Getting Lucky

"Chance favors the prepared mind" Louis Pasteur

My wife is affiliated with the gaming industry. I often find myself strolling the smoky rooms of indistinguishable casinos and pondering luck. When I enter a casino, I head right past the slot machines, I ignore the roulette wheel, and you'll never catch me playing poker regardless of how trendy it becomes. I don't play any game in which I'm a slave to fickle fortune. I have no interest in games of chance. I play blackjack.

But isn't blackjack just another game of chance? Isn't the player relying solely on the random turn of the cards? Not according to former Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematics professor Edward O. Thorpe, who has shown that by combining several different strategies, the player can shift the advantage, ever so slightly, in his (or her) favor.

Surely, the casinos will catch wind of this new gambling system and shut down all of their blackjack tables. Apparently, there's no need. Thorpe published his findings, replete with mathematical evidence, in 1955, but hardly anybody takes the time to learn the system. It is possible to use skill to turn luck to your advantage, but not enough people bother to make it a problem for the casinos. The job market is like that, too.

"I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it." Thomas Jefferson

Four years ago, I was about as discontented as a graduate student can be. My thesis defense on the horizon, I had no plans for the future. Like thousands of others, I was on cruise control. I wrongly assumed that my only option was to do an academic postdoc. That was all I knew, that was all any of my advisers really knew, and none of us had tried very hard to learn about anything else.

Then one day, I found myself at a daylong "Careers in Science" seminar. I only intended to stay for the first half of the day, when we would hear about academic careers, but a lab mate, 1 year senior and more desperate, persuaded me to stay after lunch, when the speakers would talk about the fabulous jobs they had outside of the university--at NASA, in business development, and in industry. All the speakers were asked variations on the same question: How did you get this wonderful job?

And speaker after speaker gave variations on the same answer: It was luck. A phone call from a colleague about a job opening. A chance encounter at a poster session. A successful collaboration, initiated by someone else, that led to significant discoveries and important contacts. Managing, by luck, to get a CV directly into the hands of a hiring manager. The take-home message: The way to get a fabulous job in science is to be lucky. For those of us who hadn't gotten lucky yet, it wasn't a very satisfying answer. Should I just sit back and wait for the phone to ring? Was that all there was to it? Some people have great careers thrust upon them, and others don't? I wasn't in the habit of trusting in luck. I wasn't ready to gamble away my future at the slots.

So I started to look for other things these speakers had in common. I didn't have to look far. These speakers had put as much effort into the presentation as they had into gathering the information that went into them. Even if they felt lucky, these people weren't the type to wait for the phone to ring. Maybe they were lucky, but they also worked hard, made good decisions, and took pains to present themselves well.

"Luck? I don't know anything about luck. I've never banked on it, and I'm afraid of people who do. Luck to me is something else: hard work--and realizing what is opportunity and what isn't."Lucille Ball

As in blackjack, learning a basic strategy is the first step toward shifting the odds in your favor.

Do good science (and publish it)

Preparing to get lucky begins by having documented proof of your past performance. It's not enough to do good science; you also have to publish it.

If you find that you are in your fifth year of graduate school with 10 lab notebooks filled with data--and no publications--it's well past time to start writing that first paper. Don't worry so much about publishing in a top-tier journal; just pick one that is suitable. Write the work up well and carefully, get others to read it and make comments, and--once you've addressed all their concerns--submit. If you don't get your work published, you might as well never have done it. Prospective employers need proof of your skills and ideas. Published work is your proof.

Market your science

When you hit the job market, your mission is to convince an employer, whether it's a PI in an academic lab or a company, that they require your skills and are willing to pay for them. You have to sell your past work--there's no other way to make a case for yourself--but those papers you published aren't going to market themselves; you need to get out there and sell your work.

But you don't sell science the same way you sell used cars or vacuum cleaners. You sell your work by traveling to conferences and scientific institutions (academic and otherwise) and talking about your work. This does two things: It gives you an opportunity to make connections, and it gives you practice presenting your work.

If I had to choose one piece of advice on the topic, it would be to think of a scientific presentation as an occasion to inform your audience, not to impress them. Focus on the science, not yourself. Prepare yourself well to lead your audience through the work, with easily understood slides, because the work--not your strengths or insecurities--is what matters. People at all levels of understanding of the field will appreciate your seriousness and professionalism.

Play the field

If you are looking only at academic positions, then you are reducing your odds of a successful career by more than 90%--ignoring a huge pool of nonacademic careers at least a few of which you probably would find very satisfying. Most of us start graduate school expecting to become academic scientists, publishing every paper in Science and winning the Nobel Prize at age 35. But somewhere around year 4 or 5 (or 6, or 7, or 8), we start to realize that there simply aren't enough good academic positions at academic institutions to absorb all the large pool of intelligent people vying for them. Some of us--too few--also realize that a number of the alternatives are just as good, or better.

I'm not suggesting that you abandon your convictions--just that you should broaden them a bit and keep some safe choices in play. If being a professor at an Ivy League school is your dream, you should certainly pursue it. It can be your plan A, but you should have a plan B, and preferably plans C, D, and E. You need not be--or seem--flaky or indecisive. Rather, it's just a matter of acknowledging that there's more than one route to happiness.

Still, keeping your options open can be tricky, politically. Never let your plan-A hiring committee detect a lack of enthusiasm, and make sure your plan B doesn't feel like a backup choice. With targeted cover letters and exhaustive research, you can keep your options open without appearing uncommitted. Dealing with mentors and advisers can be tricky, too, if you choose a nonacademic path. To do so is to abandon their definition of success. But if your relationships are strong and you know what you want, when it's time to ask for a recommendation letter you'll have little trouble getting them to accept, and respect, that you have different aspirations.

Correspond with the fortunate

I leave the issue of networking to last not because it is the least important; on the contrary. If you aren't convinced already about the importance of networking, there probably isn't anything I can tell you that will turn you around. Networking is akin to being allowed to cheat at cards; don't like the cards you were given? Here's another set.

If you are rolling your eyes at another article about networking, it is likely because you are equating "networking" with "schmoozing"; they are not the same. Schmoozing is a parasitic relationship, whereas networking is a mutually beneficial connection. The key to scientific networking is to make sure it's based on science and that everybody benefits from the relationship. You can make that happen.

Whether you know it or not, you do have a network. You know people who have finished graduate school and are on to other things. You have talked to scientists after their--and your--presentations. You have colleagues and collaborations within your institution, and perhaps outside. Talk to these people and offer them what help you can. Focus on people a few years your senior, as they may be the most amenable to understanding the plight of the early-career scientist.

"Those who trust to chance must abide by the results of chance."—Calvin Coolidge

Four years ago, I was planning my escape from science; now I'll be sticking around for a while. Luck was important after all in getting me where I am. I didn't have any papers in Science or Nature. My graduate school work was solid but didn't shake the foundations of science. The important thing is that it was published, I was accomplished at presenting it, and I was open to a range of job opportunities.

A postdoc in industry was not my plan A. I had lined up academic postdocs in labs with strong industry ties and had interviews at smaller companies. All of them were good opportunities, and any one of them might have come through.

The one that did was Genentech, which found my CV and cover letter at an online job-postings site. I was as surprised as anybody when they called; who knew companies like Genentech actually perused the online job boards? But when the company did come calling, I was ready.

Sure, there's luck involved. Every time my cards are dealt, I hope that the dealer deals me a 21. But it doesn't happen often and I don't count on it. Unlike the slots, poker, etc., this is a game I can't afford not to play. So I try to keep the odds as good as I can make them.\

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