Unplanned careers and the role of privilege

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Heidelberg Laureate Forum

After he had finished his talk at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, and taken some questions, David Patterson gave an encore: a brief history of his unplanned career as what he called an “accidental Berkeley professor”. That part of his talk was inspiring in a number of different ways. The idea that careers need to be streamlined, and that you have a problem if your career path is not optimized and straight, is one that is potentially very damaging – and apt to discourage those people who have experienced setbacks, who find themselves in a blind alley, or are thinking about changing their field of work, in short: those of us who are in situations where they need encouragement, not discouragement.

Patterson’s career was in many ways accidental. He started out as a math major, and only ended up taking a computer science class when one of his math classes was cancelled. He loved it, and stayed in the field. He became a masters student because a PhD student in his institute took the initiative and got him that position. He started his PhD because the other three colleagues in his office were PhD students, and he thought: why not? The idea that would come to define his career, building processors that have fewer and simpler basic instructions to follow, but can do so very quickly – RISC processors, now in use in the majority of smart phones and tablet computers – came to him when he took a time-out after a particularly unsatisfactory phase in his research, caused in part by collaborating with an overly ambitious associate professor.

It’s important to realize that careers depend on opportunities. Not only opportunities, of course – luck favours the prepared, as the saying goes, and a successful career needs at least two ingredients: that you are given opportunities and that you have the skills and qualifications to take advantage of these opportunities.

That is important to realize if you are prone to underestimating yourself (as not a few of the best researchers are, cf. impostor syndrome). There is an opportunity element involved, a random element. A career is not something that you can completely plan out beforehand. If you do, and then fret about everything that did not go according to plan, you are setting yourself up for failure – as well as probably missing out on unanticipated opportunities.

That is one part of the story of David Patterson. It’s an important part, and will hopefully help to assuage at least some unfounded self-doubt among the young researchers attending HLF.

But as someone kindly pointed out to me on Twitter, there is another side to this. Patterson’s career depended on opportunities given, on those persons (like the PhD student) who saw something in him and gave him those opportunities. Had Patterson had the same intellectual faculties, the same personality, but in addition been black, or disabled, or a woman, or queer, or of course more than one of the above, it is highly likely that things would have gone differently – both in the 1960s and 1970s when Patterson’s career happened and, sadly, even today.

Would that PhD student still actively have promoted Patterson under those circumstances? Possibly, but among those who are black, disabled, female, and/or queer, there are many who will tell you that in their case, the story was quite different – not of encouragement, but of discouragement. Recent hashtags like #metoo, #metwo or #meQueer have made this more visible.

Would Patterson have decided to pursue a PhD because his three office mates did so? Possibly, but it’s one thing to see people who basically look like you and say to yourself “Hey, if they can do this, so can I”, and quite another to see three people (and basically all but a few people in your institute) who are obviously different from you (white where you are black, able-bodied where you are disabled, male where you are female) and decide that you can still do the same as they.

We could go back even further. What if you had already been actively discouraged from taking calculus in high school? From taking a computer class? Told, as a disabled person, that you should not take up that spot in a course since you would never have a real job anyway? You only have to listen on Twitter to read tweets to find members of under-represented minorities in the natural sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics tell you about the time this or similar things happened to them.

This doesn’t take anything away from Patterson’s stature. On the contrary, since Patterson freely acknowledges the key role played by opportunities and happy accidents throughout his career, he makes a refreshing contrast with a certain kind of people who, having achieved success, edit out the opportunities they have been given and their privileges, and rewrite their life story as purely merit-based, even though they went through life on the lowest difficulty setting there is.

It does raise the question on who else might be attending the Heidelberg Laureate Forum as a Turing, or Fields, or Abel prize winner, had they had been given similar opportunities and similar encouragement. Those missing laureates would have made the line-up more diverse. From that perspective, Patterson’s story is a story not only of opportunities and the ability to make excellent use of these opportunities, but also a story of privilege. And the lesson certainly is not that we should take, or should have taken, something away from Patterson, but that we should work towards creating opportunities for everyone interested in pursuing research in mathematics, computer science, other scientific subjects, engineering or technology, regardless of gender, skin color, sexual orientation, degree of ability or disability. And on that front, there is still a lot of work ahead.

P.S.: Here are some similar links in the HLF context – about the panel discussion about Women in Science, this year’s Women in Mathematics exhibition, and one from last year about how to design an equitable computer science degrees program, or about the challenging job of sign language translators at the HLF (And yes, from this you can see that HLF still has some way to go to explicitly address all the different kinds of diversity and inclusiveness.)





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Markus Pössel hatte bereits während des Physikstudiums an der Universität Hamburg gemerkt: Die Herausforderung, physikalische Themen so aufzuarbeiten und darzustellen, dass sie auch für Nichtphysiker verständlich werden, war für ihn mindestens ebenso interessant wie die eigentliche Forschungsarbeit. Nach seiner Promotion am Max-Planck-Institut für Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein-Institut) in Potsdam blieb er dem Institut als "Outreach scientist" erhalten, war während des Einsteinjahres 2005 an verschiedenen Ausstellungsprojekten beteiligt und schuf das Webportal Einstein Online. Ende 2007 wechselte er für ein Jahr zum World Science Festival in New York. Seit Anfang 2009 ist er wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, wo er das Haus der Astronomie leitet, ein Zentrum für astronomische Öffentlichkeits- und Bildungsarbeit, seit 2010 zudem Leiter der Öffentlichkeitsarbeit am Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie und seit 2019 Direktor des am Haus der Astronomie ansässigen Office of Astronomy for Education der Internationalen Astronomischen Union. Jenseits seines "Day jobs" ist Pössel als Wissenschaftsautor sowie wissenschaftsjournalistisch unterwegs: hier auf den SciLogs, als Autor/Koautor mehrerer Bücher und vereinzelter Zeitungsartikel (zuletzt FAZ, Tagesspiegel) sowie mit Beiträgen für die Zeitschrift Sterne und Weltraum.


  1. I have attended a previous HLF, entirely as a random spectator. I am not a white male, and was encouraged by many similar chance opportunities just as the speaker was; in my case in the 1970s. That did not make me a Laureate. Every life has random encounters. This argument is as weak as saying that you would have married better if you had visited your cousin’s friend’s house when you were 19 and met that ‘perfect’ someone. Opportunities come and go, and into every life some will come, and others will not be seen.

  2. It’s certainly not automatic. Just as not every white male is a Laureate now. The problem is that the presence and absence of encouragement and discouragement has a probability function that is systematically skewed. I have never heard a male colleague tell me that, as a pupil, they were told that computer science and mathematics is not for boys. I have heard the analogous story from female colleagues a number of times (although, yes, not from all – as I said, it’s a probability function). So if you will, the problem is not random encounters, but that we are talking about randomness with a skewed distribution sensitive to gender, skin color, sexual orientation and degree of ability/disability.