On luck, success, and becoming a professor

Aleeza Gerstein
Feb 4 · 17 min read

I can’t stop thinking about the role of luck in shaping an academic career. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, in the context of my luck and fortune, and how that influenced my trajectory through academia. I started my job talk with a slide about the interplay between stochastic and deterministic forces in adaptation, and I think we do all early-career scientists a disservice by not explicitly acknowledging that there is an element of chance involved in the acquisition of a faculty position. Jeremy Fox has written about this before on the Oikos blog in 2011 and he linked his post to data from physicists (Petersen et al., 2012). There is value in telling our stories and collecting anectdata; it is critically important to be upfront and truthful about the stochasticity that is built into the system. I’ve been sitting on a draft of this for a few years now, and recent events have made me come back to it and feel encouraged to put it out in the world on the chance that it might be useful to even one person.

In the past year and a half since I started my faculty position, two things have become crystal clear. The first is how fortunate I am to have landed where I did. The second is that academia is not entirely a meritocracy. I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate student and postdoc applications and abstracts for several venues. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed in an article by Fang and Casadevall, on the case for a modified lottery in research funding (Fang & Casadevall 2016). I simply do not believe that in the upper tiers of applicants or grants that we can accurately rank people (or proposals). And yet each of the decisions that dictate current success can drastically change the downstream probability that someone will also be successful in the future (the Matthew Effect). Past success breeds future success.

I’ve heard the phrase “the system is broken” a lot. So how do we change the system? I think we need to think more carefully about the roles that luck and early success play. Otherwise, there will continue to be a feedback loop, where intelligent, talented people will be passed over because they are not “excellent” enough, early enough (or had early luck), when in fact the system was rigged from the start. I’m currently teaching second-year statistics so I have probability math on the brain. If we think about academia as a population of individuals (coloured balls), then the probability of a given person becoming a professor is akin to asking what the likelihood is of pulling out a red ball from the urn of balls. Academia isn’t working from a uniform distribution. Each colour doesn’t have an equal probability of being pulled out. In addition to demonstrated excellence (which, in this metaphor, would be like having more balls of a given colour in the urn), we know that the probability of being chosen is also influenced by many factors such as geography, health, age, and race, i.e., the differences among us that have nothing to do with intellect, creativity, effort, or any of the things that truly determine whether someone can do the job well. I know that there are many people working in this space, and as I am not an expert on the role of diversity in hiring decisions (or success) in academia, I don’t want to overstep. I do know that the diversity I see in my students is not reflected in the diversity among my peers. We clearly have to do better.

So here’s my story, as plainly told as I can make it. I’m an Assistant Professor at the University of Manitoba, and I hold a joint appointment between the Departments of Microbiology & Statistics. The University of Manitoba is the largest university in Winnipeg, Canada, which not coincidentally, is my hometown. It is a coincidence that Winnipeg is where Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory is, and UofM is home to Canada’s only stand-alone Microbiology Department; as an evolutionary geneticist that works on microbes, this is a great place to be.

If you look at my CV, my path to an academic position looks linear and possibly without much “will I get a faculty job?” stress: undergraduate degree in Ecology & Evolution from the University of Western Ontario (now inexplicably called just Western, even though it’s east of everywhere else I’ve lived and studied), externally funded MSc. and Ph.D. degrees in microbial evolutionary genetics from the University of British Columbia, externally funded postdoctoral fellowship positions in microbiology/molecular biology at Tel Aviv University and the University of Minnesota, followed by signing on the dotted line and starting my lab in September 2018. The reality, as is true with many if not most academic trajectories, was not nearly so simple. I spent the better part of graduate school and my postdoc years swinging wildly between thinking it might work out this way, and thinking I was destined to become another statistic, another woman who was about to veer off the academic path at the last branching point.

