How good is good enough?

Asking yourself whether you’re good enough for an academic career is rarely useful.

The other day, I wrote a blog post about critical decision points in an academic career. Titus Brown felt that I was perpetuating the belief that being “good enough” is a necessary requirement to becoming a faculty member. My intention in writing the post was actually the exact opposite, to argue that whether somebody is or is not “good enough” is largely irrelevant to their success in academia, and not something they should spend much time thinking about. Clearly I didn’t quite succeed in getting my points across, so I’ll try again.

I subscribe to Malcom Gladwell’s threshold theory,1 which argues that beyond a certain minimum required amount of innate talent, professional success is largely independent of talent and depends instead on numerous other factors, such as the amount of training you receive and the opportunities that come your way. In a nutshell, according to Gladwell, you can’t groom the village idiot into becoming a faculty member at Harvard, but any incoming graduate student in any decent university likely has the innate talent necessary to get there.2 From there on out, it’s all just effort, proper coaching, the right connections, and some amount of luck.

There can be no doubt that luck is important for professional success, in particular on the road to getting a tenure-track position.3 Many pieces have to fall into place, many of which may not have anything to do with who you are and what you can do. If you’re on the job market in a recession, when there are virtually no faculty searches going on, it’s going to be tough regardless of your track record. If suddenly a new hot area opens up and you happen to not work in that area, it may be difficult to convince departments that you’re the right candidate. My own trajectory reflects this. Without luck, I wouldn’t be a faculty member at UT Austin today. I got my job because Josh Plotkin’s wife needed to be close to a medical school, and UT Austin didn’t have one at the time. So Josh declined my department’s offer, even though it was his first choice. If Josh had been married to a different wife or not at all, or if UT Austin had been ten years ahead of their current schedule to getting a medical school, my life might be very different today.

At the same time, I do subscribe to the idea that luck is a skill. I’ve seen this countless times with colleagues, friends, and family. Some people are just consistently lucky. They always seem to make out alright. And others appear to be consistently unlucky. Something always goes wrong for them, no matter what they do. As somebody who (I believe) falls on the luckier side of the spectrum, and also as somebody who has a good sense of how actions connect to possible outcomes,4 I can usually spot the behavioral patterns that cause people to be lucky or unlucky. Show me somebody who is consistently unlucky, and I’ll tell you what they’re doing wrong. It would take more than a few lines in this already far-too-long blog post to explain specifics. So I’ll defer that for another time. For now, if you think you’re consistently lucky, keep doing whatever it is you’re doing. If you think you’re consistently unlucky, you probably have a tendency to use the wrong priorities in your decision making. You might make decisions out of fear, or out of a desire for pleasure, or for immediate benefit, rather than based on a rational assessment of the long-term consequences of your decisions. It might help you to discuss your decisions with a thoughtful mentor, and to listen to her advice.

Let’s get back to the original question. What does it take to become a faculty member? First, you need some amount of innate talent. If you’re still reading, and you’re not constantly thinking “so many complicated words,” you probably have sufficient innate talent. Second, you need some genuine luck. For example, you accidentally meet somebody at a conference who turns out to be really supportive of your work; or you make a genuinely unexpected, major discovery; or your major competitor falls while rock-climbing and is out for a year, just when you go onto the job market. Third, you need some engineered luck. You need to see opportunities when they come your way and take advantage of them. When issues arise that could cause you trouble down the road, you need to deal with them efficiently and effectively. You generally have to behave in such a way that you’re not your own worst enemy. Fourth, you need to be willing to put in the required effort. The impressiveness of a cv is strongly correlated to the amount of work expended to developing said cv, and nothing is ever going to change that. And fifth, you need to have the resilience to slog through the downturns that you will inevitably encounter on your path in academia. There will be times when nothing seems to go right, when no reviewer likes your papers or grant proposals, when you feel you’re just spinning your wheels with nothing to show for. You will have to work through these periods to be successful in academia.5

Which of those five points fall under your control? The first does not. However, you’re still reading, so that point is irrelevant. The second doesn’t either. There’s nothing you can do about genuine luck or genuine misfortune. So don’t spend any time thinking about it. The other three points fall under your control, and they contribute (by my own, totally unscientific estimate) to at least 70%-80% of your success. So get cracking.

  1. The threshold theory is described in Gladwell’s book “Outliers.” It’s a great book. If you haven’t read it yet, do so.↩︎

  2. Realistically, if you start with serious coaching only in graduate school it may be too late for star-level success. The kids that were groomed to become Harvard professors when they were three years old will have an enormous head start, one that may be difficult to catch up to. You should still try, though.↩︎

  3. On this note, I find it interesting how many faculty members who are now among the most established scientists in their field were at some point close to giving up on academia. For example, Richard Lenski describes his winding path to his first faculty appointment here. I heard about this story first when I was on the job market and thought I’d never find a decent job, and I found it strangely comforting.↩︎

  4. I’m an INTJ. My mind is all about possibilities, and how they are connected to what’s happening right now.↩︎

  5. Of course the main issue here is to distinguish between constructively slogging through a temporary setback and delusionally keeping on going even though the situation is truly hopeless. I hope my previous post can help there. As should any capable adviser or mentor.↩︎

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology


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