got a broad scientific and social mind.
    He might be too abrasive if you were picking people for the first manned space flights to Mars. But he's just not too dickish to get a job as a prof. And I think his reasoning is sound enough- if he's having trouble getting jobs, most people will have trouble getting jobs.

  • mentor prof says:

    I'm currently mentoring 6 people on the TT job hunt. Of these, only 1 has applied broadly, while the others have all limited themselves to only "top" departments or only a particular geographic location. While many of them have a couple interviews lined up, guess which one has the most interviews? The person who applied everywhere, including Middle-of-Nowhere U. And this person is not the "best" from a CV point of view, but I'm fairly confident will interview very well (this person has excellent science communication and interpersonal skills). I'm fairly confident this person will get a job, while the others will not (based on the number of interviews and the caliber of places they're interviewing). So although miko may not have met postdocts that only apply to 5 R1s, I have several sitting in my office all the time. Perhaps it is more common in my department (a top-tier place with lots of BSD on the faculty), but even so, it's still a horrible idea and why many of our trainees don't make it onto the TT.

  • I find it amusing that people writing under pseudonyms are attacking me personally when it seems in almost every case they've never even met me, or interacted with me scientifically.

    And I'm struck by the hostility and defensiveness over the word luck. Survivor's guilt much?

    In retrospect I should have been much more precise in my post, and you can take me to task for that. I was 100% cognizant of the fact that a geographically limited search of top 25 departments, as opposed to a 50-state, 100+ application full-court press, significantly reduced my chances. In fact, I was warned by some senior colleagues at Princeton that my odds would be decreased by this approach. However, other equally respected senior colleagues at Princeton, as well as at other institutions, said I'd be just fine -- boy, were they wrong! But in the end I take responsibility for my actions, and I'd like to see evidence in my post where that's the case.

    In short, I pursued a high-risk, high-reward strategy that failed. I'm only on the second year of my job search, and I'm told that 3 or 4 year searches are de rigueur. I could throw my hat into the ring again and I'm fairly certain that I'd get a job somewhere at some point, and then there would of course be the funding gauntlet...

    But I've come to a realization, which by the way I would never compel anyone else to: Science is a calling, Professor is a job.

    The conversation I wish we were having is how to imagine new models for basic biomedical research that look beyond Academia and its near complete dependence on government funding whose outlook is demonstrably fragile and increasingly uncertain.

    But that conversation seems to threaten a lot of academics who would rather engage in picayune debates over the meaning of the word luck vs randomness, or lob bombs from behind a pseudonym.

    If you thought my post was anything more than a cautionary tale of expectations vs reality, then you read to much into it -- and that's on you, not me.

    And thanks Rebecca for coming to my defense. I never wanted to go to Mars anyway 🙂

  • physioprof says:

    Dude, no one is attacking you personally. You made the point that it was totally by chance that you are not getting positive feedback from the faculty jobbe market and that you and all the other applicants are equivalently at the mercy of capricious considerations outside of your control. So some people took a look at your CV and pointed out specific issues that make you less competitive than some applicants.

    And if those issues are a result of following advice you got from more senior mentors--which is something only you can know--then yes, it was poor advice. And the quality of the science in your post-doc papers may be totes more awesome than half of each issue of Cell. Only people within your field can assess that.

    But none of that changes the fact that your post-doctoral accomplishments taken at face value from your CV are not impressive in comparison to many other applicants.

  • miko says:

    mentor prof, I'm a postdoc at BSD ground zero, it's just that the cool kids don't hang out with the douchebags in labs like yours. The idiots you describe are not representative of the postdoc population at large, even at Harvard/MIT/Rockefeller, etc.

  • Busy says:

    And I'm struck by the hostility and defensiveness over the word luck. Survivor's guilt much?

    If you are a douchebag like this in person I can see why you got no job offers.

    But really what is at heart here is the lack of definition of what you meant by luck. Are you implying (1) the process is completely random? then you are deluded or are you implying that (2) is subject to a high amount of noise and some randomness? you get no argument from me, we are doing our best to read the tea leaves about who you will be in thirty years hence, so yes there is quite a bit of guessing there.

