The “Be Yourself” Myth: Performing the Academic Self on the Job Market

Today’s post is a reprint of my recent column in Inside Higher Ed, called “The ‘Be Yourself’ Myth.”   As some of you know, I write an occasional column for IHE under the theme “Academic Mythbusters.”  I take a prevailing delusion that afflicts graduate students and young Ph.D.s, and shatter it, so that readers may proceed in their careers armed with accurate knowledge, rather than self-deluding fantasies.  I love this column series (the next one is:  Ivy League Ph.D.s have an easy time on the job market), and I particularly love it when I know I’ve touched a raw nerve.  This particular column did.  The comment stream is filled with outrage.

It is interesting to me that scholars who would have no truck with outdated ideas of the unchanging, authentic self (“get thee behind me, essentialism!”) are the first to respond in outrage that I am advocating a performative concept of the academic self.  But if performativity applies to the objects of our study, does it not apply to us?  To argue otherwise would be the rankest hypocrisy, right?  Right?  Hmm.

In any case, the advice herein is some of the most foundational advice that I can give with regard to job market preparation.  There is no more important thing that you can do to prepare for job market success than bravely confront the failings of “yourself,” as you operate in professional settings, and replace your natural tendencies with the highly professionalized behaviors I describe below.

Read this post in tandem with the #Facepalm Fails of the Academic Interview series (3 parts) and the posts: How To Describe a Course (In an Interview) and Be Professorial.

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[[In this occasional column I will address commonplace myths that are widespread in academia, particularly among its not-yet-completely-enculturated junior members. Using my training as a cultural anthropologist, as well as my experiences as a former R1 tenured faculty member and department head, I will take up one myth, briefly explore its origins, consider its impact on believers, and then evaluate its value. It is my hope that in doing so, I will pull away the veil of mystification that seems to obscure so many aspects of the academic career, and assist graduate students and junior faculty in distinguishing  the realities of life in the rapidly downsizing academic industry from the myths and half-truths often inculcated, oftentimes with the best of intentions, by their usually well-meaning dissertation advisors.]]

Today’s myth is: “When interviewing for a tenure-track academic position, it’s best to just be yourself.”

A number of months ago, I was working with a client whom I’ll call Margaret, a full professor and department head in the social sciences in an East Coast R1, who had contacted me for assistance in refining the letters of recommendation she was writing for the increasingly desperate job-seeking Ph.D.s and adjuncts under her care.  I was impressed with this client. She was sincere, earnest, and generous of spirit. She was committed to the welfare of these candidates, some her own Ph.D. students and some the adjuncts who had been contributing their labor to her department for years. She had no idea how unusual she is.

Toward the end of our work together she asked if I had any final thoughts on how to advise people to prepare for interviews and campus visits. She said, “Of course I always tell them to just be themselves. I mean, that’s always the best advice, isn’t it?”

“Oh good god, Margaret!”  I replied. “Are you kidding me? THAT’S what you tell them?”

A started silence, followed by a sheepish laugh. “Really? That’s not good advice? Why?”

O, Margaret….  O, job candidates…. Where do I begin?

The exchange took me back to the day oh so many years ago, when my very own adviser had also told me, when I asked her for some advice for an upcoming campus visit, to just be myself.

And not knowing any better, I heeded that advice.  And went out and made a complete ass of myself.

The fact is, Dear Readers, “yourself”  is the very last person you want to be.

Why?

Because no matter where you are in your career, but most especially if you are just starting out, or (god forbid) a grad student, you are, as an academic, insecure, verbose, defensive, paranoid, beset by feelings of inadequacy,  pretentious, self-involved, communicatively challenged, and fixated on minutiae.

Consequently, here’s how you act in interviews:  rambling, obscure, petrified, subservient, cringing, disorganized, braggy, tedious, emotionally over-amped, off-point, self-absorbed, defensive, and fixated on minutiae.

I’m sure the comment stream will erupt with objections, but …  I’ve worked with enough interviewees — as a search committee member, Ph.D. adviser, and coach and consultant — to know whereof I speak.

Sorry, academics. You/we suck at interviewing.

Here’s what actually needs to happen.

You have to jettison “yourself.”

In its stead, you have to create a professional persona. That persona is a full-fledged adult who demonstrates a tightly organized research program, a calm confidence in a research contribution to a field or discipline, a clear and specific trajectory of publications, innovative but concise, non-emotional ideas about teaching at all levels of the curriculum, a non-defensive openness to the exchange of ideas, and most importantly, a steely-eyed grasp of the real (as opposed to fantasy) needs of actual hiring departments, which revolve ultimately, in the current market, around money.

Let me take each of these characteristics of the non-yourself professional persona in turn.

1. A tightly organized research program. You will articulate your dissertation project/current project in approximately five sentences that sketch the topic, its sources, its methods, and its core argument.  Five sentences in all.

