Grad Student Grandiosity

Grad students tend to veer between two extremes: I know nothing and I know everything.  The latter position is an over-compensatory response to fear of the former.

As you gain experience you find a middle ground of calm confidence. However, at the point of applying for your first tenure track job, these two extremes predominate.

Most of my writing attacks the former, ie, the grad student default to “I’m not worthy.”  However, this Fall I’m inundated with cases of the latter: “I am a genius, I tell you, a GENIUS.”

This position is of course communicated not directly, but indirectly through what I’ve come to call “grad student grandiosity.”  Grandiosity can be seen in purple prose, pretentious verbs and adjectives, pedantic or tendentious claims for the originality of the work, bragging and judging.  In this post I give examples, adapted from actual client documents, of how grandiosity appears in job application documents.

Grandiosity is most often found in excessive claims for the work’s import:

My work transforms understandings of civil society

My book will serve a milestone function in the academic panorama and all major academic libraries will be interested in this work.

My work represents a case study of balance between the academic mission of uncovering understudied phenomena and the intellectual duty to spur global debates on the current world.

This is an essential topic in our own time

I call this framework XXX/XXX, much like Michel Foucault’s knowledge/power paradigm

As Western academia’s first comprehensive work concerning…

My research not only contributes to XXXX history and politics, but pushes the boundaries in understanding the implications and contributions of

My dissertation, then, not only offers a novel interpretation of a central figure, texts, and topics in the history of Western thought; it enlarges disciplines and discourses of crucial interest to academic and wider public audiences.

And self-important fancy words:

The abiding concerns of my research pertain to the relationship of…

My next work recalibrates the concluding arguments of my dissertation

The dissertation draws together nascent theories of

The significance of my research is captured in two interdependent points of contribution.

Understanding this past complexity prepares us for the challenge of working to improve

Pretentious modifiers are always a sure sign of grandiosity:

The relationship between xxx and xxx has been a troubled and, at times, tragic one in both the distant and recent past. Untangling its intricacies requires a perspective hearkening back to a point at which the traditions were indistinct.

As is the impulse to judge and condemn other scholars’ failings:

“The ill-considered tendency, here, to rationalize the xxx as merely illustrative of narrative xxx exploits or symbols of elite status limit the interpretative potential of these objects. This narrowed perspective undermines the dense materiality of the xxxx themselves, from which a broad field of valuable insight is lost.”

Postures that correctly see in the xxx century “the first century of xxxx” (e.g. cite and cite) risk presenting those traditions as spoken into being by xxxx , thus relying on xxx for the very definition of their objects of inquiry.

The very act of making the term xxx plural is enough to bring the ire of several scholars in the field.

To date, even the most thoughtful proponents of a model of continued interfusion between xxx and xxx  in the middle ages (e.g., cite and cite) leave unanswered questions of…

There is pedantic lecturing:

The 21st century can be characterized by change and transaction.  In this environment it is important that undergraduate education teaches students how to learn. It is more important that students know how and where to find information than to know all of the answers.  Be able to challenge core assumptions rather than share the standard one.  Recognize a variety of viewpoints rather than molding experience to a single viewpoint.

Besides classroom and labgroup responsibilities, community science outreach is an increasingly important and relevant aspect of science education. Whether it be through demonstrations and conversations in high schools, malls, and community organizations or media and public lecture discussions, scientists, and especially xxxx, should reach out and describe what we are doing to the general public and how the field of xxx  improves and affects lives in a positive way.

And there is pretentious posturing about teaching:

These methods play to my strengths as a pedagogue

Both my dissertation and classroom work evince a strong interest in

Because skills acquired in the classroom can perdure for a lifetime

My emphasis on rhetorically-situated teaching reticulates well with service-learning courses

My classes are also praxis spaces, which require my teaching to be iterative

A meaningful problem within which the student is invested and the resolution of which will stimulate the student’s creative and analytical abilities.

Experiential learning dovetails with ethnographic training and complements in-class instruction.

