Tenure and luck

I recently got official notice that I have tenure from Cornell [1]. With competition fierce for tenure-track jobs, I’m keenly aware that someone else might be writing this blog post right now [2]. And, though skill and hard work played a role, I want to acknowledge and call out the role of luck, circumstance, and coincidence in how I got here [3] — much of which was the result of other people.

I wouldn’t be so happy at Cornell or willing to stay if Lindsay Benoit [4] didn’t like Ithaca so much after moving here (2011).

I wouldn’t be as well known in my research community as a contributing member except for François Guimbretière and Sue Fussell inviting me to serve on PCs they were running shortly after they got hired here [5]. (2009-2010)

I wouldn’t have been hired by Information Science at Cornell except that my postdoc here gave me the chance to work with tons of folks in the Networks Project at the Institute for Social Sciences [6]. (2008)

I might have been hired in Communication instead of IS if Sue Fussell hadn’t applied to Comm the same year I did [7]. (2007)

I wouldn’t have applied for the postdoc, except that labmate Sean McNee from Minnesota met Sadat Shami, PhD student with Geri Gay at Cornell, at a late night CHI party where Sadat told Sean I should apply [8]. (2006)

I wouldn’t have even been able to apply for that postdoc with Geri, except that Louise Barkhuus had to turn it down late in the game to manage a two-body problem [9]. (2006)

I wouldn’t have moved into my niche in the socio-technical gap [10] without John Riedl and Joe Konstan at Minnesota, Paul Resnick and Yan Chen at Michigan, and Bob Kraut and Sara Kiesler at Carnegie Mellon collaborating on a grant while I was a student [11] that brought social science, design, recommender systems, and online communities together. (2003)

I wouldn’t have had a CV that looked postdoc-worthy if I hadn’t been lucky to have a high hit rate of papers as a student [12] and an awesome group of folks to collaborate with at Minnesota [13]. (2000-2006)

I wouldn’t have applied at Minnesota except that I had bumped into recommender systems as part of my masters thesis research [14] and thought they were cool. (1998-1999)

I wouldn’t have applied for a PhD at all except that James Madison University needed a CS instructor right after I graduated from the masters and they trusted me to do it [15]. (1998-2000)

I wouldn’t have thought of James Madison except that Sue Bender [16] had gone there for her undergrad, and wouldn’t have been able to go except that they were willing to fund an untested music ed major as a CS grad student [17]. (1996)

I wouldn’t have gone back to school for a CS degree if I hadn’t gotten a job as the one-man computer band for Progressive Medical Inc.: hardware, helpdesk, and network guy, plus maintaining a custom COBOL database [18]. (1995)

I wouldn’t have gotten that job except that David Bianconi (of Progressive Medical) got a recommendation to ask me from someone at Fifth Third Bank who I tried to help with installing a modem [19], and who remembered that when David was looking for someone to take over the tech side of the business a year later. (1994)

I wouldn’t have been working at Fifth Third except that in student teaching, seventh graders proved to be too dangerous for me to handle when armed with musical instruments [20] — and that Sue had gotten me interested in temp jobs, which is how I got hired there. (1993)

I wouldn’t have met Sue except that a traveling concert band at Ohio State needed two replacements for an overnight trip, who were me and her [21]. (1991)

And, I would never have had the skills to be interested in CS except that my dad somehow knew that he should buy me [22] a TRS-80 Model 1 [23] when I was 7. (1978)

There are also tons of people [24] and groups to acknowledge: parents for putting me in a position to be able to do this [25]; immediate family, notably Sue and Lindsay, for putting up with all the irregular schedule crap that comes along with having both great flexibility and responsibility in academic jobs; collaborators, co-authors, and mentors around research and teaching [26]; the folks who make the computational and bureaucratic systems that I worked with run well; students who testified that I’m not a total teaching loser; people who’ve trusted me with money along the way (largely NSF); participants who made the studies possible and organizations like Facebook and Wikipedia that have given me interesting contexts to study and tinker with.

I’ve probably left both some people and some luck out, but I think these are the highlights. Not all of these are necessarily for the better. In 2006 if I hadn’t gotten this postdoc I might have wound up at PARC or Drexel [27] and those could have wound up great too; maybe I would have been super-successful in Comm; teaching music might have been an even better life.

But it’s been a good ride, and to go back to my original point, a lucky and contingent one. My list is pretty long but I bet if you asked around, a lot of successful people would have their own stories of coincidence, luck, opportunity, and timing [28]. If you have some of your own to share, I’d be happy to hear them.

It’s probably not much comfort in the moment of a paper rejection, a turn-down from a school, an interview that goes badly [29] — but I’ve found that as I’ve become more mindful of the role circumstances play in life, I’ve mostly been happier about things no matter how they turn out. Hopefully reading this was useful for you, too.


