This is a true story. It is meant primarily for students, but I don’t know if it’s uplifting, depressing, both, or neither. So I’m just going to tell it, and you can make of it what you will.
In the late winter of 2004, I almost quit science. Indeed, I effectively had quit. The NERC Centre for Population Biology (CPB), where I had been a postdoc for almost 4 years, was letting me keep a desk and computer for a little while as a courtesy, but I had already received my last paycheck so I was technically unemployed. It wasn’t for lack of trying, or of opportunities. I’d had a dozen interviews for tenure-track positions, including one at Imperial College London, the host university of the CPB. I had pretty much come to terms with the fact that academia just wasn’t going to happen for me. I couldn’t really feel sorry for myself, given how many interviews I’d had and how many friends I had who had (and in some cases continue to) spent more time as postdocs than me.
I was going to take some time off and figure out what to do. I bought a copy of What Color is Your Parachute?, a classic book on changing careers, and a book on alternative careers for scientists. But I probably would’ve ended up as a high school science teacher. I had helped a US colleague write an NSF grant on which I was to be the postdoc if the grant were funded. But frankly it was to do the same sorts of microcosm work I’d been doing my whole career, and I knew that the perception of me as someone who only knew how to grow bugs in jars was limiting the range of jobs for which I was competitive (not that there weren’t other reasons why I hadn’t yet gotten a job). So I didn’t think taking that postdoc would really change my job prospects, even if it did end up getting funded (which it later did). Plus, my wife had a good job she loved, and we both loved living in London. She’d already made two long-distance moves for the sake of my career, and I thought it was past time for me to return the favor(s). I couldn’t see asking her to move again just for another postdoc. And if that meant that I wouldn’t be spending my days doing what I’d known since I was 16 I wanted to do, well, at least I’d still be living in London, which is no small thing (seriously, if you can afford it, London is awesome). Mentally, I had already left science, although I did console myself with the thought of joining the great tradition of British amateur science and publishing the occasional theoretical paper as a “private citizen”.
And then I got a phone call from Calgary, offering me the job I currently hold. I wasn’t their first choice, which is why it took them a long time to contact me (well, technically I was the joint first choice of the search committee, but the other guy was a Canadian so they were legally obliged to offer him the job first). Their first choice turned them down, so they called me.
I’ve been lucky my whole life, but that was an especially big piece of luck, even for me. Indeed, the fact that the other candidate was offered another job itself reflects a whole series of fortunate (for me) events that ultimately involved former US Attorney General John Ashcroft (but that’s another story…) It’s not like I don’t think I’m good at what I do–I am good–or that I don’t feel like I deserve my job–I do deserve it, or at least I deserve it as much as anyone does. But being good enough to deserve an academic job is necessary, it’s not sufficient. There are lots of people out there who are really good too, and who are at least as deserving as I was, but who don’t have faculty positions and probably never will. I was really, really lucky.
Like I said, you can take this story as uplifting (it has a happy ending!), or as depressing (your fate is largely out of your hands, and your only hope is an unlikely series of coincidences!) And you can take it as representative of the experiences of many others (as it is, in some respects), or as entirely unique (as it is, in some respects).
Probably the only lessons I would take away have to do not with the events, but my preparation for and reaction to them. I went into grad school with my eyes open, knowing that there are typically >100 applicants (often >>100) for tenure-track jobs. So my eventual (apparent) failure wasn’t a shock to me. It had always been my plan to take my best shot (How could I not? Academia was my heart’s desire!), but to be prepared to give up the dream at some point. And while an academic career had been my heart’s desire for many years (ever since it became apparent I was not going to grow into a good enough athlete to play professional baseball), I had managed to keep it in perspective. My career was important to me, but so was my wife’s career, and our social lives, and lots of other things which failing to make it in academia wasn’t going to take away. And the fact that succeeding in academia is so hard actually made failure easier to swallow–it didn’t shake my self-esteem, or make me feel slighted at being passed over. So for any students reading this who are thinking of going into academia: have a go if that’s what you really, really want to do, but be realistic about your (small) chances for success, keep things in perspective, and have a backup plan. Good luck; I hope you make it