As part of the narrative, it’s probably important to know upfront that I met my now husband during the first year of my Ph.D. In this respect mine is a story written many times before, he’s older than me and got his dream job years before I was finished graduate school. The twist is that he got his dream job in my hometown, which is not his hometown, and not where we were living at the time. As the years went by and it became apparent that we were going to build a life together, I realized that I had fully embraced the idea of moving home after spending half of my life away from my family. The professional benefits to me of taking a faculty job in another place could not come close to what I would be giving up. So, I realized by the end of my Ph.D. that my search for an academic job would be restricted to exactly two universities in my hometown.

I knew, full stop, the odds of the game I was playing. Throughout my postdoctoral years, I alternated between feelings of optimism and complete hopelessness. A not-insignificant portion of the time I felt sad, and questioned why I had ever decided to do a Ph.D. (& postdocs) in the first place, as those 10 years could have been better spent honing more practical, applied skills. At other times I had faith that if I kept working hard and stayed the course an academic job would somehow work out. Throughout the years I had several people that I greatly look up to tell me not to give up (you know who you are; if you’re reading this — thank you). I also had periods where I was extremely excited by the prospect of doing something different than the expected academic trajectory. Given all that we know about people with Ph.D.s, it’s long past time we acknowledge that becoming a professor is the abnormal, not the expected, and I know that there are many, many other meaningful and fulfilling careers out there. I firmly do not believe that academia is the only pathway towards life happiness and intellectual fulfillment (and indeed, for many academia may end up being a poor fit, since what we do during the long years of training is only partially overlapping with the actual duties of being a professor). All the same, I love doing research and I love teaching and working with students, and would have been sad to have to give that up.

I had postdoctoral funding through January 31, 2018. By October 2017 I decided it was time to start being honest with myself about the probability of getting an academic job and to figure out what I was going to do when my funding ended. I started working 5–10 hours a week for the Genetics Society of America as an Assistant Program Manager to help manage the Early Career Scientist Peer Review Training Program that I had helped to develop (more on that below). I added myself to the Government of Canada pool for bioinformaticians, quelling the imposter syndrome that told me I wasn’t a ‘real’ bioinformatician and having previously heard the statistic that women think they need to meet 100% of the job qualifications when men will apply having met ~60% (others have written about this, e.g., here). I started searching for academic-adjacent and industry research jobs in Manitoba. I joined the Post Academic Athenas Slack Channel, a phenomenal community of amazing women that I am grateful to have found. I made a bunch of politically-minded friends and started volunteering for a national non-partisan organization organizing around proportional representation (yes I’m still angry with Justin Trudeau for failing on this). I started talking with friends about whether they thought I could be successful in starting a data analysis, visualization and writing consulting company and even came up with a name (Corticali Consulting), and a pitch of helping people to finish the ‘file cabinet’ projects that had been collecting dust for lack of capacity and needed 1–3 months of analysis and/or writing to get out the door.

I applied for and was successfully asked to interview for two academic-adjacent jobs in December and January. The week after I found out about the interview for the first one there were TWO ads for Assistant Professor positions that I was qualified for in Winnipeg (the timing of jobs in Canada is not as consistent as it seems to be in the US). I went to both ac-adjacent interviews and felt that either position could be very fulfilling. I submitted the faculty job applications on the last day that I had postdoc funding. I found out I didn’t get either ac-adjacent job (I think I came in second, possibly to internal candidates, for both). I continued my work with the GSA and was able to increase the hours a bit. I at first felt optimistic about the faculty job potential and then an increasing sense of dread as the weeks went by. At the end of March, I was on a ski trip with my family in Jasper when I received the email that I had made the shortlist and was going to be interviewed for the job I now hold. I went to the interview, was amazed by how collegial and receptive to me everyone in both departments was, and could picture myself there. I got the job. [sidenote: I later found out that the search for the second academic job I had applied for had been cancelled, a great demonstration of the stochasticity in the system].

So let’s completely acknowledge but then ignore the luck and fortune required for there to be a job I was qualified for in the geographic location I was applying to, in the right 3–5 year window. I want to be open and highlight some of the components of my life story that were lucky and fortunate in my quest to acquire an academic job.