2. A calm confidence in a research contribution to a field or discipline. You will be able to articulate the orthodoxy-challenging intervention of your dissertation in a field or fields. This will not be simply “additive” (“People have looked at x and y, but nobody has yet applied the method to z”; “I am building on the work of xx and yy … “), but will articulate your work as distinctive, individual and unafraid to challenge previous understandings. (“In contrast to common views in the field of xxx, my research shows that in fact the core variable is yyy. This shifts how we view ppp and qqq.”)  If you cannot articulate this, you are not ready for the job market.

3. A clear and specific trajectory of publications. You will map an “arc” of publications that links past, present and future. You will say something like: “As you saw from my C.V., I have two refereed journal articles published on this body of work in the Journal of X and Journal of Y.  I have another in revise-and-resubmit stage at the Journal of Z.  Beyond that, I am finalizing my book proposal, and am speaking with editors at Duke and Chicago about a contract.  I expect that to be complete in two years time, and after that I am planning two more articles based on material that didn’t make it into the book. Those publications will complete the publishing arc of this work, and I will then move on to my second major project.” You will have this answer prepared for all interviews regardless of rank of the institution.

4. Innovative but concise, non-emotional, ideas about teaching at all levels of the curriculum. You will speak to specific courses, both intro-level and more advanced, both those those already on the department’s books and new ones you anticipate developing, in a brief and organized manner that gives the course title, the take-away point, the primary thematics, the texts or readings, and one innovative assignment that ideally incorporates digital techniques or social media. And then you will stop. You do not endlessly list course names, numbers, ideas, readings, or lecture topics. You also do not wax emotional about the “thrill” of teaching and the selfless efforts you dedicate to it. That says: adjunct.

5. A non-defensive openness to the exchange of ideas. When an interviewer says something like, “I notice you don’t really address gender in much detail in the dissertation. Do you have plans to develop that?” you do not respond, “Oh my gosh, yes, it’s true, I didn’t really get to include gender. I really WANTED to, but, uh, you know, I just ran out of time, and that’s a total lack in the dissertation, I KNOW, and I’m totally going to focus on correcting that….” You do respond:  “Yes, thanks for raising that point. In fact, as I worked deeper into my analysis I discovered that gender was not the primary variable in operation, and that a focus on xxxx allowed me to keep my emphasis on yyyy.” This is the non-defensive part.  You can then, if appropriate, follow with, “I am increasingly intrigued by the role of gender, and am working up a manuscript that addresses it from the perspective of zzzz to submit to the Journal of QQQ.  I’d look forward to talking to you more about that.” That is the openness part.

6. A steely-eyed grasp of the real (as opposed to fantasy) needs of actual hiring departments. Departments do not care about what makes you tick. They do not care about how you came to be who you are, or how you “feel” about the “privilege” of teaching and the “honor” of research. They are investing time and money into the addition of a new research and teaching resource (alternatively, new capital investment) to their department, and they need to know if you will be that resource/bring that capital. They are under the gun, from the dean’s if not the chancellor’s office,  to increase enrollments, grow class sizes, bring in grant money, increase faculty productivity (i.e., publications and grants), improve student retention, consolidate departments, eradicate  “underperforming” small courses/programs, and reduce lines.  Here’s what is not prioritized:  the scholarly minutiae of your research. Here is what is prioritized:  your ability to demonstrate, with evidence, quickly, that you publish a lot in high-ranking journals, bring in grant money, thrive in large classes, harness digital resources to do more with less money, work interdisciplinarily, and teach well enough to avoid lawsuits.

Developing these six elements of the professional persona is exceedingly difficult, and requires enormous levels of practice. For many candidates, writing out versions of these responses and practicing them — in the shower, in front of the mirror, with your significant other, and in mock interviews with peers and professors in your department — is the only way that they become second nature. Over time, practicing these responses allows some of this persona to feel more natural, and indeed, legitimate.  But to a degree, it may never feel that way. And that is fine. In the privacy of your own mind, you can continue to be beset by insecurities, anxieties and self-doubt, and the victim of rambling, disorganized thinking and an obsession with minutiae. But when you go out for an interview?  This self needs to stay firmly out of sight, while your persona takes center stage.

 


Comments

The “Be Yourself” Myth: Performing the Academic Self on the Job Market — 9 Comments

  1. Pingback: I love this person. She tells the truth about academia, which makes her rare and wonderful. « Screams from the Basement

  2. As usual you are right on in so many ways. I do want to add, (although this likely only pertains to a few of your readers) for those in professional fields like education, social work, nursing and potentially others… that waxing poetic about teaching or more specifically about the practice of the field is very important. I have seen good candidates lose jobs because of off-handed comments about the “undergraduate mentality” or “not connecting with high school students” as a reason for having pursued a Ph.D. in education. While excellence in practice alone will not get you a job, even at a teaching-centric university, contempt (even veiled) for it will lose you a job quite quickly. Since we are quite good at teaching this contempt in our R1 Ph.D. programs, it is something to consider as one ventures on the job market and interviews in non R1 professional program.

