Career Jealousy

August 26, 2019

As most of us will have experienced at one time or another, it is totally unfair that that person, over there, got this good thing that we did not get. They are, after all, no better or smarter than us, they were just lucky.

In the right place, at the right time. Anyone could have fallen into that luck. And we, ourselves, have not had such good fortune in our careers and of course that is unfair.

I have had my misfortunes in this career. I have also had several great bits of good fortune. I have most definitely felt the monster of jealousy hit for the observed good fortunes of other people that are my approximate peers at a given stage. In some cases I have felt that those folks, over there, are not just lucky but are super well-deserving. This is usually because I think they are brilliant and/or highly productive scientists, independent of the luck they enjoyed. In other cases I ground my teeth that such a dumbass incompetent lucked into that particular area of fortune while I, clearly more deserving, struggle.

I surmise, somewhat indirectly, that trainees these days are no different than I was. And they can be jealous of various things that seem to be falling into place for their peers, but not for them. It is, of course, amusing that their lucky peers often seem to be equally resentful of the luck of the person feeling sorry for themselves. It is a cycle.

As you know, Dear Reader, I am making an okay job of surviving in this career. So far, at least. It may crater any day, it may continue until I drop dead. But I’ve been doing this long enough to see a broad arc of what happens with people and their careers. And you know what? The distribution is an iron law of life.

Maybe this is just me, but I think the most profound effect that scientific training and participation has had on my mindset is that I think of just about everything in terms of distributions. In the distribution of career fortune, sure, there are going to be those that always get the sunny side of life. Surely a few people, just a few, have literally everything go their way. And conversely (and more sadly), some few people will have literally everything related to chance events fall against them. But the vast majority are in the middle. Where sometimes we get the good stuff happening and sometimes we get the bad stuff happening.

It’s only possible to see this in the career arc by living it for awhile.

At least one fellow graduate student that I thought achieved very, very high profile papers through no virtue of themselves, personally, ended up struggling just to earn the PhD and quickly exited science.

Postdocs that were much more productive in hotter fields than mine ended up out of science.

Then there are the faculty. Oh, yes, the faculty arcs. When I first started there were a fairly restricted number of individuals who I compared myself with. People in either approximately similar spheres of research or individuals in my own institution working under similar contingencies, albeit in strikingly different fields. Limiting myself to the first type, oh boy, you better believe I was slightly envious of the ones that seemed like shooting stars. Super productive or grant laden or just ones that seemed to enjoy better reputation as scientists. Some were viewed by me as highly deserving but one still gets a bit jealous, eh?

Well, shit happens. Maybe I had huge career and/or personal hurdles but eventually so did my peers. Because life happens. Some hurdles were run of the mill and some were truly life-changingly horrific. Some folks survived, some recovered and eventually thrived, and some said good-bye to academic science. Many folks just kind of faded away and I don’t know them well enough to know why. With some other folks it is clear that we only see part of the picture in public and there’s some weird shit going on somewhere. Not my circus, not my peanuts, but it is good to appreciate the impact of both good and bad circumstances even if you don’t quite know what they might be.

I keep learning about bullshit some peer or other had to put up with at various stages of his or her career. Even ones that seemed like they had it all. E.g., my previous institution was particularly uneven in terms of the insider club and the benefits they enjoyed relative to the rest of us. But eventually you realize there have been gradations of treatment within the ranks of the Annointed Ones. Within my fields of study, there are peers that seem like they were in the right research groups/departments/collaborations at the right time..but it turns out that in reality they were in a living hell.

Much of this information about other people’s careers has come to me long after I’ve made peace with my notion of the distribution of fortune. So I mostly just feel sorry for them and I lament the effect on their careers almost as much as I resent the effects of ill fortune on my own.

But I don’t know what to tell trainees. I just do this grampa thing of relating the anecdotes akin to the ones above and telling them the pendulum swings back and forth. Their peers who seem to be riding high will eventually be hit by misfortune. And any one thinking they themselves lack “luck” will eventually look back and admit some good fortune came their way. I’m sure it doesn’t help much.

3 Responses to “Career Jealousy”

  1. Miss Ingdata Says:

    Many academics need to get a life (outside of their career).


  2. Dnaspitter Says:

    I would also point out that the “distribution ” factor works across your life. I’ve seen people be incredibly lucky in their career (nobel prize), while also incredible unlucky in their personal life (death of a child).


  3. CW Says:

    I think this ‘distribution’ argument does not sufficiently take into account the strong positive feedback effects there can be from being ‘lucky’ at particular points in a career. E.g. getting an early career fellowship that provides more time and support for research is a great predictor for getting further grants and fellowships (because, unsurprisingly, you are producing more than your ‘peers’ who did not have the same time and support). It is not my experience that these kinds of advantages balance out across researchers across time (as your ‘distribution’ seems to imply), rather much more common for them to cluster on the same, initially lucky, people. However I agree that being jealous of other people’s luck is rarely a productive response.


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