My teaching is motivated by a deep commitment to probing the ways that

This approach brings balance to considerations, piquing the thought of the student, while pointing to their potential to develop new insight.

One of my primary teaching goals is to “de-fetishize” both the triumphal globalization of the modern and the obstinate parochialism of the past, and show why both are true but partially

It also arises in the tailoring sections, when a candidate “presumes to judge” the department and its faculty:

I find XXX’s work on xxx particularly intriguing, as it is consistent with my own approach…

I am impressed by the department’s commitment to xxx 

I find the program’s position on xxx correct and would support

Sometimes candidates claim a broader view than they are really entitled to:

“Over the course of my academic career, I have always…”  [candidate is ABD]

And sometimes candidates combine the grandiose and the over-humble:

My thesis hopes to be part of this crucial conversation…

It is easy to see why job candidates fall prey to grandiosity.  Their position could not be more insecure; it’s natural to overcompensate. However, effective documents will eschew grandiose claims, and will present the record calmly, without excessive rhetorical flourishes, and with a focus on just the facts. As Julie Beck notes in this month’s Atlantic: “Counterintuitively, grandiose vocabulary diminishes participants’ impressions of authors’ cerebral capacity. Put another way: simpler writing seems smarter.”*

*Julie Beck, How to Look Smart. Atlantic, August 13, 2014; citing Oppenheimer, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity” (Applied Cognitive Psychology, March 2006)

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Grad Student Grandiosity — 29 Comments

  1. Insightful and interesting. But could you also post some of those examples after the revisions, just to see how the mixture of over-humble and grandiose can be corrected?

  2. I can see the problem with most of these sentences, but I was surprised to see “I am impressed by the department’s commitment to…” flagged as inappropriate. How can/should a tailoring section say something concrete about the prospective department (particularly, something that the candidate finds appealing or exciting) in a way that doesn’t ‘presume to judge’? What’s an appropriate tone to strike?

    • the problem is “impressed.” It puts you in the position of judge. You can phrase it, “The department’s commitment to xx is appealing to me” makes it a statement about yourself, not a judgment on them.

  3. You make very good points, which are especially apt if someone coming out of academia needs to present themselves in the “real” world, where there’s no place for the kind of tone you’re highlighting. However, one point I think that’s worth picking up here, is that we’re TAUGHT and EXPECTED to write and speak like this (not shouting, just stressing!) I’ve just finished my PhD at a UK university, and during my (extremely turbulent) postgraduate experience, I’ve participated in many conferences and fora. The examples of grandiosity that you give illustrate exactly what we are conditioned to do, and I have first-hand experience of being bullied and strongly criticised by my supervisors, peers, and by senior scholars for my insistence on simplicity and a more personable approach. The competition and academic backbiting is so strong, that if one does not “speak this language”, one is sidelined or dismissed. Fortunately it’s not the case everywhere, but it’s what led me to pursue alt-ac routes well before I graduated. I don’t know if this is more a European phenomenon or not (most of these experiences have involved European scholars), but it is prevalent, and most of the examples you have given are typical of the way my more “successful” peers are expected to speak and write. However, I’ve also experienced it with a good many senior scholars. My supervisors spoke to me in this way and expected me to respond in kind – and only acknowledged my arguments when I did so. This occurred both in conversation and in written expression. I’ve experienced the same thing at conferences, and I’ve heard it stated quite directly, that what you term “the impulse to judge and condemn other scholars’ failings” is no more than good criticism… I can actually cite examples of this one and have been criticized myself for a “lack of reflexivity and critical thought” when aiming for amiable discussion. Perhaps it might be worth investigating this further?

  4. Very interesting. It would be good to know if that behaviour takes place also in interviews. I cannot imagine somebody speaking aloud in those terms, no matter how pedantic, but I assume the grandiosity appears nevertheless.

  5. From your advice on how to write a cover letter:
    ‘Your primary research project’s large contributions to the field and discipline as a whole—how it pushes boundaries, engages in dynamic new debates, and enlarges the discipline.’