    Reading your replies to comments in your blog (but not from the original post) you seem to be saying (1), which frankly is just nuts.

  • Busy says:


    A very senior person once told me: "the interviewing process is a random process with the odds weighted in favor of those with good CVs. A researcher with a good record, after applying to 100 places you will get a job offer with probability nearly one (barring economic disasters such as the recent great recession in which most state universities froze hiring), but if you look at any specific institution the chances that they will reject your application are extremely high, for any number of reasons: they didn't need someone with your profile, they are not hiring in your area, they didn't have people in their SC who could see your awesomeness, you are simply not up to the ultrahigh standard of institution X, etc. "

  • Jacquelyn says:

    I want to make it clear that my comments about luck were not about you, Ethan, but were inspired by others I have first-hand experience with. I'm not qualified to make the judgements others have about your CV.

    I have used the term "survivor's guilt" to describe my emotions, having gone from PhD to Postdoc to faculty, and seeing my fellow academics struggling. I do think my points about making your own luck are important, though-- and again, not in response to your post, but in terms of the idea of casting this process as based on "luck" more broadly. Because when we say it's luck, we let ourselves, our mentors, and institutions, off the hook for the our individual responsibilities. I have seen lots of entitlement amongst academics, and I've also seen postdocs who work hard but aren't getting good mentoring, or are punished by a system that rewards divas, rather than maestros (ie, if you have a large-scale project, you're less likely to have those vanity papers, even if you do great work). My concern is that framing it as a matter of luck alone doesn't tell grad students and postdocs much about what they should be doing to improve their odds-- and it's a common refrain. I almost never hear unsuccessful people say "I should have done X" rather than "it's all luck, and I was unlucky."

  • bad wolf says:

    First i am amused by Ethan's refrain (his twitter feed is full of it) that having an online pseudonym somehow invalidates your opinions. For a guy who is building his career out of social media he doesn't seem very used to it.

    Secondly, leaving aside his CV you can see the list of past Lewis-Sigler fellows on their website. Seven out of eight former fellows have positions at well-respected R01s, the only exception being... EO Perlstein, "Independent Researcher." It looks to me like the odds of his own success were actually more in the range of 87-100%, a far cry from the 1 in 300 that the rest of us are facing.

  • Busy says:

    Between his weak CV, his lack of insight in his job searching strategy, his attitude towards his failed job search, the tone of his comments here, and his social media style, it is starting to sound like the system did make the right decision this once.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    Would it be more correct to say that the "proper measuring stick" for Ethan isn't other postdocs applying for jobs, it would be others that have had some time running their own labs, say, TT faculty in years 2-4? Postdocs in high-powered labs SOMETIMES pick their projects but other times just expand upon what is going on etc etc. A bunch of 'plos-one' stuff would be "fine" for someone that just started their own lab with truly new projects, right? Not sure, I'm not a bio-type.

    Now, on topic, I would say that the wisest candidates would view the search similar to PP's advice. You can be a skillful player at "the game" but you do have to realize that for your particular case you can STILL draw the short straw. Hell, I have I former colleague that had SERIOUS health issues in their mid-30's and that's the kind of short straw that's way worse than moving on from TT aspirations.

    I still haven't figured out why many mentors seem reluctant to let students see behind the curtain. I got peeks but not that much. Most of what I know comes from PP, DM, Isis, PLS, and other blogs combined NOW with on-job experience. Maybe I just wasn't "in the club" at my grad/PD institutions, but I don't think so. If students were more informed then they could make MUCH better decisions with respect to field, sub-field, and training. Of course, if you are grand poombah of less-than-useful subfield I can understand why you need trainees to feed your machine of research, even though they have no possibility to be successful as carbon copies. I try to make the playing field and obstacles MORE evident to my students and hope that I am doing a good job (newish TT faculty). I also put a ton of emphasis on broad training that benefits the students, rather than just cog-making for my research machine.

