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.