    So which is it, it’s ‘pushing boundaries’ good or bad? Personally I loath it (which is why I remember the advice)and I am starting to think that all this well meaning advice is in reality infantilising people on the academic job market and making them even more insecure and needy. The fact is that what might work for one person and one job may not work for the other, and that after all we all know that the job market is rigged and disfunctional and absurd, so any advice will tend more and more to mirror it and become disfunctional and absurd.

    • Eric is exactly right. It’s fine to say that you’re pushing boundaries to yourself and your friends over drinks, but when the work is described in a job doc, the text must SHOW HOW that occurs with facts and evidence, not vague self-important claims.

  6. Aless- You need to explain where the boundaries were. Explain what you did. Then show where the boundaries are now as a result of your work. If you can do this (show), you will not need to claim that you pushed boundaries (tell), because you will have explained it. The goal is to have your reader understand your boundary pushing by seeing the evidence for it that you are providing. Not to just assert your boundary-pushing-ness. You need to be realistic, too, about the impact of your work.

    • Thank god, or whatever, I do have a job now. My point was that lists like this are pointless, they just make people panic (oh god, I did write that in my letter/research proposal/statement) and make them feel like it is their fault they did not get a job, and not the fault of this screwed up market that it’s worse than a bloody lottery.

      • A lottery in which you can deface your ticket by making common mistakes. A lottery in which you can drastically improve the chances with some elbow grease. This is about future empowering not panicking about the past. The thing is that no teaches us in grad school to effectively communicate about ones work. Even if you’re not on the job market, identifying & correcting ineffective behavior benefits everyone. The audience here are professional scholars and the norms / common pitfalls, as acknowledged, don’t always apply.

        • My point, which I find exceedingly difficult to make clear apparently, is that I am sure universities are full of people who wrote precisely this kind of sentences in their applications, and were obnoxiously full of themselves and yet insipid at the same time. What gets you a job mostly is not a spiffing application, but an Ivy League degree (or an Oxbridge one in the UK where I live), contacts, an upper middle class background, little or no debt, the ability to move where the jobs are, accompanied by a healthy disregard of what your partner/children/family might feel about it. And a bit of luck.

  7. Thank you for this helpful post. I’m a PhD candidate from the US, and I am struck by how all of the examples you listed are precisely how I was taught/conditioned to write in graduate school. I don’t think it is just in the UK where graduate students, particularly from the humanities, are taught to make grandiose claims about their work in the interests of self-promotion. I’ve spent the last year working with a mentor to ‘un-learn’ some of these writing patterns and habits (and the scholarly conditioning that accompanies them). I have seen how it has negatively impacted me, especially on grant applications. But do you think there is a gender component? As a woman, I’ve noticed that this style of writing and self-presentation tends to be pushed by male colleagues and professors.

    • oh absolutely!!!! Women would be castigated for talking like this in many situations! But this Fall many of the grandiose documents have been by women. That’s new.

    • I agree that I have been overwhelmingly taught to write in all the ways you have listed. While applying for faculty positions and writing my academic teaching statement, I was specifically instructed by my department’s career advisor to make my statement “more academic”and “more difficult to read” by doing all of the things you have mentioned.

  8. Interesting. Several of the listed don’t appear grandiose at all. Particularly, “[m]y next work recalibrates the concluding arguments of my dissertation” seems perfectly fine to me, assuming that the author’s next work does, in fact, take the argument at the end of the dissertation and do something different with it (surely a good thing). What’s wrong with it?

    • Granted, this one is one of the lesser cases, but it has a self-regarding, self-loving “feel” to it that is hard to articulate–it’s a kind of a self-important narration of personal “process” (my very important dissertation did xxx and now my terribly important next project will importantly recalibrate my extremely important concluding arguments) that falls into a related but different common issue of narcissism, which I talk about in webinars but have no post on yet. I suppose in a way, it’s again an issue of adjectives. This sentence would feel less grandiose without “concluding”–what does that add except self-importance? And i kind of despise “recalibrates” — I mean, seriously? However, these are subjective; my skills as a writer fall short of being able to explain exactly what is “wrong” with this, but it’s an “i know it when i see it” kind of thing, and in the larger context of this applicant’s document, it came across as one of several elements of grandiosity.

