This classic example of survivor-bias should serve to give us pause whenever we try to learn from the example of successful people. Remember to think of all the people who we never get to see because they never became successful enough to come to our attention.
In musing on my own academic life history, and any lessons it might contain for anyone else, I started to think a lot about survivor-bias. Having made it this far, what pearls of wisdom can I offer to those such as my PhD students who are just starting out as scientists?
I'm here because I was lucky
The problem is this: I have (I believe) been the recipient of a fairly outrageous string of good fortune as my career has progressed. For the sake of brevity, I don’t intend to list every fortuitous event, which the sociologists I know would probably say should start with being born a middle-class white male. Instead, I will just focus on one.
When my PhD was coming to an end, I had made precisely zero plans about what to do next. Because my research touched on some earlier work my colleagues had done, I ended up in a Skype call with one of the authors of that earlier paper, David Sumpter. David noted that he had just been awarded a large ERC grant. As I recall I asked something like ‘oh, do you need a postdoc?’. About six months later I was working in David’s group. Whereas many postdocs without their own fellowships end up on short contracts doing tightly defined tasks for their PIs, I spent four years working with David, and he gave me the resources and freedom to do pretty much whatever seemed best to me, both with a great group of colleagues and with researchers at other institutions. As a result, I was able to make a lot of important contacts with other scientists (which I mostly thought of at the time as a chance to travel and to get drunk at the conference bar), and to create the record of independent research that is important when applying for faculty positions. It wasn’t until much later that I realised how rare and privileged a position that was.
Consider how contingent the rest of my career appears. Had I never had that casual Skype conversation, I don’t know whether I would even have done a postdoc; I certainly had no idea what I’d need to do to get a position. Had I done a series of one year or even six month postdocs working on other people’s ideas, I may well have packed it in. Had David not been well-resourced and well-connected, all the good will and effort in the world might not have allowed me to meet all the brilliant researchers that I have, and to do all the fascinating research that I’ve been able to participate in. How many other potential academics have replicated the aimless drifting that I occasionally dare to call a career path, but failed to have good luck like mine? Can I in good conscience suggest that anyone follow my example?
The academics you notice are not typical
First observed by Scott L. Feld in 1991, the Friendship Paradox is the observation that one’s friends typically have more friends on average that oneself. In the age of social media this observation is readily observable by looking at the number of Facebook friendships individuals have: for most people, their Facebook friends have on average more connections than they do themselves. A fascinating corollary of the Friendship Paradox is that if connectivity correlates with anything else, such as beauty or success, then the paradox will extend to these attributes: your friends are likely to be more attractive and successful than you (on average).
What this means for us is that even allowing for survivor-bias, the academics we are aware of and/or connected to (by friendship, co-authorship etc.) will be far more successful than the average of all working academics. We will look around us and see a world of people publishing another paper in Nature or Science, receiving large and prestigious grants and becoming full professors in their early 30’s. We will also see the prerequisites of that success. We will know people who had great PhD and postdoc advisors, people who got lucky with an early grant or fellowship application, and people who were lucky enough to get involved in a great research project. As such, we will underestimate just how rare and fortuitous these circumstances are. As I said earlier, I never realised how privileged my life as a postdoc was until much later. At the time, every PhD student and postdoc I knew seemed to be living the same charmed life.
Be wary of imitation, and make space for serendipity
I would suggest that we should all be a little circumspect when suggesting that our own careers can act as signposts for others. We should consider all the ways things could have turned out differently. As such I’m reluctant to recommend anything from my own academic life history as something to replicate, but if pushed I would suggest this: be lucky! Almost every important event in my career was serendipitous. It would probably be safer to have at least the skeleton of a plan if you are determined to make it as an academic. But the fruits of serendipity also require some tending. Put yourself in a position for good things to happen: go to that seminar that sounds interesting, even if you have one hour less to work on your paper; write an email to someone whose research interests you and see if there’s anything you can work on together; start conversations with random people at conferences, and tell them you think you can solve their problems, even if you haven’t worked out how yet. In the meantime, don’t believe that you have to replicate either the choices or the success of the prominent scientists you see around you - the selection biases above give you a strongly distorted view of what success and a successful strategy looks like. If you want any more advice, you can probably find me sat at the conference bar.
Richard is a University Academic Fellow in the School of Mathematics, University of Leeds. Find him on twitter @richardpmann