The Thin Line Between Success and Something Else

Five years into my graduate school career, I was in a bind. The guaranteed money provided by my school had come to an end, and I had no recourse but to stitch together external funding sources  for however long it would take to finish my dissertation. I applied left and right for fellowships and grants: some abroad, some domestic, some residential and some not. I must have submitted 30-some-odd applications. I ended up getting a single offer. From Harvard, of all places.

A couple years later, as I was finishing my dissertation, I found myself officially on the job market for the first time. I was fairly agnostic about the academic world, and thus was pretty selective about the positions I applied for in the field. At the same time, I looked to jobs in the research and policymaking worlds, as well as postdoctoral fellowships that would allow me to bolster my résumé. I submitted at least 40 or 50 applications over the course of the year, if not more. I ended up with a single interview. It turned into my lone offer.

It is almost comical how many times I have encountered similar such crossroads the last five or six years of my professional life, and ended up being rescued by a single opportunity in the nick of time. I have never juggled multiple job offers, never gotten the chance to play one institute off the other while enjoying the stability of an ongoing contract. My safety nets have centered on time off at my sister’s place or on plans to secure undetermined courses to teach at unspecified colleges in a hypothetical town I would have to move to.

Naturally, this is my own doing. I chose to pursue a doctorate in the social sciences, after all. I did it at a university not ranked in the top 25, at a time when top-tier schools have increasing difficulty placing their alumni. I forged on despite apprehension about joining academia, at a time when the path within that world had become limited, and the path outside that world called into question the utility of the degree at all. And I finished despite the fact that I saw the entire system in the process of being devalued.

But putting aside my poor understanding of macroeconomic trends – or my inability to make career decisions accordingly – there is something darkly humorous about the fact that life has been this game of inches. That my résumé at face value might look somewhat impressive from the outside but belies myriad near misses and close calls, glosses over my dependence upon circumstances well outside my control and the series of lottery tickets I have managed to scrape up in the right place at the right time.

A good friend and I often joked about whether we would be the least successful people to have spent time – if fleetingly, on a fellowship – at Harvard. We were in the midst of a frustrating application season, as recipients of one rejection after another. But we were looking in the rearview mirror too, both being similarly attuned to how close we were to nothing before ending up there in the first place.* Indeed, the breadth of our experiences – then and since – have only reaffirmed the thin line between success and lack thereof.

*I was on a waitlist for one other fellowship before ultimately being rejected: at Stanford. To recap, my literal options: Harvard, maybe Stanford, nothing.

I wonder sometimes if my story is not exceptional, only the one I feel most acutely. I wonder if I linger too much on the scenarios that did not come to be. Mostly though, I wonder whether another person, another personality molded by a different upbringing and environment, would look at these same events through the lens of just rewards rather than coincidence, ascribe them to hard work rather than luck. Whether they would come to take these outcomes for granted, and to eventually believe that they deserved it.

Regardless of anyone else however, I am well aware of the ever-present precariousness of my situation, and of the fragility of it all. It’s another way in which I’ve been lucky, I suppose. There’s this great saying from Barry Switzer: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” People like me – we’re constantly reminded that we didn’t. I prefer it that way.

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