The role of luck in an academic career

Hello blogging friends, and apologies yet again for the lack of updates. Did I mention that I was on sabbatical at the moment? You would think this would mean more time to do blogging, but in fact it has been a whirlwind of catch up for the NERC and Wellcome Trust projects, both of which have gone amazingly well and have produced some really exciting results. So I've been busy working with the team to start writing up results, presenting at conferences, and crucially, applying for more grants to keep the research going (and keep everyone employed...). Tangentially related to this is some good news - firstly, I passed my 2 year probation period at Newcastle (I've been here 2 years and 7 months now), and in the same week, I also found out I am being promoted to Senior Lecturer. Hurray! I think the 2 grants went a long way towards getting that promotion. And this is where luck yet again plays a role in an academic career, even after getting over the many hurdles it takes to actually getting an academic job. There was a post on Twittter recently abut a researcher whose grant had been rejected from NERC because they couldn't get enough reviewers, and this reminded me of my own grant related traumas. I mostly post about exciting successes on here, but I think it's important to recognize the failures, or in this case, the near failures, and the role of luck.

My NERC grant has been the best thing that has happened in my career. It has enabled me to build a team of great researchers, buy all the new equipment that I need, and set up an entire new thin section lab (more on that later). The research we're doing is really exciting and potentially very important. It was an excellent proposal (obviously, or it wouldn't have got funding, the success rate is around 10%). But that is only the minimum requirement - the amount of luck that went into getting the grant was significant. Firstly, there is the process of internal demand management. For NERC grants, universities are only allowed to submit a certain number of proposals per round, for Newcastle this number is two. This already makes it difficult for archaeology, as a relatively small player compared to other NERC subject areas, it is easy to be dismissed in favour of 'bigger' subjects with long track records of NERC supported research (agriculture, environmental geoscience, engineering, climate). For the January 2016 round that I submitted to, I actually didn't make it through the internal demand management process (I was the reserve). It was only a stroke of luck that another applicant dropped out at the last minute, so I had literally a week to get mine finalised and submitted. I am forever grateful to our amazing research administrators, without whom there is no way I would have been able to do that within a week.

Then there was the review process. Firstly, I had to change assessment panels as no-one on the panel I submitted to felt they had experience of archaeological science. Luckily that was ok. Secondly, like the poor individual on Twitter, my proposal was almost rejected as they couldn't find a third reviewer. Again, it was only luck that I saw the email in time and replied immediately with a long list of suggested reviewers, and that one of those reviewers actually agreed to review it within a very short time frame. Anonymous reviewer, I will be forever grateful. And finally, the actual assessment panel. As an AHRC peer review college member, I have some idea of how these panels work, and a lot of it is down to having a panel member who supports the proposal. Luckily for me, there was actually one archaeological scientist on the panel when my proposal was assessed, who was able to make the case in support of my proposal. I have my doubts that I would have made it had the panel been entirely environmental scientists or similar.

Archaeological science is an odd thing. Good archaeological science is truly an interdisciplinary endeavor, with equal 'hard science' and 'humanities' informed research design and interpretation. Whilst both AHRC and NERC state that interdisciplinary research will not be penalized, in practice the way things are set up make it so much harder for interdisciplinary projects. And this in turn, can have a huge impact on the trajectory of a career.