It recently occurred to me how success in research is largely dictated by luck. I know, people always say that hard work eventually pays off, but more often than not (at least in my experience), it does not. My father always used to quote Edison saying ” Genius is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration”. This led me to think that given enough effort, something would bear fruit, even if it was not necessarily the thing I was trying to get in the first place. What one has to keep in mind is that when working on the frontiers of human knowledge, even when trying to extrapolate known ideas into the unknown, it is impossible to predict whether your project will work or if your efforts will pay off or not.
I have known my fair share of graduate students (myself included) who listened to their professors, worked hard (around 12-15 hours a day, approx 80-90 hrs a week) for 5 years, and still had zero publications to show for all their efforts. On the other hand, I have seen others skating through, getting a PhD, seemingly getting excellent publications while not having a solid knowledge of the subject (!), and barely working at all. While one might argue that people always slip through the cracks at every level, to have witnessed this multiple times over my graduate career has really shaken my faith in the system.
“Being in the right place at the right time” is also dictated by luck. For example, my own graduate advisor happened to work in a hot area of research during his own graduate studies – because that area was popular when he was working in it, he got a lot of recognition for his work. 30 years later, I am continuing the same type of chemistry. I won’t reveal exactly what I am doing (for privacy concerns), but suffice to say, I was disappointed at the lack of interest shown in my work at the last national exposition (where I presented my work as a poster).
Research has now become a highly competitive endeavor. In any academic area, it is basically guaranteed that someone else in the world is working on the same project as you are. Thus, it is always a race to be the first to publish. Unfortunately, as a scientist, you have no way of knowing the progress of other labs, as PI’s, companies, and individual scientists are always extremely secretive about their work for fear of losing the race and being “scooped”. Therefore, getting scooped or not is dependent on luck. I have witnessed my coworkers’ hard work going up in flames simply because someone else was able to beat them to the punch and publish their results first.
Of course, I could just be bitter and cynical (for my own sake, I desperately hope so). I would love to live in a world where hard work and efforts are justly rewarded. Unfortunately, in my limited experience, this is not the case.