I found myself within a dichotomy-in-action this past week. My inbox was beginning to swell with recommendation letter requests from students applying to the graduate programs that they hope will speed them along towards a career. At the same time, I came across two articles whose intentions were specifically to throw some cold water on those idealistic goals. The first, written by a history professor at Eastern Washington University, bluntly shatters any wide-eyed dreams of riding the grad school express lane into a tenure-track position. The second, written by an English professor at Western Carolina University, examines why schools need to warn students of their bleak prospects in the job market, even as most graduate students tend not to take heed of such advice; their histories of academic excellence and low failure rate can easily lull them into the sense that they are destined for success through hard work and sheer chutzpah.
What I found most interesting with these two concepts—that higher education will either be a golden ticket or an expensive character-builder—was not their contrasts but their similarities. Both ideas seem to paint the world in black-and-white and rarely give credence to the necessary strengths and realities of their opposite, which isn’t surprising in today’s world where nuance and shading are rarely noticed or are ignored outright. Neither concept is new, but both are becoming increasingly more intense as schools push for more students and more students see those schools as a necessary gatekeeper for their own livelihoods.
Running parallel to these issues is the role that luck plays in school, in careers, in life. Even if one discounts the risks we all face everyday regarding “bad luck” that could affect our health and well-being, the concept of how some seem to just be at the right place at the right time is a strong one in our society. With so many applicants to a handful of graduate programs, it could easily be said that luck might play a part in who finally gets to attend a particular institution. I’ve never put a lot of currency into the idea of luck not only because there’s not much you can do to improve your standing in the luck department, but because being in the right place at the right time does not necessarily mean that one either recognizes that fact or decides to act on it. An aspect of this that is not discussed as much is how dependent one allows oneself to be on luck; if only one specific career parameter is deemed to be satisfactory (location, type of school, type of job, etc.), then the risks increase and luck becomes much more of a factor.
So far this has been about graduate school, but the same concepts and arguments can be made about choosing a career path in music composition, music, or any of the creative arts. If one allows oneself to be swayed by naysayers or depend on luck to succeed as a creative artist, then the risks are high and the decision to go down that particular career path may not have been the best choice. But if someone has been honest with themselves as far as their own dreams and their own abilities, as well as taken care of business and grown a healthy combination of optimism and stubbornness, then those same naysayers can either be ignored completely or used as impetus to propel oneself past the hardships and take advantage of those instances that could be considered “lucky breaks.”