For the next few months I will be posting the “best of the best” Professor is in blog posts on the job market, for the benefit of all those girding their loins for the 2013-2014 market.
Today we have another Special Request post, this one coming from Liz, who asks, “You’re always telling us ‘not to act like graduate students.’ But how do I know when I’m doing it??” Thanks for asking this, Liz. It is an excellent question, especially at the start of the conference and job season.
O, you graduate students! What am I going to do with you?
How am I going to explain to you all of the ways that you sabotage and undermine yourselves, with the best of intentions, and with complete lack of self-awareness?
I wish I could grab each and every one of you, get up in your grill, and say “stop it!”
But alas, I have only the means of this blog. So I will do what I can. I will list the ways that grad students act like grad students. I will name the behavior, describe it, and then explain how and why that behavior sabotages you in a job market situation.
1. You drone on and on about your dissertation.
Oh. My. God. People. Stop talking about your dissertation!!!!! Nobody wants to hear about your dissertation!!!!! We do not care about your dissertation!!!!!
Job market: one of the primary “instant reject” cover letter types is the one that spends more than one paragraph on the dissertation. Remember from this post: search committees don’t want to know about your dissertation beyond proof that you wrote one and it’s (soon to be) finished and defended. What they want to know is how that dissertation accomplishes specific goals that serve the hiring department: ie, produces refereed publications, intervenes in a major scholarly debate, wins grants and awards, translates into dynamic teaching, transforms quickly into a book, inspires a viable second project.
In interview situations, learn to talk about your dissertation in short, punchy bursts, no more than a sentence or two long. This gives your interlocutor the chance to say, “How interesting! Tell us more about that.” To which you respond in another short, punchy burst.
Please recall that interviews are dialogues. They are not monologues. Think of a tennis match. They lob the ball, you lob the ball back. Rinse and repeat.
2. You think people are out to get you in your department.
Enough with the paranoia, people! Finis! Stop now.
With very rare exceptions, faculty barely even think about the graduate students in their departments. Except to ask, once a year, whether they’re on track to defend so that the Dean can stop hassling the department for its low completion rate.
The people in the department want you to finish. Period. Whatever that takes, that’s what they want you to do. So just do that, ok?
Job market: paranoia is extremely unattractive and a major red flag signalling an immature candidate not ready for prime time. You may think that your dark insinuations of how “my project really offended some people in my department” make you look mysterious and desirable, but actually they make you look tiresome. Regardless of how you were treated in your department, you say nothing but collegial things about it on the market. Period. Because how you talk about your Ph.D. department signals how you will talk about your future department. And your future department wants a colleague who has a positive attitude.
3. You think people are out to get you in your discipline.
You’re sure that your “radical” perspective/argument/position/stance has earned you powerful enemies in the field. It very likely has not. Very likely few people are even thinking about you. If you’re getting negative responses to your work, it’s very likely not because your argument single-handedly overturns the foundational orthdoxy of your field and has inspired widespread jealousy and resentment. No, it’s because the work is not yet good enough. As irritating as most professors are, they generally do respect sound argumentation backed up with intensive evidence. Provide those, and chances are your “radical” perspective will get a balanced hearing. I’m not saying you won’t have to fight for your perspective. But it will be a fair fight, not a case of your total persecution by the “powers that be” in your field.
Job market: Dark tales of victimization at the last conference and mutterings about how “my argument has really pissed off some people in the field” will not make you look mysterious and desirable. They will make you look like a drama queen. And one thing no search committee wants? A drama queen.
4. You constantly repeat your main point.
Graduate students are insecure. This is understandable, because their status is insecure. One outcome of the insecurity is that you tend to “pile on” examples that “prove” that your topic is a legitimate one. It’s the classic dissertation disease of seeing your topic in every single thing in the universe. Everyone suffers this to some degree while writing the dissertation.
Job market: The “piling on” of examples is a hallmark of immature writing and an insecure identity. Search committees will reject anyone who appears immature and insecure. Search committees are looking for someone who already speaks and writes like an employed colleague. What that means is someone who is confident that their topic is sound, who gives a reasonable amount of evidence for the topic, but then quickly moves on to why the topic is important and path-breaking, and how the topic intervenes in major, top-tier debates in the scholarly field.
5. You make excuses for yourself.
This is the one that if I had superpowers, I would reach through your computer screen, grab you by your collar, and shake out of you. Right now.
