The theme of this posting is ‘Educated, Unemployed and Frustrated’ and it is a commentary/response on the article by the same name from the March 20 edition of The New York Times. The original article was written by Matthew Klein. The main thesis of Mr. Klein’s article is that recent graduates (both of undergraduate and graduate school degrees) are having trouble finding work, esp. in their fields, and that this trend is quite similar to what has been seen as the catalyzing force beyond the political movements seen across the Middle East since February, i.e., the ‘Arab Spring’. He asks the pointed question, ‘How much longer until the rest of the rich world follows [the Arabs’] lead?’ Necessarily, this issue is of importance for a blog pertaining to careers within a particular discipline, e.g., the biomedical profession.
My aim in commenting on this article is not so much a socio-political analysis of imminent revolution in the U.S. – far from it. Rather, the point is to isolate why Mr. Klein sees the present dearth of employment as a source of frustration. In particular, we zero in on the following explanation: “My generation was taught that all we needed to succeed was an education and hard work.” He then goes on to describe friends whose fortunes were not so great after exercising hard work that led to completion of “top-tier” education. In fact, I know exactly what Mr. Klein means when he says that these are the only two necessary ingredients. I was told the same thing.
But I have some bad news – both for Mr. Klein and myself (of yesteryear, i.e., before I realized this fact): those are necessary, though not sufficient conditions for success. This phrase – ‘necessary, though not sufficient’ – is a phrase commonly heard in mathematics and other strictly logic-based disciplines. But it applies here. In particular, there is another ingredient, and as un-self-made-destiny as it sounds, it sometimes boils down to pure chance. Yes, I would say that pure dumb luck is that sufficient condition, with the other two necessary ones added in for support over time, which can make or break your success.
Of course, there are many kinds of luck and many ways to ‘make’ your luck. For example, if you go to a conference and talk to no one then you have made your chance of getting lucky – get your minds out of the gutter, kids! – practically zero. But if you find common ground between other attendees and use that as a basis for conversation then your chance increases. Maybe it’s not luck that you need right now (e.g., a job). Or maybe it is. The point is that this word everyone throws around these days – networking – actually means something. It means “creating your potential avenues for luck.” These avenues can be person-to-person or person-to-institution, so don’t underestimate the connections implied by your association with a particular institution (e.g., university, company, etc.).
So while it is necessary to work hard and know stuff, there is no substitute for sending out those torpedoes until one hits. The tough part, of course, is doing it over and over again until one does hit. It is easy to get discouraged. But it’s a basic fact of life that people work with people they like to work with (e.g., look at Andrew Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail as an example of that in banking and government). They don’t work with people they like – that’s different than people they like to work with. All you have to do as a prospective candidate is find out what it is they’re looking for. Once you know that, your participation in the imminent revolutions in Union Square will not be necessary!