    • Ah, excellent, excellent point! Thanks for adding this. To tell the truth, no candidate can afford to articulate the contempt that is taught at R1 programs. They can after they’re hired, but not at the job search stage…

  3. This little phrase in itself is worth the price of admission: “teach well enough to avoid lawsuits.” Such a steely-eyed perspective!

  4. Pingback: Weekly List Bookmarks (weekly) | Eccentric Eclectica @ ToddSuomela.com

  5. “rambling, obscure, petrified, subservient, cringing, disorganized, braggy, tedious, emotionally over-amped, off-point, self-absorbed, defensive, and fixated on minutiae.”

    Speaking as an academic (English professor) who has survived many interviews, I’d like to say that those adjectives don’t fit me, and they also don’t fit many of the candidates I’ve interviewed.
    Some background may be useful here: I’m 65; I have an ivy league Ph.D.; I’ve taught at many different kinds of universities (in full-time tenure-track positions, tenured positions, and in visiting endowed chairs) over the past 40 years: urban and suburban, ivy league and state schools, small liberal arts and large universities, secular and religious. I’ve published lots of books, all with very good presses, and I’ve rec’d all the grants I’ve applied for: NEH, ACLS, Guggenheim, et al. — And yet I’ve always been told that I’m modest; that I don’t brag enough; that I speak and write with great clarity; that I express my ideas with confidence; that I listen well and am not contentious. — Most of the people I’ve interviewed for jobs have been pleasant, likeable, and comprehensible but not terribly interesting. The weakness I’ve seen most of the time do not fit your adjectives above; it’s simply that the candidates’ ideas are not all that fascinating or fresh. —

    The only way I’ve found it useful not to be “myself” in interviews is that I’ve had to pretend respect for ideas I consider dull and unspectacular, ideas of major critics or of colleagues. —

    I should add that I’ve had quite a few job offers in recent years and accepted one, and I currently am fortunate enough to have a very generously endowed chair. —

    I agree that no one should be “rambling, subservient, cringing” etc in an interview; I’m just protesting that those qualities don’t automatically go with the academic territory. The academic behavior I’d attack is the bullshitting practiced by academic superstars, but that’s another subject altogether. Don’t get me going on it……………..

    BTW I can’t help noticing that my own comments here are rambling. But hey, this isn’t an interview; I can’t see more than a few lines of writing on this teeny tiny screen; and I’ve just been ill with stomach cramps and writing this rambling comment is all I’m good for at the moment.

  6. I think the important thing here is not to pretend to be someone else, but just to present the very best version of yourself. One of the best pieces of advice I got, however, was to make sure that while you are respectful, you also express who you are and what you are looking for. Often, so much focus is on “snagging the job”, but remember, once you have it, you actually have to be there, doing what you said you were going to do (this is what has led me to my second job search after already obtaining a tenure-track job). To give a concrete example, if you are applying to an English department and you have a passion for literature, it’s very easy to be a “pleaser” and say you are happy to teach composition classes. But if that’s not what you actually want to do, don’t say that it’s okay – you may get hired but you might be miserable afterwards:

    Interview question: How do you feel about teaching first-year composition classes?

    Bad truthful answer: God no! I didn’t do a PhD to be stuck with that lousy job! [You will not be hired.] Or even: I’d really prefer to teach literature. [Shows you are inflexible.]

    “Pleaser” answer: Of course, I would be happy to teach first-year composition classes, as I’ve already taught three sections of these during my grad school years. [You may be hired, and the department may assign you an entire semester of first-year composition classes, "After all, she said she'd be happy to teach them".]

    Better honest answer: Well, based on my research experience you can probably tell that literature is my true passion and calling, but I’m obviously happy to help out wherever needed, and I already have experience giving composition classes, which I have enjoyed, as well. [Asserts what you want to do, but also expresses openness: If you are hired, they will make sure you get at least one literature class amongst the first-year composition classes.]

    I can’t stress enough the importance of thinking of obtaining the job as a beginning rather than as an end, and this is a part of that.

    • Michael – the advice from this column has been that search committees don’t care what you’re passionate about. You need to fulfill their needs. Better answer is to find a way to work literature into a first year comp class. (my undergrad 1st year comp. was lit. focused at a big state u. 12 years ago)

  7. “Be yourself” advice, whether it’s for an interview or for asking someone out on a date, doesn’t really mean “be yourself.” What it actually tries to do is compel you to be relaxed and confident in the moment.

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