      • I agree. I actually liked this one! And KK’s defense of what’s wrong with it is as weak as when used to judge pornography (“I know it when I see it.”) It seems to reflect personal taste/style more than anything and so isn’t very helpful.

        It also makes me think about the advice I got from my advisor to include some phrasing that “pops” (his words). I’m sure KK would hate this advice because it would look, to her eyes, grandiose. But it has worked, for me and others.

        For what it’s worth, my own experience working with KK (as well as sitting on hiring committees and advising others with job documents) has taught me that she is as much guided by her own pet peeves (list addiction! I, me, my!) as by her professional experience. Oh, except that my colleagues remember that flesh and blood people stand behind those letters, whereas KK shows an astounding lack of respect for her clients (seen on the blog) with her hyperbolic language and degradingly negative comments (eg “Abject eagerness,” “dizzingly tedious,” “Undignified flattery”-just some examples). She says that applicants should present themselves like colleagues (not grad students) yet she doesn’t treat them with respect let alone as equals but rather sits in judgment and belittles their efforts.

        it’s not that KK needs to be friendly, but if she wants to be an ally of those reaching out for help she might bear in mind that most feedback (from good and bad advisors, from well-meaning and random others) is negative and tends to accumulate. maybe she has forgotten how hard it was to get a job. something that has become a million times harder since the 1990s.

        • Sorry you feel that way. Most clients actually like my style and keep coming back for more. And, overuse of I and my, list-addiction, and so on are generic writing flaws, not personal issues.

  9. I like this one:My book will serve a milestone function in the academic panorama and all major academic libraries will be interested in this work.

    What is a milestone function? The academic panorama? And by all major libraries, I think he means it will sell about 100 copies.

  10. I agree regarding “recalibrates.” Was there something wrong with the first calibration? Are you measuring bunny hopping on a different scale now? What purpose would that serve? Admittedly, my teaching statement might be guilty of these follies. Without a lot of experience, it’s easy to make a mountain out of a molehill out of being insecure or genuinely deluded about the level of ones experience.

  11. Pingback: Adjectives Are Not Arguments, Part I | The Professor Is In

  12. I am a second year PhD student in English. I have gained a lot of confidence over the first three semesters of my second stint in grad school (have a previous M.A.), mostly gained through favorable responses to conference presentations and publications in two top journals in my field. With that said, I do not believe I am bulletproof or revolutionizing my field. I simply feel that, if I continue on this trajectory, I have as good a shot as anyone at a TT position. That said, this is a very helpful post insofar as it makes me aware of the way in which I might market myself to appeal to a hiring committee that A) will certainly be comprised of folks outside my narrower field and B) will probably be wary of the arrogance that comes with some marginal success in the field (which I’ve seen in colleagues).

    But how might we present ourselves confidently without seeming to overcompensate for our insecurities? Because I don’t feel like I have any insecurities – I know I still have lots to learn, but I feel, likewise, that I’m doing a very solid job as a scholar as of now. Some of the statements above, as has been pointed out, amount to the type of self-promotion we’ve been conditioned into. At the same time, there are finite ways to communicate one’s potential to a department. And I feel confidence is better than self-deprecation or being overly humble.

  13. When I was a PhD student, some of the other grad students had put together “seminar bingo”–a card which included all of the jaded disciplinary jargon and expressions. I believe some of the above were included. No one ever shouted “BINGO” in the midst of a guest speaker’s talk, but there was a lot of giggling going on in the back of the room.

    In the humanities, do you think the word “negotiate” is suspect, or is it still a fair way to express the challenge of weighing opposing principles?

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