I was lucky to be born to healthy, middle-class Canadian parents who valued education, were extremely fiscally responsible, and had the means to support me financially and emotionally throughout my educational pursuits. I was lucky that I never had to work to support myself or pay for my education (though I did work in grade 12 and in undergrad summers, my attendance at university did not depend on the money I made). Since I never had to work simultaneous to attending school, I had free time in high school for studying, extracurricular activities, recreational sports, and hanging out with friends. I got a scholarship to an undergraduate school that paid over half of my tuition. I did well in undergrad, but not necessarily going-to-medical school well. I was more involved in campus life than most science students, which I think is why coming out of undergrad I was awarded a fellowship to do my MSc. I was lucky to be a citizen of a country that still has fairly viable levels of independent funding available to graduate students and postdocs.

I was then able to apply to graduate school with funding in hand. I worked very, very hard as an MSc. student (basically every weekend in the lab, read stacks and stacks of papers, taught myself R, etc. etc.), but I also had the very good fortune of picking up a newly abandoned super cool Ph.D. project that had already been partially completed. Since I had funding, I didn’t have to TA, and though I did for most semesters, I was able to focus on my research when I wanted to. I had a successful MSc., scored by the only real metric available for this stage, number and prestige of publications.

When I applied for Ph.D. funding, I was again successful, entirely because my (funded) MSc. was successful. I stayed in the same lab (perhaps the best decision of my career and one I will take full credit for). The feedback loop continued, TAing was optional throughout my Ph.D. and I was able to maintain paper publishing success. I attribute this to hard work + great mentorship + fortune at being in a lab with the resources to start doing next-generation sequencing early. [Side note: no one ever really talks to students about the disparity of funds available in different labs. At least, no one ever did around me. I guess that’s a good thing? But don’t we need to acknowledge that the system is then built to favour the students that are working in the top labs that can afford to do the most expensive cutting-edge research? Does that not put tremendous power into the hands of the people running those labs, who decide who to hire?]. I was lucky to have a senior extremely-successful student give me terrific advice one night at a party, who told me that I was running the business of myself, which meant that since I had the means to do so, I should financially invest in the business of me. Because of that advice, I paid to go to some conferences out of pocket. I started going to Gordon conferences and was able to “network” (stay up late) to meet and talk science with people from diverse places and backgrounds. Many of them are still part of my extended network.

As a postdoc, I continued to be lucky in the funding lotteries (which, as above, is skewed towards those with demonstrated past success). The postdoc funding meant I had a lot of freedom in choosing advisors and projects. I was able to join labs that were doing very complementary research to my graduate training which allowed me to continue to brand myself the way I wanted to and to gain complementary experience with new organisms and areas of study. I purposefully chose places and projects that would diversify the number of departments I could tailor a job application to. My advisors were supportive as I travelled often to see my family and then start a family, even as they surely knew this would diminish my productivity. I had my son a year into my second postdoc and again, here I was lucky, as with a Canadian postdoc fellowship I was able to take six months of fully-paid leave and three months unpaid.

Holding independent funding throughout also meant that in addition to doing research I had time and capacity for volunteering. Volunteering is something I love doing, but it’s time-consuming, and it needs to be acknowledged that time to volunteer is a privilege only for those with hours that are available to be spent not earning money or participating in family/outside academia obligations. I was chosen to sit as an early career representative to a GSA committee likely in large part because of my prior volunteer work. The program management and communication skills I gained in my work there factored heavily into the resume and narrative I crafted for applications to ac-adjacent jobs. And so again, prior opportunities and success bred future opportunities and success.

