It’s early April, and many of us history grads are learning the outcomes of jobs, fellowships, and various other academic competitions we applied for. Sometimes the news is good, but more often, we open our inboxes to the dreaded “thank you for your interest . . .” e-mail. And even though the rejection notes try to soothe us with platitudes about the limited number of opportunities and the high number of applicants, it’s difficult to receive one of these e-mails and not believe that the rejections are indicative of our worth and the quality of our work.
Personally, I’m no stranger to disappointments. From the start of my doctoral studies when I realized that my department was funding students at different levels to the unending stream of rejections for fellowships, for years I internalized the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that some of us are not as good as the rest. The idea that academia is a meritocratic place is woven through our perceptions of it. It’s a level playing field, and if you work hard enough and produce good scholarship, you’ll be rewarded. Whether it’s winning fellowships, competitive slots for TA positions, or even getting a paper accepted on a conference panel, we succeed or fail because we deserve it.
At least that is what I firmly believed until I recently helped with the administration of some university fellowship applications. As I was assembling PDF documents of students’ materials, I saw that virtually everyone who applied had strong projects. And all had outstanding letters of recommendation detailing the students’ achievements and the quality of their research. Any of them could have won the competition, but with only a couple of fellowships on offer, most would face rejection. Even worse were the odds for a different award. Over 850 graduates were vying for 5 spaces. To be clear, I wasn’t in the room when the committees met; I can only guess at why they came to the decisions they did. I’m sure it was not an easy choice. But it led me to think about all of the times our work is judged as history graduates. I imagine that the successful applicants to these particular fellowship programs came away feeling validated; the rest left wondering, what went wrong? Standing on the outside, thinking about how many qualified applicants came away empty-handed, I began to realize that meritocracy in academia is a myth, and a toxic one at that.
Certainly, there are circumstances where graduates can rework their approach to put themselves in the best position for academic success. A poorly designed research statement or cover letter, for example, won’t get you very far. Yet the truth is that most of us are up against a scarcity of resources in the academy (especially the humanities) that produces winners and losers. The distinction between the two often has little to do with an individual or their research—there are simply far more deserving people than there are opportunities. And, regardless of how much effort we put in, success is often entirely unrelated to the skills we have or the merit of our scholarship. Instead, success often depends on factors beyond our control.
Top of the list is “prestige.” Academia insists on rewarding people from the same elite institutions. From publishing to the job market, graduates with an Ivy League or Oxbridge pedigree are at a significant advantage. But are graduate students at less elite institutions really less skilled? Are their comprehensive reading lists shorter? Are their research papers less rigorously critiqued? Are their ideas less exciting? No. I’d argue that apparent differentials in the quality of Ivy League scholarship and the output from students elsewhere arise less from graduates’ innate talents, and more from the disparity in resources they have at their disposal. If anything, students at nonelite institutions have to work harder to compete with their colleagues from “top ranked” history programs.
At the same time, there are all sorts of other invisible factors at play. When a committee makes a decision about project, they are weighing it not only in terms of (perceived) quality, but also how it measures up in different ways. Did they give a fellowship to a student with a similar project last year? Do they feel that they can give one aspiring postdoc adequate faculty mentorship, but not to the next person in another field? These decisions aren’t arbitrary, per se. They make sense to the institution or organization making them. But because the whole process lacks any kind of transparency, leaving us grads to fruitlessly speculate on what we could’ve done differently.
The meritocracy, unfortunately, comes with a hefty psychological price tag. If we believe that opportunities are handed out to the truly deserving, we also come to believe that rejections reflect substandard work. Some of us may have faculty mentors who give positive feedback on our progress, but generally, it’s these moments of judgement—when we submit an article for publication, apply for a fellowship, and so on—that provide us with some kind of external benchmark of quality. Success reassures us that we’re on the right track, that we really are “good” historians. Rejection affirms the opposite. Just as perniciously, the meritocracy myth tends to make us compare ourselves to our peers. How many of us have felt some measure of jealousy and self-doubt as we witness the success of other students?
So if we know the meritocracy is more a destructive myth than fact, what can we do about it?
First of all, I should note that experiencing some rejection as a graduate student doesn’t spell doom for your academic career as a historian. This fall, one of my colleagues is off to a tenure-track job and another to a postdoc. Last year, both were turned down for internal fellowships. And, if you’re like me and plan to eventually go down a nonacademic path, what are “must haves” for a shot at a tenure-track job might have less cachet when it comes to the world outside of the professoriate.
Whatever our future career intentions, we can dispense with the psychological aspects of this mythical rewards system. No amount of positive thinking is going to overcome the material costs of the system as it stands. Understanding the factors that shape it, however, can help us recalibrate our notions of achievement and success. Linking back to my post last month, I repeat: let’s decouple how we feel about ourselves and our work from the outcome of these “competitive” events. If we pin our professional and personal value to the awards that are handed out to history graduates, we will just keep playing a losing game.