Graduate students are so conditioned to dealing with intimidating advisors and committees that they’re like the Pavlov’s dogs of excuses.
Professor: Hi, how are you?
Grad student: I’m sorry I didn’t get that chapter in to you! I got sick over the weekend, but I’ll have it done this week, I promise!
Professor: You were sick? How are you feeling now?
Grad student: I have a 102 fever but it’s ok—I spent the morning in the library and as soon as I get through teaching my 3 sections I plan to skip dinner and make up for the writing I didn’t get done over the weekend!
Professor: Wow, take care of yourself.
Grad student: It’s ok! I can write through the delirium!
Stop that! Stop it now!
Job market: When someone on the search committee asks, “how would you teach our Intro course?” You do NOT answer in any of the following ways:
- “I haven’t really had a chance to teach a big course but I’m a quick study and think I can learn fast!!!”
- “I’m not sure how your department likes it to be done so I’d definitely follow your lead on that.”
- “I taught it last year but it didn’t really go all that well so I’d want to make a lot of changes.”
No, those are excuses. Instead, you answer in one of these ways:
- “I love the chance to teach large courses because I get to reach a new set of undergraduates and turn them on to how fascinating our field is!”
- “I will use XXX textbook because I find that to be the best one, and I will augment it with some interesting and unconventional materials like xxx and xxx.”
- “I will take a balanced approach that introduces the xx perspective and the yy perspective. Obviously my own work falls more in the xx perspective, but it’s important in an Intro class that the full scope of the field is well represented.”
Get it? You are the expert. You are the authority. You are in command.
The cover letter version of this advice: Don’t discuss what your dissertation doesn’t do or still needs to address. Focus exclusively on what it does achieve. Embrace the positive. Banish the negative.
6. You’re submissive.
Graduate students tend to display the classic signs of submission—tilted head (ref: your puppy), bowed shoulders, tightly crossed legs, weak and vague hand gestures, a querulous, questioning tone. They have a wimpy, cold fish handshake. They avoid direct eye contact. They mumble and mutter and talk too fast, and above all, they ramble in an unfocused and evasive way. They will often either smile and laugh too much, or conversely be grimly humorless (a sense of humor being one of the first casualties of the graduate school experience). They also display their lack of capital through old, worn clothes and ungroomed hair.
Few people have ALL of these traits, to be sure. But most grad students have some of them.
Job market: Search committees are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student. You must appear at your interviews as if you are a person who is already successfully employed as an assistant professor. Your clothes must be new and must fit you at your current weight, and be hemmed (sleeves, pants, skirt) to the appropriate length. Your clothes must be more formal than is customary in your department, because interviews require formal clothes. Your hair must be cut and styled. You must wear decent shoes that are appropriate for professional settings.
More to the point, you must square your shoulders, straighten your back, lift your chin, and loosen your elbows. Take up ALL the space in the chair (you can do this even if you are a small woman—it’s in the body language). Make direct eye contact. Do not, under any circumstances, fuss with your hair, clothes, or jewelry. Speak in a firm, level tone. Women, work on any tendency to a high pitched nasal tone. Speak in a lower register if you can—lower tones are the tones of authority, for better or worse. Smile in a friendly way at the beginning and end, but not too much while you’re talking about your work. Your work is important and deserves a serious delivery. If a joke arises naturally in the conversation, though–run with it. Search committees love a sense of humor, when it’s displayed in the course of smart collegial repartee.
Do. Not. Ramble.
Have short and pithy responses rehearsed so that they trip off your tongue easily and fluently. Always give the search committee the chance to say, “Oh, how interesting, tell us more!” And then follow up with another short and pithy elaboration.
To repeat: Do. Not. Ramble.
And lastly, the handshake. Oh my god, the handshake. If you do nothing else from this post, please, I beg you, do this. Get up from your computer, go find a human, and shake their hand. Shake it firmly. Really squeeze! Outstretch your arm, grip their hand with all your fingers and thumb, look them firmly in the eye, smile in a friendly, open way, and give that hand a nice, firm shake. Repeat. Do this until it’s second nature. If it doesn’t feel right or you aren’t sure if you’re doing it right, find an alpha male in your department, and ask him to teach you.
Banish the wet noodle handshake.
Seriously, grad students, butch it up.