Your Big Break, If Any
By Bryan Caplan
I got my big break in the summer of 1993 when I met Tyler Cowen. I was a summer fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies, and he was our weekly speaker. We had time to chat afterwards, and I learned that he’d written a paper on the economics of anarchy. I soon wrote a critique, he liked it, and we stayed in touch via email when I started at Princeton a couple months later. When I was on the job market in January of 1997, Tyler persuaded GMU’s committee to interview me. I had nine interviews, but only the GMU interview turned into a fly-out, which soon turned into a tenure-track job offer, which eventually turned into my dream job for life.
What makes me so sure that meeting Tyler was a genuine big break? Like all academic departments, GMU only interviews a tiny fraction of all applicants. Without Tyler to vouch for me, I doubt I would have been interviewed. Since I got no other fly-outs, the likely counter-factual is that I wouldn’t have landed a tenure-track job, and would have accepted an unpleasant position in economic consulting. Maybe I would have done better on the academic job market if I’d tried again in my fifth year. Yet given my spotty success the first time around, there’s no reason for confidence on my part.
What’s the right model of my big break – discontinuity of the world, imperfect information, or rationing? Since GMU really is the best libertarian economics department in the world by a wide margin, maybe my opportunities really were seriously discontinuous. But I still think imperfect information was key. Tyler aside, several GMU faculty members probably would have vouched for me during the hiring process if they’d known me better. For obvious reasons, though, they didn’t get to know me until after GMU hired me. Rationing also probably played a role; if GMU econ didn’t have a slot in 1997, Tyler’s strongest recommendation wouldn’t have saved me.
Yes, this is just one man’s story. Mere anecdote. My question for readers: Did you ever have a big break in your career? If so, what were the circumstances? How would you explain your experience theoretically – discontinuity, imperfect information, rationing, or what?