Second chances of the professional sort

A little over a year ago I was invited to speak at a conference on Major Transitions in Evolution organized by an incredibly impressive group of students at the Universidad Nacional Autónonma de México. I couldn’t resist participating given the students, the venue, and because some intellectual heavy-weights in biology and evolutionary biology were taking part too. The event did not disappoint. You can see videos of the wonderful and wide-ranging lectures here. (If you are interested, mine is the first one at this link, starting at about 2 minutes and 45 seconds in.)

Of the other speakers attending, I was particularly excited to meet Bruce Alberts. He currently holds the Chancellor’s Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, after serving as the Editor-in-Chief at Science from 2009-2013 and 12 years as the President of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2014 he was the lead author on a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the systemic flaws in biomedical research, which, I feel, serves as a commentary about biology writ large. I really wanted to meet him in person.

By crazy chance, the very first night I arrived at the hotel, I went down to the restaurant to get something to eat. Who was sitting at a table there with his wife but Bruce Alberts! I went up and introduced myself, and they very kindly invited me to join them for dinner.

While I appreciate a lot of what we talked about, and the opportunity to meet him, I can’t quite shake my feelings about something he did later in the conference. He spoke with students and told them about how he had failed his PhD defense at Harvard University. I am likely mis-remembering the details, but he talked about how he almost didn’t get his PhD and thought his career was over before it had really even started. But, he got a second chance to defend, and look what happened…

Something about this story never sat quite right with me. Instead of seeming like an inspirational story to never-give-up, it felt more like a demonstration of his privilege. He could mess up big time, but he still got a second chance to make it right. I’m not at all convinced that this applies to women and under-represented groups of people in academia.

This crossed my mind again today when I read about Jonah Lehrer. He has a new book out called “A Book About Love.” At first, I was reading the review in the New York Times and was thinking it was a book I’d like to read.

But then I realized who he is. He’s the Columbia graduate, journalist who rose to prominence very quickly a few years back but blew it all by plagiarizing, fabricating Bob Dylan quotes, and other unethical things along those lines. On outline of what happened can be found on Wikipedia.

He breeched the foundation of intellectual/journalistic/academic ethics. How do you trust someone after that? This wasn’t just one little mis-step. He did repeated, calculated ethical breeches. As I have said many times in the past, you have complete control over your integrity, but once you lose it, you can’t ever get it back. I don’t think I can trust his research and writing, no matter how much remorse he claims.

But here he is. Featured in the New York Times. Back again.

Talk about the most amazing second chance ever.

Second chances. As I think through all of the people I have known personally or have known of in academia, anectodally, second chances are not equally distributed. A second chance is a  luxury not afforded to all. For people who are not traditionally seen as members of the academy, the rule seems to be more like one-strike-you’re-out. And the strike isn’t even necessarily due to one’s own actions.

I’ve always felt on the edge professionally, that one mis-step and my chances at a successful academic career would instantly drop to zero. It is very easy to fall off the edge. This fear is why I worked, I kid you not, 10-12 hour days, almost every day of every week for close to 10 years at the start of my career. (I would not recommend this for mental health reasons.) It worked though. Here I am, tenured, and at a well-respected institution. But I was also incredibly lucky, at the right place at the right time and working very hard — it takes both.  And I was forutnate. I never needed a second chance.

Luck and second chances, we don’t really have control over those. Senior people dole those out to the junior people they think are deserving of them.

It would be interesting to survey academics to see how many men & women, and whites & minorities who made it past tenure needed and were given a second chance. The null hypothesis is that second chances are evenly distributed. The alternative hypothesis, which I am inclined to see as the more likely, is that they are most definitely not.

One thought on “Second chances of the professional sort”

  1. I am astounded that, with your natural & honed abilities, you always felt like you were on the edge. You were superb graduate student & colleague. So my sense is that this feeling was about you, not any objective measure of your ability. I notice that many who succeed in academia feel like this and are driven to work very hard. So the need for a “second chance” becomes moot. And yes, my gut instinct is that people who don’t fit the academic stereotype get fewer second chances than others.

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