Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Being lucky

As it turns out, other people have things to say about solving the two-body problem. The author wastes a lot of time flattering yours truly (as Eve tells Satan, "thy overpraising leaves in doubt/The virtue of that fruit"), but if you can hold your nose through that, there's smart advice not only for those facing the two-body problem, but anyone wondering how to achieve their career goals within or outside their current institution.

The most valuable take-away is that there's never really a strategy--if by that we mean something with a well-defined endgame. In academia, you simply cannot say, "I want a job at University X" and devise a plan that will lead you to that goal. The only thing you can do is work hard, build your career, stay ready, and keep an eye out for whatever opportunities arise.

Or as Dr. C. says, using a baseball metaphor:

The. . . reason they teach ballplayers to run out hopeless ground balls is because occasionally it does actually get you somewhere. Sometimes you hit the ball and don't seem to have any chance at reaching base. But then some piece of unexpected luck, some fluke, gives you an unforeseen opportunity. Players are taught to run hard for first base, no matter what, so that they have a chance to be lucky. You need to put in the work before there is any apparent hope; if you don't turn on your full speed until something surprising happens, you're probably too late. If you ever get a sudden bit of good luck, you need to be running as hard as you can.

Too few people get lucky these days, and the job market has many more people ready for their break than it has breaks to give. But any strategy is doomed if it isn't flexible enough to accommodate luck and chance and change.


Withywindle said...

Your article for the Chronicle will be: "Machiavelli on the Tenure Track: Virtu and Fortuna".

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

His post was too long to really digest. But DagBlog is your dude!?!?!? Who knew!?

Flavia said...


Well, he's one of their dudes. Some people knew--and now YOU know!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I like your new city. We went there last year for the first time and had a great experience. I think you might have recommended a restaurant or something. Anyway - congrats again! This is really great for you both!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

PS - I like Dr. Cleveland's point that neither of you compromised your careers, and that is what ultimately made it possible for you to be together on equal footing. If either of you had been a subordinate spouse, there would have been so much resentment and inequality that it would have been really awful. We've got a spousal hire here in a different department that is TT plus adjunct. It's bad for the adjunct and everyone can tell. Eek.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Good thoughts there (and nice to connect two people whose ideas I've been enjoying; I hadn't figured out the connection, either, but that's not surprising, since I don't know either of you in real life). I've tried to employ somewhat similar thinking in making my own (admittedly limited) career decisions (which don't involve a two-body problem, but do involve the continuing and present vagaries of the academic market): if something would be of benefit to me on multiple foreseeable paths/in multiple foreseeable situations, it gets higher priority (but with doing my current job responsibly getting first priority; I tend to describe this to myself as being fair to both myself and my students. My department doesn't come into play as much, because it explicitly hasn't made a long-term commitment to me, and, based on what I've observed in other departments, I think it's wise for me to keep that in mind).

I've been trying to think about what's different for me, from the perspective of someone who's now had a several-decade academic career without getting on the tenure track, and I think it's this: there are more possible future scenarios, and they overlap less. So, for instance, should I be striving to budget so that I can not teach in the summers, and write more, and maximize my "academic capital," or should I be teaching in the summers in order to put the maximum amount in retirement savings, in case I'm forced into earlier-than-I'd-like retirement? Should I spend what limited writing/research time I have on publishing in my literary field, or, since I find myself on a teaching-oriented track (albeit one with no research/publication expectations), should I publish more pedagogically- and/or comp-and-rhet-oriented work (even though I don't have a comp and rhet Ph.D.)? Or should I be seeking out another career altogether, and, if so, what? In short, I do think that being already on the tenure track (and intending to remain there) constrains one's choices somewhat, in a useful way (even as I recognize that it's still not easy to juggle, and choose priorities among, all the components of a tenure-track job, let alone a tenure-track job plus a possible job search).

Flavia said...


That's a smart analysis of the problem. "Keeping options open" can definitely involve spreading oneself too thin--or difficult gambles about which areas get priority. This is true to some degree for everyone, but as you note it's much harder, and much more is at stake, when your options are more numerous or less clearly defined or restricted by your current job.

I remember how impossible it felt to make any kind of decision in my 20s, when none of my friends had meaningful restrictions on where we could live or which fields we could pursue, and it seemed like making the "wrong" choice of career or educational path would be A DISASTER.

But actually, in one's 20s, it doesn't really matter: there's time to recover or change fields or make some other radical change, and most jobs are basically entry-level. At this age, though, when we're anxious about things like building savings, raising a family, planning for retire, the stakes of keeping options open or planning for the "wrong" break are much higher.