Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What's Luck Got To Do With It?

Since it’s St. Patrick’s day, I thought I would say a few words about luck.

One theme that I see in science blogs, particularly among those who are struggling with their science career (both moderators and respondents) is the idea that successful scientists are somehow luckier than everyone else. This is rarely true, and to believe that luck has anything to do with success (or lack of it) is self-defeating. The “golden child” types have been mentioned on some blogs as people who lucked into their wonderful situations (by knowing the right person, by accident of birth, etc.).


But perhaps they only seem to be “golden”. Maybe they’ve figured out how to work the system or maybe they just work really hard without letting on. I’ve heard people refer to me as being successful because I’m luckier than they are or have been “given” extra help or resources. My response was, “Whaaat?” I worked extremely hard for everything I’ve achieved—nothing came easy. My scientist husband has worked hard, too (although he did not face the same obstacles that I did). We stuck to it and are now a successful professional couple.

We didn’t start out that way, though. I faced some really negative situations (discrimination, vindictive bosses, harassment), and my husband was affected by my problems. So for someone to suggest that we’ve been “lucky” in our careers or been given special treatment is just naive.

There always will be challenges, especially in such a competitive field as science. If the challenges (both technical and political) are too much for you, it’s best to figure this out early and go into something more compatible and rewarding. But be forewarned. Those “issues” that you blame on your boss, your obnoxious co-workers, or The System, may follow you to your new endeavor.

The reason, of course, is that problems often result from an inability to handle challenges well or a failure to understand other’s expectations of us. Some people learn early, some late, and some never. If you consistently seem to have problems when everyone around you seems to be enjoying much better “luck”, then it’s time to reassess your approach.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

If the disgruntlesphere reads this post, they are gonna be PISSED. Cause you are totes blaming the victim.

Aurora said...

Interesting because I always acknowledge the role of luck in my situation. The job market seems like a crap shoot at times.

But taking (bold) initiative is a precursor to being lucky and I did that.

I also had my share of BS to deal with very similar to what you describe.

SamanthaScientist said...

Interesting post. I want to completely agree with you, but recent life experiences (graduate school) make me disagree.

It's not that I think successful scientists don't work hard. I know many very successful scientists, and they definitely work very hard. No question. And they're smart. No question. The problem is that I also know many scientists who are also very smart and work very hard but just haven't obtained success. So, what's the difference?

The difference must either be "luck" or some je ne sais quoi traits the successful have and the unsuccessful do not. And, I think it's both.

I'd like to give a concrete example to illustrate. Let's say a smart, hard-working student starts graduate school. The student chooses to do research in a brand new lab with a brand new PI. This choice is risky, since the lab and the PI are unknowns, but with risk often comes the possiblity of high reward. The reward might be learning to build an experiment and a lab from scratch with an enthusiastic, rising-star PI.

But, sometimes a new PI will flounder, and it's impossible for this floundering to not greatly affect the students. Perhaps the PI can't obtain funding after start-up funds run out. And students are left to try to join a new lab 5+ years in, or try to graduate with no publications. Or perhaps the PI's experiments, which sound amazing enough to be funded by brilliant, experienced professors sitting on NIH panels, turn out to be impossible to interpret. And students are left with uninterpretable results, no publications, and really no results that would even make a reasonable thesis. Should the students have been smart enough to avoid a new PI? Or smart enough to avoid a bad new PI? Even the talented and experienced professors who chose to hire the new PI weren't smart enough to avoid the bad PI, so it seems impossible to expect students to be able to discern. So, the student who chose this lab is highly unsuccessful by the standards used for judging success in science. The student possibly recieves no Ph.D., or maybe a Ph.D. with no publications. Was that student less talented? Less hard working? No. That student was unlucky.

Could that student have possessed some traits that would have prevented this "unlucky" situation? Yes. The student could have not been a risk-taker, and therefore not chosen a new lab and new PI. Or the student could be non-persistent, and could have chosen to switch labs after 2-3 years of frustration. So, this situation selected for non-risk-taking quitters. Just what we want in science, no?

I suppose the biggest argument would be, could that student still go on to achieve success? Maybe. Maybe that student can try to do a brand new Ph.D. using everything they know now. Or maybe the student can do multiple post docs. But maybe now that student is 28-30 years old, and doesn't feel they have the time or energy to do it all again. Plus, now they know it's not all about hard work and talent. Now they know there's luck involved, and no guarantee that they won't be unlucky again, perhaps in a different way this time.

I actually think this last issue is the worst negative impact of the whole situation. As you say, believing luck has anything to do with success is self-defeating. But isn't it also self-defeating to just decide you're not cut out for this profession because your hardest work wasn't good enough in this particular situation?

DrDoyenne said...

My intent in writing about luck was not to anger anyone, although I realized not everyone would agree with my points.

My point was not that lucky events never happen, but that we should not blame our failure to be as successful as someone else entirely on luck.

Also, I would hope readers realize that my purpose in hosting this blog is to provide insight, encouragement, and helpful information, especially to young women just starting out in science.

I encounter so many young people in science who are trying to blame their woes on anything and anyone except themselves. Certainly some interpersonal problems seem to be totally due to the other person (e.g., harassment), but how we react has an influence also.

I also realize it's hard to accept one's own role in poor outcomes, but that's what one must do to change those outcomes.

My message was that you can make your own luck--that is, influence your fate by being proactive.

I view really big, seemingly unsolvable problems like giant meteors heading toward Earth. A slight nudge while the meteor is still way off in space can deflect its path enough to completely miss us. In the same way, a slight change in our behavior today can pay enormous dividends in the future.

I think that is a positive message--not a putdown.

DrDoyenne said...


I agree that hooking your star to that of another person's, especially someone just starting out (a new PI), introduces an additional set of uncontrollable unknowns to your own career trajectory. But if a student selects a newby PI who then flounders, is it bad luck--or is it a lack of sufficient information about that PI's capabilities?

Not that I expect a student to know these things and have sufficient experience to know the risks involved in selecting an inexperienced PI who's a rising star vs. an experienced PI whose work is solid but less than earthshaking. I would expect a post-doc to be a bit more savvy and do their homework before selecting a lab to work in.

It's only a "crap-shoot" if you make a selection without making an effort to limit the risk associated with the decision. You can't, of course, eliminate all risk, but you can definitely improve your odds of success.

I would be more inclined to attribute an outcome to luck if the student picked a PI with an established success record but who dropped dead of a heart attack half-way through the student's program.

We can turn this around and look at it from the PI's standpoint. I make a decision to take on a student or post-doc. This is a risky decision upon which my future funding, publications, promotions, etc. depend upon. Most of the selectees do well, but some struggle and even fail to finish. Was I unlucky to pick these latter students/ post-docs? No. I blame myself for failing to discern their shortcomings or to recognize problems soon enough to change how I supervise them.

I sympathize with your viewpoint and descriptions of "bad" PIs. I know some of them--and they can be incredibly incompetent, either at science or at managing people. Unfortunately, such people will persist throughout your career: the crazy boss whose favorite mode of communication is screaming, the jealous co-workers, the collaborator who treats you like a subordinate...and the list goes on.

That may all sound quite depressing and pessimistic, but it really isn't meant to be. It's just reality.