Looping back around to where we started, here’s another critical part: I didn’t have any debt when my postdoc funding ran out since I had been funded so well the whole way through my academic journey (which I ascribe, in part, to the luck of where and to whom I was born, and the snowball effect of the funding lottery). By the end of my postdoc, I had also married my husband, and we lived in Winnipeg, a place where we could comfortably exist, if necessary, on just his salary. So although part of my story involves the two-body problem, I think it is well worth acknowledging the ‘one-body problem’ in academia as well. Having the emotional and financial support of a second person meant that I knew I had a financial buffer for finding a job. If I had been single (or had large student loans to pay off), I would have started applying for academic-adjacent jobs much earlier then I did, and (hopefully) would have already had something lined up long before the ad for my faculty job was posted.

It’s possible I could have ended up in the same place under different circumstances. But hard work isn’t enough, and there remains much work to be done to illuminate some of the unspoken factors that play into who ends up as a professor. Different prospective grad students have different responsibilities and demands on their time. Someone who has to work 20+ hours a week to put themselves through undergraduate, or who has significant family obligations that demand some of their time should not be deemed “lesser than” compared to someone who was able to volunteer unpaid in a lab for 20 hours a week. Similarly, graduate students have huge variations in financial, emotional and academic support from their families and graduate advisors. The job I got was quite literally the last chance I had at a faculty job, there has not been another one I could have applied to in my city since. Had my job not existed, my credentials wouldn’t have changed, but I’m sure my thoughts around myself and academia would have. I’m sure I would have wondered why I wasn’t deemed `good enough` and what I could have (should have) done differently. And maybe there’s a different job out there that I would have loved just as much or more than my current job. I can’t know. But I do know that it feels awful to feel like academia has failed you. To feel like you did everything you could and there still wasn’t an academic job at the end of it for you. To feel like you have absolutely no control over your future, and to feel like you have so much to give to the world, if only someone would give you a chance.

The motivation for publishing this now comes from the #PruittData scandal that’s currently rocking the behavioural ecology and adjacent communities. I feel endless empathy for the early-career scientists that collaborated with him, that will see countless hours of hard work erased from their CVs. I feel equal empathy for all of those whose careers were erased or stifled, by the actions of this one person. How many students tried to replicate his data but couldn’t? For each award and fellowship he got, someone else didn’t get it, and possibly narrowly didn’t get, or didn’t get it because his CV was so sparkling (artificially, it seems). Maybe it didn’t matter, but maybe it did. We’ll never know. This situation also has a Canadian component, since in 2018 he began a Canada 150 Chair position, an extremely prestigious position that provides $350, 000 a year of funding for seven years. For those of you not familiar with the Canadian system, the average grant for someone in the Ecology & Evolution group at our National Sciences and Engineering Research Council is $41 000 a year. So that money could have funded an additional 8+ professors each year, who might have had to abandon their research plans or couldn’t afford to hire the student they wanted to, students who perhaps then went on to do something else (we’ll never know). The money could also have gone to fund independent trainees; $350 000 in Canada is enough to yearly fund 20 MSc students, or 16 Ph.D. students, or 6 postdocs. I am *strongly* in favour of a grants model that provides opportunities for independent funding to students. Otherwise, professors (who have typically had zero training in human resources or best practices for hiring) become the gatekeepers to academia, choosing who they want in their labs and who to support.

I obviously don’t have the answers for how to “unbreak” the system. I do think we can do better at acknowledging that the line that differentiates “successful” applications or grants from unsuccessful is not a thin red line. In my experience, it’s diffuse and gray and at least partially stochastic much of the time. Even with the best of intentions, it is so very difficult to differentiate among people at the top, that quantitative measures like number and prestige of publication are easy to fall back on. Evaluating letters of reference seems just as problematic to me, since they seem to reflect just as much on the skills of the reference writer as they do on the applicant. But how can we even pretend that comparing people is remotely fair given all the different types of projects? How do you compare experimental evolution in yeast to ecological theory to years of remote fieldwork? How do we give credit to people doing hard and/or slow science, not just low hanging fruit or sexy science? What are the ways that we can change how we evaluate past “success” to reflect the different challenges and advantages each of us has had? We’re all playing the same game but how can we take into account that each one of us is playing on a different board and with different rules?

