In a highly viewed article published on LinkedIn Pulse, Beth Crocker of Crocker Finance gave some advice to women in the business world. And while I think there’s plenty there that’s useful to think through, there was one part that I really wished I’d known better at a much younger age. She refers to it as “stop focusing solely on getting an A on the project.”
Man, the only thing I knew how to do was get A’s. I thought that academic life was like baseball, and that if you hit everything that was thrown at you, you’d be guaranteed to be in the majors. So I learned how to hit fastballs and cut fastballs in quantitative classes, how to hit knuckleballs in seminars, how to hit curves and sliders in lit reviews and qualitative research design. You could not get a pitch past me. Still can’t. And yet…
In her essay, Crocker quotes some business guru Harvey Coleman as saying that career success is based on Performance, Image, and Exposure (or, because business gurus can’t go two sentences without an acronym, PIE). Coleman further does some faux-quantification to assert that career success is 10% performance, 30% image, and 60% exposure. But I think it’s not quite so additive.
Performance is like milk quality from the dairy. There’s a baseline you have to hit, and after that, nothing else matters so much. Being a few standard deviations above the baseline isn’t any help. And once that baseline’s achieved, the P variable falls out of the mix altogether, leaving you only with I and E.
There’s only so much you can do about the image part; chromosomes play a pretty big role, although at least you can dress like the people who might hire you. And the exposure comes as much from others as it does from your own activity; you need to be showcased, brought into the inner circles. If your dissertation advisor or postdoc lab supervisor isn’t bragging about you on a regular basis to the most important people in the field, then she or he just isn’t doing the job. If she or he isn’t introducing you to colleagues at conferences, isn’t pushing you to the front of the stage, that’s a dereliction of duty.
So for those of you who are in a position to lead the academic growth of others, remember that their great performance is an awesome starting place, but that your responsibility to polish and promote may have a larger impact on their career than anything they can contribute themselves. Another A won’t help much.
There’s a great story told by the late Abner Mikva, a US Representative and federal judge, about his early days in political life. He walked into a Chicago ward office and said, “I’d like to volunteer to work for Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas.” The boss looks at him and says, “Who sent you?” Mikva replied, “Nobody sent me.” And the boss stuck the cigar back in his mouth and said, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”
Academic life is like that. They don’t want nobody that nobody sent.