My Back-Up Plan
Today at lunch we were discussing the predictability of career outcomes. How often do small chance events make or break a person’s success? Eventually someone brought the case down to earth: What would have happened to me, Bryan Caplan, if I didn’t get my job at GMU econ back in 1997?
I actually had a detailed contingency plan. In my 4th year of grad school, I only applied to academic jobs. If I got something good, I’d take it. Otherwise I’d hang around Princeton for a 5th year, and try again. The second time around, I intended to apply to a wider range of positions, including business jobs.
Part of my contingency plan was never applying for non-academic government jobs. I turned down interviews with the Fed and other agencies without telling my committee. Why did I draw such a stark distinction? Simple. In an academic government job, unlike almost any other government job, I knew I’d never have to act against my conscience. Like Thoreau, I believe that “The only obligation which I have a right
to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”
I was fortunate. I had nine academic interviews in 1997, and received exactly one job offer… for my dream job. If GMU hadn’t been hiring that year, I would have tried again in 1998. In the latter scenario, there’s roughly a 50% chance that I would have ended up in a high-stress, intellectually unfulfilling job like economic consulting.
If that happened, I would have made far more money than I did. But with a 60-75 hour work week, it would have been nearly impossible to publish. So I probably would have been frozen out of the academic game forever. Since I never liked high-stress conventional work, and have strong self-control, I would have saved most of my earnings to retire early. The upshot: If GMU hadn’t hired me back in 1997, I’d probably be retiring right around now.
What would I have done with the rest of my life? I would have tried to get a think tank job. If that failed, I would have searched for a decent adjunct professorship somewhere. Maybe in the end I could have wormed my way into a tenure-track job, but I doubt it.
Luck largely does wash out in purely financial terms. That’s yet another lesson of twin research. If you have conventional tastes, luck might wash out for broader measures of career success, too. But if my experience has taught me anything, it’s that a weirdo like me who wants a fulfilling career needs to be at the right place at the right time.
P.S. In my case, “luck” is also known as “meeting Tyler Cowen the summer before I started graduate school.”