Next week I start the first permanent job I have ever had. I am an immigrant, first gen, queer, Mexican woman. Getting here hasn’t been easy. But this isn’t a story about how if you keep chasing your dreams they will come true. Those are lies the meritocracy tells you. I have benefited from a lot of luck and even more from back-up plans.
My family, consisting of my parents and my younger brother, first moved to the United States when I was four years old. What was supposed to be a 1-year stint turned into 14. While my family and I were always documented, our status in the United States was precarious. Our series of work and student visas ran out just as I was graduating high school and dreaming of university. We were booking flights back to Mexico unless our hail Mary application for Canadian permanent residency was approved. I remember sitting in bed at night reciting my version of a prayer every night of senior year hoping someone at Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada could heard me.
It worked or perhaps we scored sufficient points on what is arguably a very flawed application process and we set our sights for Toronto. No one in my family had a job waiting for them so we applied some probability theory and figured our odds for the Canadian dream were better in a place with a larger population. I picked the University of Toronto out of a catalogue and landed at one of the world’s best research institutions because it was in Toronto and the pictures were nice. Here is the some of that luck I was talking about.
Academia can be a brutal place. I learned and experienced wonderful things during my undergrad that catalyzed my interest in research, but I was also asked once at a dinner with several faculty if I “crawled under the fence” to get to the United States from Mexico. When I applied to graduate school despite having great marks during my last two years of undergrad, the criteria used for admission, and four years of research experience spanning taxa from fruit flies to freshwater mussels, I was asked to do an extra semester of undergraduate classes to prove myself. An obstacle that was not set before any of the white members of my cohort.
Graduate school was so stimulating but filled with many more microaggressions and inequalities in funding and opportunities. The Matthew effect in academia, put simply, is that scholarships and grants beget other grants. What’s the opposite of the Matthew effect? What is it called if you fail to get your first scholarship in undergrad and then have to teach more or live off less than your colleagues with scholarships so you have less to time to publish — rendering it more difficult to be equally competitive with those aforementioned colleagues?
Mistakes cost more when you are marginalized. The admissions committee couldn’t see past the marks from my first and second year of undergrad. Not in the skin they came with. I had to get a second job to afford rent and food in graduate school because I did not have a safety net when my non-scholarship salary was not enough. I have always had to have a back-up plan because the cards are stacked against plan A working out. One mistake and plan A disappears.
My father taught me that — always have a plan B and C and probably D. He always had Canada as a back-up plan because he knew how hard staying in the United States was. In graduate school you are surrounded by academics that shine light only on the path to academia. But I had to think of other plans. I knew that 200 or more PhDs are minted a year and only a single digit percentage of those land tenure track positions. Graduate school is this incredible training ground where your job is to learn. While you become an expert in that little corner of your discipline you are learning how to translate knowledge and analyze data, how to communicate effectively and research a problem. All of these skills are wrapped in a vessel that is passionate about how the world works.
Each of these skills can translate to a career if you see them as a different potential plans you can draw on. Back-up plan sounds like settling, but doing something outside of academia is just pouring that passion and interest into a different audience where you have the chance to reach more people and solve different problems.
When none of my applications for academic positions garnered me an interview I moved to plan B, applying for a policy fellowship in open science. I got lucky that the year I applied there was a specific project to work on a passion I developed after attending a workshop in graduate school. Once in the fellowship I had to start drawing a new set of back up plans. That’s the thing about precarity. You get relief for one day and then you have to think about the next thing. It feels like you never really get to breathe. The fellowship was only for a year. I loved the work I was doing so after some advice I drew up three plans — A, B and C to attempt to convert my position into a permanent one. Plan A and B failed when I didn’t make it to the last round of selections. Plan C, which involved using my data science skills developed in graduate school to land a spot in a pool where I could be pulled into a permanent position, worked. Luck came into play again because there was a position available when a former colleague moved to a different department. Luck always plays a role in success.
Next week I start a permanent job as a open science and data policy advisor. It’s a dream job. I get I get to provide subject matter expertise, do a bit of data analysis, design infographics and represent Canada on the world’s stage. I hope I finally get to feel like I can breathe. I suspect not, I think when you are always afraid that the rug can be pulled out from under you are always on edge thinking about plan B. But I find solace in my ability to find a different path and happiness. You see that’s the magic of being curious about the world. You can find success and fulfillment in other places besides the halls of academia. So if you are a graduate student trust in your curiosity and inquisitiveness. And make a plan B and C and D.