One might be forgiven for thinking that science is a strange context in which to talk positively about serendipity. As Haslam and McGarty point out in their paper, ‘A 100 years of certitude’ (research) scientists spend a lot of time and effort explicitly trying to reduce the effect of chance on their results. The greater the role of chance in the result, the less significant it is. The less likely it then is to get published. And if a scientist doesn’t publish….they perish.
In spite of this, and as Haslam and McGarty argue, science is littered with examples of serendipitous findings. Ryan’s research into the glass cliff (now a major research program) started when a colleague put a newspaper article in her pigeon hole. And research on the narrative of scientific discovery (e.g., Atkinson, Bachelor & Parsons, 1998) has shown that serendipity has a big part to play.
At the Research Careers Pathways Event earlier this week, run by Oxford Brookes University, serendipty was brought to the fore. Not so much in terms of research findings, but in the routes that the speakers had taken to get to their current job. The advice that seemed to come time and again was to say yes to opportunities: it might lead to being in the right place at the right time.
Reflecting on this, I was stunned at how reliant on chance my career thus far has been. By chance, an external examiner read my third year research project, and had PhD funding he thought I could use to extend that work, into a novel area (that chanced to map into his research area). I was aiming for a career in teaching the time. By the examiners’ of my project, I got to do that, too, albeit in a different context to the one I imagined….. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, I tumbled into two research areas that complemented each other, and findings that got curiouser and curiouser…..
By chance, I landed my previous post-doc position, when another candidate turned it down for a better offer. By chance, I had the most amazing Erasmus student to supervise during her PhD and have set up international research collaborations through collecting data with her.
My research focus, and research career certainly seem to have an element of serendipity about them, without which, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post, at this time, or at this desk. Maybe I just see my career as serendipity because that’s the attitude I take (see Wiseman, 2004) while so-called “unlucky researchers” don’t expect things to go well, or grasp at opportunities…. Or is to say that my research career has been serendipitous just a tautology? Is it true for all researchers? The event, at least, suggests it’s not just me….