Data Point, Data Point, Data Point…

Sometimes I hear reactions to The Professor Is In, that my level of attention to details and minutiae (everything from what kind of bag you carry to where your voice rises in your delivery of a sentence) is excessive–even anal or obsessive.  Sometimes people will huff, indignantly, “If they’re going to judge me on something as small as what bag I carry, I certainly don’t want to work there.”  When I hear these reactions (I don’t always, since they’re usually out of earshot.  But sometimes they come to the fore), I always take pains to clarify.

Will they not hire you because of the bag you carried?  Solely because of your bag?  Unlikely.  No search committee is going to say, ‘she was excellent as a scholar and teacher–her job talk was path-breaking–but sadly we can’t hire her because of her bag.  If only she’d carried a different bag…’

No, that doesn’t happen.  Even when a search committee has a judgment about your bag (and they may well have none at all), it may not even rise to the level of discussion, or even consciousness.

What does happen is this:  you are surveilled from the moment your application arrives, to the moment you step back on the plane at the end of your campus visit.  At each point in between, you are being judged.  The people doing the judging are using all of their senses–some consciously, some not–to evaluate you.  They encounter you, take you in, and instantly begin to file away impressions, data point by data point:

  • Good cover letter: data point
  • Sloppy CV: data point
  • Typos in the teaching statement: data point
  • Quick, courteous email response: data point
  • Strong response to publications question: data point
  • In need of a haircut: data point
  • Weak response to teaching question: data point
  • Good idea for a second project: data point
  • Querulous, anxious vocal patterns: data point
  • Innovative research methodologies: data point
  • Ratty backpack: data point
  • Sketchy familiarity with campus programs: data point

And on, and on, and on… data point by data point.  At the end, these will all be gathered into a larger general “impression” of the candidate.   Again, some will be explicit — all elements of the formal record, for example — while some will be implicit.  Things like haircut, clothes, bag, vocal patterns may be noticed by some search committee members and not by others, and may be weighed differently even when they are noticed.  I make no claims that all search committee members will notice everything in the list above, or consider them significant, or evaluate them consistently.  What I do claim is that someone on the search committee is likely to notice some of the above (and an infinite list of other such factors) and file them away in some form, to become part of the overall judgment that carries forward into the evaluation process.

So: will a school not hire you because of your bag?  No, not likely.  But will one or more search committee members observe a ratty backpack as part of the general impression of “professionalism” you make, and consider it (consciously or unconsciously) as part of your readiness to leave behind a grad student identity and operate as a faculty member…?  I believe the answer to that is yes, and so urge you to attend to it and all the other details of your record and mode of self-presentation that I talk about at The Professor Is In.

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Data Point, Data Point, Data Point… — 13 Comments

  1. I did hear a story where a search committee at top R1 history program ruled someone out for stuffing a bunch of dinner rolls in her purse at her dinner with faculty. In same dept, a different person offended the dept admin staff by asking someone to go get them coffee. Were these the only issues? probably not. but it illustrates your point. Ultimately, the search committees are looking for ways to cut down a list. If applicants look at it that way, it’s actually helpful. Might not seem fair–but no one cares what applicants think is fair.

  2. Speaking of details and data points, what is the best way to include dissertation awards and book contracts in a cover letter? They’re on the CV, but I realize I need to put them in the letter and it seems so clunky/arrogant, but I know it’s part of selling my work. Thanks.

  3. probably the best analogy is of a face: it’s made of disparate and unremarkable bits, but then it comes together naturally into one big picture

    same with the dials on a car dashboard (or airplane)

  4. True! I did come out of an interview once only to realize that i had taken my eternal brown-leather handbag with me. Must have looked like a grizzly ranger. I actually did not even possess another one at that point — it simply never occurred to me that it could ever be replaced. The rejection letter came after three days. Another missed chance to end the job search. A professionally looking handbag of black leather had to be purchased immediately. Next interview went much better. There is some power in the handbag thing.

  5. I definitely agree with you here Karen. On the search committee I last sat on, it definitely wouldn’t have been “don’t hire her because of the bag”, but it might have colored our perceptions – we might be less generous with something else we saw with the candidate because of it.

    My wife was on a search committee where one candidate showed up very informally dressed – to the point where we overlooked her when we went to pick her up at the hotel, we figured that couldn’t be someone here for a faculty interview. Not a great first impression.

    Also, as you say, different committee members will notice or not notice different things. HOWEVER, having even 1 person with serious reservations about a candidate can sink them.

    • I don’t own a handbag and am often asked where it is. The experience has always confused me. If its relevant, I’ll be holding it in my hands. If its not, then why would I bring it to an interview? I even take public transport so I’m not sure what crap needs to be carted around.

    • i think they are mostly great, as long as they fall a bit more on the sedate rather than funky side, since a lot of them can be really funky (which is great! just not nec. for a campus visit).

  6. Best description for this is “professional presence.” There are entire books written about this and companies that charge 30K or more for training in this to groom upper level management. One big issue with me: be aware of the jewelry you wear. NO big hoop earrings. That is not the image you want to project. Same thing with paying attention to your hair, nails, shoes, etc… all should be neat and clean. Little details like this can stand out and send the wrong message. You want to project a professional demeanor, one that says you are competent, detailed and organized.

  7. Believe it or not, our Dean did comment on the attire worn by one interviewee and it almost led to that person not being offered the job, even though they were well qualified. And a single line of dialogue has sunk candidates before at this same institution.

  8. Pingback: Let’s Talk Backpacks | The Professor Is In

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