  • physioprof says:

    A bunch of 'plos-one' stuff would be "fine" for someone that just started their own lab with truly new projects, right?

    In any decent-quality research-focused institution, it would not be even close to fine for someone who has had four years in their own lab. If, as Perlstein claims, his senior faculty mentors at fucken *Princeton* were telling him that he was doing fine, then they were committing gross mentoring malpractice.

  • Busy says:

    This is a good opportunity to give a piece of advice to the young ones: when asking your informal mentors for advice make sure to update them as to the status of your career.

    More than once I've heard someone describe a person in terms of where they were three years ago, and not where they are today.

    This can cut both ways, they might have a higher opinion than warranted because you didn't follow through on your stellar grad school record or they might have a lower opinion because they didn't realize you've dramatically ramped up your research program since the last time they had a look at your CV.

    Do the same for your letter writers too. If someone has been writing your recommendation letters for a while send them a one page update listing all of your latest major accomplishments. Otherwise they might just fire the six month old recommendation letter with today's date.

  • odyssey says:

    In any decent-quality research-focused institution, it would not be even close to fine for someone who has had four years in their own lab. If, as Perlstein claims, his senior faculty mentors at fucken *Princeton* were telling him that he was doing fine, then they were committing gross mentoring malpractice.

    This. I don't know what CPP's opinion of Plos ONE is, but I can tell you where I am the issue would be total output, not Plos ONE. Two publications after four years isn't even close to cutting it.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    I missed the "two publications" part. Yeah, that's not enough productivity, plain and simple. I'm not sure what's going on with the mentors if they say that's OK. I thought it was more of a 'glamour mag' problem, where we all know it CAN be tougher to get your stuff published at the "level" it deserves as a new PI. Part of it is that you are still learning to write but part of it seems to be the need to earn your stripes and get a good track record.

  • bad wolf says:

    I didn't want to get bogged down in numbers without real metrics but to throw some out there: Plos ONE impact factor 4.1 (C/N/S are 31-36) ; 5 years in a two-person lab = 10 man-years ; 4 papers / $1 million = $250K/paper. To put it in perspective, at that rate the $25K he crowd-sourced would be expected to produce one-tenth of one paper, presumably in a journal with an impact factor <5.

    The thing I am most curious about is whether the other Lewis-Sigler fellows got grant support during their fellowship time. Sitting pretty with one grant until it runs out is pretty much the definition of 'coasting.'

  • [...] the job I get to do is an anomaly…and an extraordinary gift.   Last week, I came across a post on the luck (or lack thereof) involved in landing a tenure track job.  The post generated a bunch [...]

  • [...] initial twitter hash job (still ongoing), Ethan Perlstein wrote a post and then Prof-like Substance weighed in), but as of yet I haven’t seen a post discussing how individuals can help counter this [...]

  • Ruthmarie says:

    If we are at a point where we are quibbling about "luck" vs. "skill" then we are already in considerable trouble. It generally means that the "chance" element is a very significant factor, while at the same time, those who feel "wronged" don't want to allow for the possibility that a skills issue might be playing a role.

    Full disclosure - I have no bone in this argument. Not anymore. I left the field a long time ago because I saw the writing on the wall and saw how random fortune, both good and bad were playing a significant role in tipping the scales of success and failure to a large degree.

    What I saw while I was in the field was a tremendous amount of cronyism, old boy clubbiness, Ivy snobbery and random factors playing an inordinate role in individual stories of success or failure. It wasn't absolute, but it certainly was there. A child, sibling, or close relation of a successful investigator ALWAYS had a leg up. Saw it over and over again.

    At the extreme high end of the bell curve, there is still room for meritocracy . There is also room for absolute failure at the extreme low end. In the vast middle, where most of us belong, extraneous factors are playing a major role. Those who are established and in a strong position would have to be "big enough" people to acknowledge their own good fortune and the fact that it wasn't "all them". Given the tendency of the elite to yank up the ladder which they themselves climbed, I'm not holding my breath.

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