I’m thinking about optimism and odds.
Never tell us the odds, because they will always be in our favor.
I’ve conditioned myself to think that 50% are good odds. But they’re not, they’re exactly neutral odds. And if 50% is pretty good, then 33% isn’t bad, ¼ is doable, 1/10 is at least plausible, and 1/100 is possible.
But it’s not, really.
This is the academic job game: having come from that world, a world where maybe 1/12 or 1/20 (probably worse) humanities (and possibly other) PhDs get a tenure-track job, and maybe ½-3/4 or so of these folks actually get tenure.
But let’s backtrack a bit…
Odds of graduating high school (Age 25 and over):
88/100. Not bad odds, at all! (9/10, would graduate again.)
Odds of earning a bachelor’s degree:
32%. Decent odds, presumably, but on the negative side (3/10, might graduate.)
Odds of getting a PhD:
2%. (1/50, probably not worth betting on.)
Odds of becoming a college professor with that PhD in hand (within two years+)?
20% (1/5. Meh.)
So: odds of being a generic America student and becoming a tenured professor are: 0.4%.
In other words, don’t bet on it. One out of 250 people will do it. And, honestly, that sounds inflated. Part of it is rounding error. The real number is close to 1 in 300. But I can’t even believe that’s the case. Like I said above, if you’re working in the humanities, your odds are worse: maybe 1/10 PhDs in humanities get tenure.
At any rate, you say, at least it’s not random. Of course, real life isn’t random: odds give us an image, but it’s an abstracted one. But what if we’ve beaten some of the odds already? This isn’t pure chance, of course.
So let’s see: perhaps you graduated first in your high school (I did). 1/400, we’ll round it. And maybe you graduated first in your class in college (thanks for asking!): 1/4000, maybe. And maybe you capped it with a PhD (humanities, thanks): so perhaps ~1/10 (of those college graduates) managed to do that according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Educational_attainment_in_the_United_States.
Odds of acing the academy (that’s what we’ll call this): Your odds of coming in first place: 1 in 16,000,000.
Now I didn’t quite get first place in graduate school (3.96 GPA), but the odds are still probably similar.
What I’m trying to say (really poorly) is this: no matter how well you do as a student, you can’t ensure a favorable outcome, if you define a favorable outcome by a tenured professorship (fortunately, I don’t anymore, and I have found a different favorable outcome).
You can work as hard as you want, but you can’t guarantee it.
Full disclosure: I applied to maybe two tenure-track jobs. And I didn’t try very hard on those. It’s because I knew these were the odds, and at some point, you can’t keep betting on one-in-a-million chances. You can be one out of ten amazing graduates, and if there’s only three jobs, it’s not likely you’ll get a job. No matter how well you did before, how much you tried, how ward you worked, how truly you believed.
At some point you can’t beat the odds anymore.