[1] It says so right in our Workday system, which I checked on the day the letter promised it would be official. Even at the end I figured it might all be a mistake.

[2] My guess is that many successful people in academia have similar non-linear, luck-filled trajectories; we have a tendency to attribute good to ourselves and bad to the world but it’s nice to be honest sometimes.

[3] I am also influenced to do this by stories about the prevalence of adjunct and alt-academic jobs in the world. I don’t know what my orientation should be toward this, but it’s a real issue that many folks who come to grad school picturing a R1 position don’t wind up there.

[4] Current fiancee, to be married in November (in Austin, largely because we liked it as a mini-vacation after CHI 2012. Circumstance, indeed.)

[5] Serving on PCs and reviewer, by the way, is a real eye-opener if you haven’t done this already.

[6] There were a ton of good candidates in the IS search that year: Krzysztof Gajos, Tovi Grossman, Richard Davis, and Julie Kientz. All of them looked at least as good as me on paper, and without both the learning from and the collaboration with the folks at ISS it’s unclear I would have even gotten an interview. Plus, I met Ted Welser and Laura Black through that and, among other things, learned about poker from them. Geri hooked me up with that group, another thing to be thankful for.

[7] I still remember Gilly Leshed telling me that she’d heard someone senior was applying for the comm job that year and being pretty sad. And, as with [6], this is a “probably” (I might not have gotten the comm job either way).

[8] I had seen the ad for the postdoc at the conference, but figured I wouldn’t be good enough for Cornell. I still have serious issues with impostor syndrome.

[9] I remember chatting with her about this last year at CHI and thinking that I was pretty lucky, and also about how we all have to make choices around balancing family and career on a regular basis.

[10] $1 to Mark Ackerman.

[11] My only regret from that is that I wish I’d gotten to spend a semester at one of the other places to see a different look at things.

[12] You need to be lucky enough to get some papers accepted and becoming well-known in the community as a grad student. I had more the first than the second, largely because I was pretty bad at meeting people and networking. Students: read Phil Agre’s Networking on the Network. Soon.

[13] The fact that GroupLens was structured around a set of common problems and encouraged collaboration between grad students was a perfect fit for how I do things (though, I suppose it also shaped it).

[14] I still remember getting the comments back on the draft from Christopher Fox, that the work was good but “the tone was inappropriate for a scholarly monograph”. Judge for yourself (section 1.4 is particularly choice). And, some things don’t change: I got essentially the same comment from our grant office about an internal pre-proposal for a National Research Traineeship grant. It’s too bad: the grant would have been in part about the management, method, and ethics around doing social science research with social media datasets. Timely, that.

[15] And then realized that if you want to teach at a university in the long term, you more or less need a PhD except for some smaller places — and even that has become much less common than it was in 2000.

[16] Sue and I were married for 17 years.

[17] The princely sum of $5,500 a year, which was not quite enough to live on in Harrisonburg, Virginia, but pretty close.

[18] I still have a fond place in my heart for both COBOL and maintenance programming.

[19] Failing miserably, it turned out. I did also help them with some custom Access database development that must have gone better, although I didn’t know any more about Access than I did about networking or COBOL when I started.

[20] The high schoolers weren’t that much better for me. Trumpet divas and the “suck band”. I think I’d have a fighting chance now but at 22 I was no match.

[21] I played one of the loudest wrong notes in recorded history in Jackson, Ohio.

[22] To be fair, he might have bought it in part for himself, too; he had some gadget in him.

[23] Four K of memory and a cassette drive. Feel the power of the TRS-80 Model I!

[24] Plus all the people already mentioned, and others who I have not for narrative or memory failure reasons. To folks I miss: I am sorry for not listing you.

[25] Going bankrupt in the process.

[26] Special academic shouts out to Geri, Jeff Hancock, and Jon Kleinberg at Cornell; John, Loren Terveen, and Joe at Minnesota; and Mark Lattanzi and Chris at James Madison.

[27] Where I’d be The Senior HCI dude now, which is a little scary. They’ve really built some nice momentum there.

[28] I wish I could write a good blog post about how to increase your chances of those things; maybe someday.

[29] I have some stories about that, too. A future post, perhaps.

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  1. Congratulations!
    Two factors (maybe three) missing from your post; factors also related to “luck”:
    1) you were born white
    2) you were born male
    3) class? Tell us more? Are you a first generation college student?

  2. Sure, and you can add being born in the US, in the mid-to-late 20th century, middle class, and lots of other factors about the starting position if you want to call out the role of all of circumstance. My main point was more about the contingencies and events that happened along the way that shape the course (and also to thank the people involved in those), but the starting point also matters.

    And yes, first generation college student; parents from rural and poor parts of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania who worked hard to put me and my sister (law degree) in a position to succeed.