In her annual Day of Archaeology post, Betty Wragg Sykes gives us an update on the “braided delta” development of her career. She concludes that “everything in archaeological careers is about luck”. I agree with her that luck is the dominant factor in establishing a career in archaeology, but there are at least two other crucial ingredients. Consistent, quality hard work, such as she documents in her post, is a necessary but insufficient condition for the establishment of a successful career. All the consistent, quality hard work in the world will not help in the absence of luck, but luck will not make up for the absence of consistent, quality hard work. The corollary is that many people who do consistent, quality hard work in archaeology never successfully develop a career in the field. At this point, I think this can be said of pretty much any academic field. The third crucial factor is help from others who’ve been lucky. No one makes it alone.

My lucky streak

When I defended my PhD in February 1999, I had no idea where I would be that September. I had been applying for academic jobs for about a year at that point, as a naively hopeful ABD. In those days of snail mail applications (many places still required hard copies even if you emailed them your documents), I often didn’t even receive an acknowledgement. Postage was expensive. If I did hear back from the institution, it was through a taciturn three line letter awkwardly celebrating the quality of the candidate pool that year. By late spring, I had started applying for “regular jobs”, as the hoarded dregs of my graduate funding leaked out of my bank account. My wife was working part time, and we had a 4 year old at home.

As the summer progressed, I still hadn’t found anything, academic or regular. I had been lucky enough to work on a couple of small archaeology contracts through a grad school connection, and that had kept us afloat. I was working hard on turning some of my dissertation into articles. Post-Docs were not on the radar in archaeology at the time, and I struggle to remember whether I was even aware of the concept.

In mid-august, the phone rang. It was the Dean’s office at a regional campus of a state university, an 8 hour drive away. One of the professors, with whom I had done some work a few years earlier, was going on sabbatical. Yes, they had done a search for a sabbatical replacement and yes, sadly, their shortlist had turned them down, one by one, most likely because the university wasn’t ideally located. Amazingly, they told me all this over the phone. The professor in question had mentioned my name as a potential replacement. Would I like to come down and meet with the Dean? I took the bus down, met with the Dean, and two weeks later, offer letter and NAFTA visa in hand, I was moving into my temporary office, having never applied for first my academic job, and having never been so overjoyed. I am normally not known for being joyous. I was preparing two new courses in four sections, and using the quiet times (0700-0900 and 1600-1800 and weekends) to write articles and job applications for the following year.

Since my application materials were now on letterhead, I found I was getting a higher rate of acknowledgements, and even the odd request for additional materials, which meant I was sometimes making it past the first cut. But I was making it no farther. In spring 2000, as the end of my unexpected year in academia loomed, I still had nothing lined up and again I was starting to look for regular jobs. That’s when the other anthropologist in the department (it was a very small, very combined department) poked her head into my office and gave me the good news that she had just accepted a position at a university near her home town. A couple of hours later, I was summoned by the Chair, who told me that given the very short timelines and the great difficulty and expense of setting up a replacement search so late, the Dean had exceptionally agreed to extend my visiting position for a year. They were happy to keep me, he said, as I was getting very decent teaching evaluations. I had been commuting back home every two weeks, but now my wife and son moved down with me for a year.

In my second year as VAP, I got slightly more response to my job applications. I even made a couple of long-lists, but by spring 2001, we were packing for the move back home. Just as we were about to move, a prof from my alma mater emailed me to say he had just gotten a grant and was interested in getting some simulation work done. I very gratefully did that for a year and taught a couple of courses as adjunct.

The 2002 season was interesting. For the first time, I got a campus interview. After a few weeks, the department informed me that I was the only remaining candidate, but that after much reflection, they had decided to re-run the search next year. I must confess that on that day, I failed to realize how lucky I was. But I was. The prof who was employing me at the time made superhuman efforts to fund me for a second year through combination of research assistantships and adjunct teaching. All the while, I was madly writing, trying to get papers out the door, grant applications submitted, and job applications completed.

Then in 2003, which we had decided was my last year on the market, I got 2 campus interviews and one offer from the department at which I had been adjuncting, which I eagerly accepted. I had also lined up a regular job with an IT company, luckily run by a colleague’s husband who liked my work, but I was happy to eventually turn it down when the tenure track offer came through. At that point, I was a few days away from exiting academia.

Some would say that the hard work was starting to pay off. That’s the wrong way of looking at it. It implies that enough hard work eventually pays off. It doesn’t. There is no threshold of hard work. Hard work merely makes it possible to capitalize on a lucky circumstance, if and when it materializes. For many, it doesn’t, and the hard work is moot, except in the sense that it is acquired life experience. The tenure-track job would not have come without the hard work, but it would not have come without the luck, and without the tireless help of people who supported me.

After I got on the tenure-track, things were more straightforward and less braided, but not quite as much as one might imagine.

3 thoughts on “My lucky streak in academia

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