There’s an interesting discussion over at Cosmic Variance regarding what it takes to get tenure. I might have some ideas I’d want to put down, but for the moment I’ll just give them a shout-out since they’re usually a thoughtful and timely read.
Sean Carroll: How to Get Tenure at a Major Research University
Julianne Dalcanton: How to Get Tenure at Almost Every Other Research University
Sean’s reply: Lifestyle Choices
I responded briefly in the comments as someone to whom these posts are addressed. Since I don’t have tenure and am not yet sure whether I’ll ever achieve it, I’m not in a position to directly evaluate how useful this advice is, except that it does seem to square with my own notion of what makes sense based on my experiences so far. In particular, one of my old and dearly regarded mentors once told me that getting tenure somewhere is not nearly as hard as getting a junior faculty position somewhere — though it may not be at the institution at which you were originally hired. Marginalizing over reasonable uncertainty, I can deal with that.
To briefly rehash my comment: Like Julianne, I definitely plan to tell my students and postdocs someday that the job market sucks, and that they may or may not actually end up with a faculty position at the end of the day. Faculty jobs are rare, and it takes dedication to go after them. I’ll make a point of keeping up with former students and colleagues who leave academia for industry, public service, or other career paths, so that I can give my own people constructive examples of how others like them have made the transition successfully.
But I also plan to tell them, in no uncertain terms, that they’re solely responsible for looking out for their own careers, and to hunt down and ask for support that they need (we all need support at various times — recommendation letters, straight talk about our performance, strategy planning, etc.). While I don’t have experience with non-academic jobs, it sounds like the kind of attitude which would serve one well outside of academia as well, which in this uncertain world is a necessity.
It can be easy to imagine that just working hard and following others’ expectations will result in fair outcomes and everything will be okay — and that seems to be manifestly not true in the real world. I’ve met a number of young scientists in my years of doing science who seem to me to be coasting along waiting until they’re rewarded for their effort, and while I once felt that way — or perhaps, with some introspection, because I once felt that way — such an attitude, or even the semblance of it, now astounds me. Or maybe they know that times are hard, but they don’t understand how to begin to navigate the web of alternatives in anything like an independent way. The field will continue, because there will always be a few unusually aggressive and self-directed individuals who will rise to the top, and presumably some resources with which those people can do science. But since the best research ideas can come from anywhere, I think established scientists owe it to the field, as well as to their junior scientist charges, to actively instill self-reliance early on into everyone they work with, empowering those junior scientists to boldly strike out on their own way in the world and make their ideas (whether academic or not) reality.
So you need to know what you want, then find out how to get it, and then pursue it. This requires self-awareness, flexibility, and discipline as well as sheer (mere?) tenacity.