On Luck, or How we Succeed in Academia

July, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

I’m in a more contemplative mood of late.A single event has changed the trajectory of my life. I was ready for one path, preparing for the struggle and strain of starting again, and then…and then I got lucky.

Among those of us applying for a particular job or postdoc, any one of several dozen applicants would be perfectly qualified and able to fulfill the terms of almost any appointment. Still, impressions at an interview, good or bad days, and nerves at a teaching demonstration or job talk all influence the final outcome. And none of these are static indicators. A lot comes down to luck.

I’m thinking about this more lately because of the great luck that has befallen me. After living on credit cards and borrowed money, increasing my debt, and sinking further into despair, a lifeline was thrown to me. Luck has chosen to take me to the University of Saskatchewan for a two-year postdoc.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t feel that I lack control over my life. I’ve created the conditions in which luck could find me. I’ve worked hard to get here. I’ve published, taught, and made connections across three countries. I’ve bled to get here.

But so have hundreds of others. Some of them are more qualified than I am for positions; some might be less qualified. But in this case I’m the lucky one. Some small thing distinguished me from them in this competition. It could have been key phrases in my proposal, the combination of areas I research, particular “synergies” with existing faculty members. I don’t know. But it worked to my advantage.

But this experience has made me think about the profession of academia, its randomness, and luck. I take credit for my hard work for five years to get here. I give credit to those innumerable friends, colleagues, and family who have supported me intellectually and personally even longer. But in the end I’m no different than 100s of other aspiring academics, thousands of other scholars, tens of thousands of other men and women who want to make a living engaging with intellectual questions.

The experience has humbled me. I’m lucky. I have security and stability for two years. My shoulders have dropped at least two inches with that assurance. I’ve started sleeping the full night through for the first time in months. It didn’t have to be this way. I was ready to forge a different path. Success is luck. And in this job climate and economic downturn, we all need a little more luck.

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
3 July 2010.

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