I know that we have to stop pretending that we’re only training graduate students to be academics. We know the statistics. No one should graduate from a Ph.D. with a sense of dread about the academic job market and a feeling that they’re not qualified to do anything else. No one should feel like they’ve failed if they graduate and don’t want an academic job. No one should feel like they have failed if they don’t end up with an academic job. If that’s the case then it’s we as advisors who have failed. Our students should graduate with academic CVs as well as resumes that reflect the years of schooling they have put in. And yes, much of the impetus has to be on students to purposefully dictate their own futures (there are some suggestions about how to do this here, written by David Kent at University Affairs, who because the world is tiny was one of my floormates in first year at Western! — he’s wonderful and I read everything he writes).

The start of my job talk went through the Luria-Delbruck experiment, which showed in 1943 that genetic mutations in bacteria arose in the absence of selection, rather than being a response to selection. As an evolutionary microbial biologist, when I think about how populations adapt it’s a two-step process, where first an adaptive mutation has to arise in the population (by chance) and then it has to be selected, because it is advantageous, often beating out other beneficial mutations by some combination of selection and drift. There is always this interplay between stochasticity and determinism. This is also how I view my trajectory toward becoming a professor. There was certainly a chance that I could have been lost from the academic population. I think there is a benefit in acknowledging this. As my dear friend Dr. Julie Lee-Yaw quoted to me when she read a draft of this piece, “Tell the story of the mountain you climbed” (Morgan Harper Nichols).

Acknowledgements

Thank you to my mentors, who tilted the game in my favour by virtue of their guidance and support throughout my journey. Thank you to Drs. Dilara Ally, Anne Dalziel, Julie Lee-Yaw, Milica Mandic, Alana Schick, Patricia Thille & Jabus Tyerman for proof-reading and providing suggestions; as always, peer-review made it better. I am endlessly fortunate to have a community of people around me that also believe we’re all more successful when we boost each other up.

References

Benderly BL. (2018) A trend toward transparency for Ph.D. career outcomes? Science Careers blog. https://www-sciencemag-org.uml.idm.oclc.org/careers/2018/03/trend-toward-transparency-phd-career-outcomes

Crouse L. (2017) How the ‘Shalane Flanagan Effect’ Works. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/11/opinion/sunday/shalane-flanagan-marathon-running.html

Fang FC, Casadevall A. (2016). Research Funding: the Case for a Modified Lottery. mBio 7: e00422–16

Fox J (2011). Advice: How I almost quit science. Oikos blog. https://oikosjournal.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/advice-how-i-almost-quit-science/

Kay K, Shipman C. (2014). The Confidence Gap. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/

Kent D. (2019). Leveling the playing field: a career-readiness assessment tool for academics. The Black Hole blog, University Affairs. https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/the-black-hole/leveling-the-playing-field-an-academic-career-readiness-assessment-tool/

Petersen A, Riccaboni M, Stanley H, Pammolli F. (2012). Persistence and uncertainty in the academic career Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 5213–5218. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1121429109

Reithmeier R, O’Leary L, Zhu X, Dales C, Abdulkarim A, Aquil A, et al. (2019) The 10,000 PhDs project at the University of Toronto: Using employment outcome data to inform graduate education. PLoS ONE 14: e0209898

Wikipedia contributors. (2003) The Matthew Effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed February 21, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_effect

Wikipedia contributors. (2005) Luria–Delbrück experiment. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed February 4, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luria%E2%80%93Delbr%C3%BCck_experiment

Wikipedia contributors. (2004) Urn problem. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed February 6, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urn_problem

Xu, H, Gilliam R, Peddada S, Buchold GM, Collins TRL (2018). Visualizing detailed postdoctoral employment trends using a new career outcome taxonomy. Nature Biotechnology 36: 197–202

@scidoctress. (2014). The One-Body Problem. Tenure She Wrote blog. https://tenureshewrote.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/one-body-problem/

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Assistant Professor of Microbiology & Statistics at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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