Since graduate school I have been on the fringes of fame. Some famous people you’ve probably heard of can pick me out of a crowd if asked. Even more would say my face looks familiar. A few may be familiar with some of my work.
I’m at an R1 that has been rising in the ranks. We hire people who are cooler than I am, which is a good position to be in, and they’re happy to make the move (getting offered an extremely high salary helps).
I have an amazing leave position but my office is definitely the after thought… but I have an office and not a cubicle.
I’m on the fringes.
Right when I graduated it bothered me that I was in the bottom half of my class. Many people thought my placement was disappointing. Many people thought less of me after asking where I was going (an R1, but not a top 15 school) or what my teaching load was (average, rather than low) or what my salary was (high but not phenomenal). There’s nothing quite like being asked those questions and then having the questioner say, “Oh” and turn to talk with a more important person. I remember sitting at a post-conference dinner with a guy I knew from grad school a year after we’d gotten jobs who hadn’t placed highly (but was still higher placed than me!) bemoaning how he wanted to be one of them but he wasn’t, he was just on the fringe, and he’d always be on the fringe. And I felt exactly the same way.
Reputation means a lot in economics. We, possibly more than other fields, use signals to indicate quality rather than letting work speak for itself. Most of our journals are single, not double-blind. People at top programs get more benefit of the doubt. They say it doesn’t happen, that it’s just that quality is higher when you’re a top person surrounded by top quality colleagues and RAs, but I catch myself doing it and I’m aware that I do it (so I’m able to try to counter-act my initial feelings). Many people don’t have any idea they do it, and, as we know, implicit bias leads to bias unless actively counter-acted. So it’s harder for someone in my situation to get the benefit of the doubt with publications, especially given a female name. I’m not automatically accepted to conferences. I can’t just coast on my reputation or potential. I actually have to produce. As one of my friends says, I have to work twice as hard to get half as far.
But I still sometimes get accepted. I still sometimes get invited. I get to hang out from time to time with truly amazing people who are doing great work. Having my university’s star rise means that some of that glory is reflected back onto me. By having amazing colleagues (who help me do amazing work), it no longer seems like my placement was disappointing. My teaching load is still average and my salary is no longer “high” (for an economist– it’s still pretty high) but I’m not yet willing to try for an outside offer to counteract years without raises.
And I no longer feel like I’m a disappointment or that there’s anything wrong with being on the fringes. Yes, life would be a lot easier with more benefit of the doubt and better RAs and more funding and on and on and on. But I have room to grow. And just being in the same building as superstars is pretty amazing. (And, a small part of me notes that many of the stars in my graduate class are no longer even in academia, while several people who were afterthoughts to their advisers have moved up to be professors at top schools after extremely important post-dissertation publications.)
It’s much easier now for me to think of others’ cvs as goals to aim for (and being honest, without an army of highly qualified RAs and a lower teaching load, there’s no way my cv will match my counterparts’ at top schools, but I can still try to finally get a top general interest paper) rather than evidence of my own inadequacy. People are treating me better and I’m more confident. I do good work. And this year I’m spending a lot of time trying to sell it. And, tiring though that is, and as much as it takes me away from you know, actually doing work, it’s kind of fun.
I like being on the fringes.
Do you prefer being on top or bottom or somewhere in between? Does the situation make a difference?