Monday, December 14, 2009


Malcolm Gladwell’s study of overachievers, Outliers, has been on the bestseller list for some time now, and this meditation on it comes rather late. But I just read it, and it is rare to come across a book so intriguing that I literally lose sleep over it. Gladwell begins by asking what it is that makes exceptional people exceptional, and in a series of case studies powerfully repudiates conservative (and self-help book) dogma which holds that the world is a functioning meritocracy where you, and you alone, determine your fate. Talent and hard work are factors in success, to be sure, but, as Gladwell demonstrates, they are very far from the only ones. It avails you nothing to be Mozart if your parents are drug addicts who beat you every time you make some noise.

In fact, innate intelligence, as measured (ostensibly) by IQ, doesn’t seem to matter – one needs only sufficient intelligence. Where you go to school doesn’t seem to matter much, either – from a list of Nobel Prize winners, for example, Gladwell demonstrates that graduates from Ivy League and other elite institutions are no better represented than those from second and third tier institutions. Any decent school will do. Even racial prejudice doesn’t always work against an individual. What does matter, then? Well, for starters, how early you’re born in the year and, indeed, the year you were born; the extent to which your parents supported you; the number of hours — 10,000 seems to be key — you put into developing your skills at a young age...the list goes on. What matters is an accumulation of advantages, many of them objective factors outside the control of any individual. In other words, our talents and our efforts must be met with a great heaping dose of dumb luck if we want to excel.

I recently raised this point to a group of graduate students when I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on the topic of getting hired in the academic job market. You could be the Mozart of your subject area and never get hired, I told them. Now, I’m no Mozart (not even Salieri), but I asked them to consider my own path to a rare and coveted tenure-stream position. At least four things had to occur: there had to be a position to fill (somebody had to retire); my department had to seek to replace the retiree with a new hire in my field (by no means a given); my institution had to agree, in the midst of an economic downturn, to the department’s request for a replacement hire (probably the biggest hurdle); finally, they had to hire me out of all the dozens and dozens of qualified people who applied for the job. Of those four factors, I could affect the outcome of only one, and even then only up to a point. In the end, I was hired over many people, including some friends, who would have done the job excellently had they been chosen. My personal merit — which certainly did not exceed that of any of a number of other candidates — was one factor among many.

My own view is that my former students, now entering grad school hoping to become professors, are starting out at the worst possible time, when the advantages are least likely to accumulate in their favour. They are facing the worst academic job market since, well, ever. They will graduate into a job market positively saturated with immensely qualified PhDs swarming for a tiny handful of jobs. The cruel mathematical reality is that there are simply far fewer positions than there are good people with PhDs, and how accomplished they are in terms of teaching and publication is only one factor among many in the hiring process. Life isn’t fair, and the world is not a straightforward meritocracy. If I had to guess, I’d guess that fewer than one-in-five will get a full-time, tenure-stream position. I know they don’t want to hear this, but it does no good to hide from reality, either.

I’ve talked about this before, and less pessimistically. But that roundtable I participated in got me thinking. The assembled graduate students were told everything except the two things that they needed to hear the most. The first is that the objective circumstances are stacked against them, and so they will need to work very, very hard to accumulate as many advantages as they can in those fairly narrow areas where their efforts actually make a difference.

The second, and most important thing that I should have said but didn’t, is that the quality of your CV is not the same as the quality of your person, that your academic successes and failures are not moral successes and failures. Alas, truly excellent job candidates can sometimes have their accomplishments held against them, or minor faults blown out of all proportion to their actual significance. Academics trained to hone their critical faculties to a razor's edge too easily turn them on one another. It happens in class, it happens over beer, it happens in meetings, in the pages of journals, at conferences, and on hiring committees. Never underestimate the capacity of people with tenure and six figures to be threatened by the least little thing, and to find not just nit-picky but positively pathological grounds for passing over qualified candidates for jobs. At that recent panel, a colleague remarked that the order in which a candidate describes her teaching and research on her cover letter could make the difference between being interviewed or not, and that moreover people who make the wrong choice might actually offend some hiring committees. I have no doubt that this is true.

Anyway, that’s my advice for graduate students. For any professors reading this, I have different advice. If that sort of thing would offend you, well, get a therapist.