It’s Luck. And Don’t You Forget It.

I had a pretty lucky day the other week.  The ACLS awarded me one of their “New Faculty Fellow” post-docs, and I was invited to interview on campus for a tenure-track job I’d really, really like.  I was flying high and feeling pretty damned good about myself.  In fact, I started to believe that I deserved these things; that I had earned the postdoc and the interview, that I was uniquely qualified.  Congratulatory emails from friends and colleagues served to reinforce this delusion: “Well deserved,” said many, and one went so far as to laud my “talents.”  And for a short while, I even started to believe that the system was working.  I’ve got two articles, five years of teaching experience, a book contract — so of course I got the postdoc and the interview!  The system isn’t broken!  The meritocracy is in good shape!


First of all, this is a classic case of using anecdotal evidence (my string of good luck) as response to a structural problem (too many PhDs, not enough jobs).  Second, there are people who have accomplished much, much more than me who did not get the ACLS — in fact, one of those unlucky souls is a very good friend of mine who deserves a postdoc as much or more than me, if we were in a truly fair world.  My lucky day was just that: luck.  As a reminder of that fact, the very next day I learned that I did not make the second round for another job that really interested me.  And just to reinforce the universe’s crapshoot-iness, I have also learned that the job for which I’m interviewing almost certainly has an inside candidate.

So, yes, work hard and do good work, and it will help.  But the final deciding factor is almost certainly luck.  And don’t forget it.

Three Ideas to Make the AHA More Fun

I just returned from the AHA in New Orleans, where I was asked by a very nice, considerate, and genuinely curious historian: “So, what can we do to make this more fun?”  I grumbled something about eliminating the job interviews, but quickly took it back, not wanting to seem to ungrateful for the single interview I had lined up (and believe me, I am grateful!).  I’ve been thinking about her question, and I offer here three ideas:

  1. Eliminate job interviews.  It adds too much stress, too many distractions, and too much name-badge reading and ass-kissing. Yeah, the conference would lose money.  But I can’t be arsed with that.  I see no real reason not to convert to telephone interviews for the first round.  Or, if you really want to judge a person by his/her looks, I suppose webcam interviews will work.  But enough already with this antiquated interview-in-person bullshit.
  2. Help graduate students and non-TT faculty network.  I have a hell of a time meeting and getting to know new people.  I’m the person standing in the corner at the Oxford University Press reception, clinging to my tiny plate of food and pretending that I’m interested in the ceiling tiles.  I know that I should go out and introduce myself and shake hands, but everyone else seems to already be in the middle of a conversation, and it’s incredibly awkward.  Senior faculty and advisers can help by acting as wing-people and leading with introductions, but far too few do this.  I wonder if there could be some program that would make this easier.  Maybe something like speed dating, where the senior faculty sit at tables and the grad students get five minutes of time with each person.  I dunno.
  3. STOP READING YOUR PAPERS.  Seriously, this has to stop.  Do more roundtables centered around common questions, or show us your evidence and talk about your preliminary conclusions, or use notecards to prompt you through your prepared talk.  But for shit’s sake, enough with the junior high-level presentations.