I wrote previously about the results of the national ASSET survey into attitudes of men and women working in SET departments. Recently I have been looking at the results specifically for my own university. It is harder to make sense of these, since numbers in any given part of the university are relatively small and statistical significance is therefore much reduced. Nevertheless it is tempting to tease out whether biologists really do have a different culture from physical scientists or perhaps medics. I won’t spill any beans about my own university (not least because I haven’t checked the stats), but the wealth of data we have available to us makes for intriguing reading. I hope all universities which had high numbers of returns will be similarly analysing what the data shows for them locally.
One particular question asked respondents to say which activities and factors they perceived to have contributed to past career success from the list:
- Hard work
- Research publications
- Work on high profile/successful research project
- Ability to attract PhD students
- Size of grant income
Everyone – strictly speaking about 98% -thought hard work was instrumental; one wonders what the other 2% thought or get up to. Of the other factors, academic men uniformly attributed a higher weight to each of them than academic women, which is slightly curious in itself (the difference was less marked for postdocs, with female postdocs actually weighting work on high profile projects higher than males); research publications were the second highest scoring for both sexes. But here I want to consider the role of luck in career trajectories. Amongst the academic staff 56% of women and 67% of men felt it had been a significant factor in career success, with corresponding figures of 65% and 66% for female and male postdocs.
Self-help books would have it we make our own luck, so it is interesting that so many scientists are willing to admit that maybe they had a bit of random help on their way, and men even more so than women (at least amongst the established academics). I find this quite heartening, that as a group we are not too hard-boiled or arrogant to admit that our successes are not simply down to innate brilliance and hard work. One could categorise different kinds of luck. My immediate list would include:
- Being in the right place at the right time;
- Not throwing away the experiment that didn’t do what one expected or accidentally making a mistake in an experiment which then proved illuminating;
- Random networking turning into future job openings or collaborations or other opportunities.
I expect readers can expand that list, and these three items probably reflect items of ‘luck’ that I think have happened to me. The third one is the one that I suspect the self-help books would say was part of the hard work of making one’s own luck. If you don’t do the legwork of networking, of making contacts at each and every opportunity – be it at a conference, in the tea-room or waiting on a station platform – then you might be deemed to be wasting opportunities for success. Nevertheless, the frustrated might feel they’ve done all the hard graft they can as postdocs at conference poster sessions without anything transpiring to their advantage, and thus an element of luck remains. The second item on my list you could also say was not luck pure and simple, but indicated good judgement, a thoroughness in experimental procedure or innate intuition in dealing with the unexpected.
However the first one surely is really where luck comes into play. In my own career I feel this has happened at least twice. Firstly when as a postdoc I needed to stay in the US for a third year so that my husband could finish his PhD after I’d had 2 disastrous years on a very unsuccessful project concerned with X-ray and electron diffraction of grain boundaries in metals. Being offered a project on polymers (again using electron microscopy) was a lifeline, but hardly one at the time I expected to transform me into a career academic from a very disenchanted postdoc just wanting to leave science and become a stay-at-home mum. But that’s what happened. Later on, when back in Cambridge on a research fellowship, a job opening arose because a colleague decided to return to his home country of Israel, thereby freeing up a position. There I was, on the spot, working in the right field so that I was able to secure a lectureship at a time when they were like gold dust – and here I have been ever since. Both those turning points in my life I would say were down to luck; particularly in the first case, not a carefully worked through decision so much as a choice of necessity due to the need to find a salary and a job to give me a visa. However, it wasn’t luck that turned both opportunities into something that enables me now to say they were turning points, and that again is no doubt what those fast-selling self-help books would say. Luck is what you make of it.
Nevertheless I think it is rather wonderful that so many of us are willing to admit to luck playing a significant part in our lives and our successes. If the ASSET survey is to be taken at face value we believe luck is more important than the size of our grant income or the ability to attract PhD students. Would you have expected that?
The data for the ASSET survey can be found at here.