Enjoying being the smallest fish in the big pond

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?

20 Responses to “Enjoying being the smallest fish in the big pond”

  1. moom Says:

    What work do research assistants do for you in economics? And why would higher skilled ones be better? I’m curious, because my career has been on the edges of economics, (now I am director of one of an economics program, though I don’t have a PhD in economics) and never found much use for a research assistant. There is a PhD student in our department who I hired as an RA but basically I am paying him to coauthor a paper with me. He needed the money, I suggested the topic, he has stronger math skills than me. Also, recently, I noticed people mentioning getting an RA job to increase chances of getting into a good PhD program. So, who hires an RA that isn’t a grad student yet?

  2. Leah Says:

    There is sometimes a blessed joy to being able to be in your own little corner and have people mostly leave you to your own devices.

  3. xykademiqz Says:

    I feel similar. I am at a very good university, but it’s not MIT or Stanford. It’s better than the school where I got my PhD, so I probably did as well as possible at the time when I looked for a job post-PhD. Today, I am not famous or drowning in grant money, but I am doing well and, as you say, I have room to grow and have been hitting my stride in terms of the problems I want to address and how I like to have them addressed. It turns out a lot of people have seen my papers and remember my name, so I must be doing something right. It helps that I have had very good graduate students; it turns out there are many smart and capable students around, and if you know how to pick them and train them, they can do amazing things. My undergrads (those who did research with me) also routinely go to grad school at the very top places.

    I also don’t like the idea of wasting people’s time interviewing if you wouldn’t seriously consider moving (many people do it nonetheless, as you say, to get leverage when negotiating salary increases). But, in two years, Eldest starts college and middle boy starts middle school, and that would be a good time to move. So I might see what’s out there.

  4. Norwegian Forest Cat Says:

    I would think that being present before and during the rise of your university’s program is a real compliment – several new faculty I know told me that a department is only as important as its small fish are, so you must be doing alright even if you feel like everyone is cooler than you. :)

    My short answer is that I like to find myself somewhere in the upper-middle, but that’s because it seems that the density of people who are actually correct is highest there. Lots of people in my general area (biological research) publish some real garbage in high-impact journals that you can’t see until you dig into their methods and their data, but there isn’t much you can do because they are postdoc factories who prioritize high-impact papers over being right and they have a reputation that lets them get away with it. I don’t care if my work is the sexiest, most glamorous thing you have ever seen – I want to be rigorous and thorough, and that’s the most important thing for me. I think I landed myself in the exact right place in grad school and am now in an environment where sexy publications are prioritized by my boss but not by the department as a whole. So, I am in a constant struggle with The Boss, but feel generally supported among my coworkers. Hopefully I can shift things back to my happy place when I get to my next job!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well… I wouldn’t say I’m the smallest fish at the R1 where I normally work (we have quite a bit of “dead wood” and “stuck at associate”). But I am the smallest fish at the place where I’m on leave!

      A famous guy once described another economist as someone who, “does solid work” and it’s on my professional bucket list to be so described myself. :)

  5. chacha1 Says:

    I think not caring about my “placement” has saved me a lot of stress. There is enough of that in life, especially as I get older and we are dealing with the aging-parents issues.

    I could have … gone into the entertainment industry; didn’t want to deal with the neverending promotion and rejection and poverty and instability; … gone to law school; didn’t want to deal with the loans and the long hours and the carnivorous atmosphere; … stayed in business school; didn’t want to deal with an army of Gekkos; … gone into architecture; didn’t want to deal with the loans and the apprenticeship and the low pay and the appropriation of my work by my employers; … stayed in academia; didn’t want to deal with low pay and instability and politics and having to move to shitty places in order to get jobs.

    There’s a lot to be said for “settling,” and I’m not ashamed to say I have done so. There is nothing glamorous about being a paralegal, unless you are Erin Brockovich, and she certainly paid her dues.

  6. Cloud Says:

    Mostly, I’m happy being not important at all. I do good work, but mostly in the background. It has been gratifying to be able to see the hole I left when I left my last fulltime position (because I’m still contracting for them, so I’m still there), but that experience has been unusual in my career.

    But every once and awhile, someone I know is in the spotlight, and I’ll admit that I feel a bit of a twinge of envy. But I can usually stomp it down by reminding myself of the wonderful non-work things I’ve done in my life. I also like to think that I still have time left to make a mark. Maybe in another 20 years, I’ll feel like I’ve made more of a dent in the universe. It is hard to say.

    I’m glad you’re happy with where you’ve ended up!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t know that it’s the spotlight so much that I want– in fact, I’m a bit terrified of the spotlight for various reasons. But to know that my work is high-level and highly respected. And maybe that I’m respected too(!), or at least that I’m not looked down upon.

      As to whether or not I’m making a dent in the universe– probably not. Or rather, the dent that I’m making is almost entirely through the teaching that I do, not through my research.

  7. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I am a relatively small fish in a super-prestige pond, and while I’d like to be a big fish in this pond (and I definitely try to grow!), I’d never move to a lesser institution where I’d be a relatively bigger fish.

  8. J Liedl Says:

    I’m not at as prestigious a school as where my father served on faculty. I don’t really regret that because there are great things about this regional comprehensive including a great set of colleagues and the freedom to do what I want with research and teaching. The work of special needs parenting trumped my conventional academic ambition for quite some time and still shapes my career today. I’m just pleased that I’ve been able to find real happiness in both my work and my personal life. Being “famous” could be cool, but I’m not worried about being a top-tier historian so much as doing the best I can where I am.

  9. SP Says:

    I don’t know if this applies to non-academics. Academia seems to be a weird world. I mean, you can be “important” in industry and famous, but it seems fundamentally different mindset.

    So, translating to my own world… I’m happiest being on top and being though of a go-to super star on whatever team on on. But I think I do best at being #2. I like to be doing important work and being able to influence decisions (rather than reacting to the result of decisions). Yet I prefer if someone else takes the spotlight role. Maybe that will change as I get older in my career. This is somewhat about prestige, maybe, but it is mostly just that I like everyone to think that I’m talented.

  10. Revanche Says:

    As another non-academic, I think it only peripherally works the same. Like SP, I’m happiest being the go-to star performer of the team, while also being in the #2 slot of the total hierarchy and that’s comfortable. I’m not a visionary but I’m excellent at executing visions and that’s my sweet spot: enough authority to weigh in on and influence decisions, having the skills to take big picture ideas turn into reality, and having the autonomy not to have to be the one coming up with the big ideas frequently.

  11. Catwoman73 Says:

    I really love this post. I’m not an academic, though I could have been… I was a super smart girl who surprised all her professors by deciding to become a lowly allied health professional instead of pursuing grad school or a professional degree like law or medicine. But I have a really good life- I work at a fantastic hospital, I am very good at my job, my job is VERY secure, and most importantly, I have the time and energy to take care of my family, spend time with friends, and pursue a hobby or two. This was the vision I had for myself, and even though I could have chosen a profession with more prestige (and more $$$), I have absolutely no regrets. I admit that I do get bored with my job now and then, and I get frustrated at the lack of competence of some of the docs that I encounter, but the benefits of where I am at really outweigh the disadvantages. And every time I start itching to make a change, I remind myself of that.


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