[sorry for the inconsistent fonts in this post. I am trying to correct. It’s really hard in the theme that I use, and involves html.]
One of the unexpected pleasures of being The Professor is the opportunity it’s given me to work closely with young scholars from all over the world. This has been illuminating, as I have gained tremendous insight into institutional and cultural practices of the academy in the UK, Canada, Australia, India, Israel, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Trinidad, and a number of the other countries of Europe, South America, and East Asia. It has also been humbling, as I have learned just how much I don’t know about “how things work” internationally, and how much I have taken for granted, and universalized, the American academic norm.
Now, I make no apology that The Professor Is In is dedicated to success in the American job market and U.S. academic settings. It is the only job market and academic setting I know intimately, from personal experience, and the only one that I am qualified to assist with.
I am always very grateful when clients and readers weigh in, however, to augment posts and advice with the “view from abroad.” I hope, as time goes by, to solicit guest posts on the contrasts and potential pitfalls of different academic job markets and work settings overseas.
For today, however, I want to share what I’ve noticed in recent weeks from working with a number of UK-trained clients. As I find myself identifying the same problems over, and over, and over, with these clients, I have come to recognize that these issues are not individual, but cultural. We’re dealing with a pattern here. And it’s a pattern that is full of danger for unsuspecting UK job candidates on the U.S. Job market.
So, for the benefit of all of you who have done your Ph.D.s in England, Ireland, Wales, and to some extent Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, or who have spent a number of years in these places and are seeking a return to the United States, the following are my observations of what you’re doing wrong, and how you need to fix it.
The main issue is, and I’m sorry to say it, but…..you’re boring. Seriously, you’re killing us over here. Why are you so boring? Is that how you have to be in England, to be an academic?
I mean, let me clarify. You’re not boring, personally. Most of you have been an absolute delight to work with—funny, witty, mordant, devastatingly smart. But your writing? OMG—It is so boring! As I finally burst out to my latest UK-trained client (an American by birth, fyi), in the incident that prompted this blog post:
“Your British training is really, really evident. You need to meditate deeply on being American and banish the dries, the dulls, the passives, the wordy, the telling, and above all, the tendentiousness*.“
Now, let me hasten to add that it’s not unknown for an American, or any nationality, to be dry, dull, wordy, and tendentious*. Heck that universal tendency among academics of all stripes is my bread and butter as Dr. Karen, Coach to the (Academic) Stars! But it’s nowhere so consistent and so PATTERNED as it is among my dear Brits.
And let me also hasten to add that any norm of writing is not bad in and of itself. Certainly not. But to the extent that you are seeking a particular outcome of the writing—ie, success on the U.S. job market—then the writing becomes problematic in its instrumentalizing effects. Fundamentally, the writing that seems to be the default and norm for people coming out of the UK Ph.D. system is at odds with the needs and values of the U.S. academic market. So, it is to that mismatch, and nothing else, that I address myself today.
What follows is a list, in no particular order, of the primary ways that my UK- and Commonwealth-trained clients have consistently gone wrong in their job documents for the U.S. academic market.
1. You overuse, dreadfully, painfully, the passive voice.
If there is one issue that I urge you to correct, immediately, it is your tendency to over-use, indeed to completely rely upon, the passive voice.
Passive voice is the enemy of all job and professional documents in the United States.
It sucks the energy and dynamism out of your writing, obscures your individual writing voice and intellectual impact, and saps the enthusiasm of the reader. Furthermore, it is un-American, and it bugs us. In the United States, for better or worse, we are all about speaking up, and saying your piece, and expressing yourself, and standing up for what you believe in, and anything else that Oprah has enjoined on us recently. None of that is achievable through the passive voice. There may have been a day in American academia decades ago when we too relied on the passive voice as the sign of intellectual seriousness and scholarly sobriety. But that day is long gone, and now the passive voice signals tediousness, tendentiousness, graduate student immaturity, excessive seriousness (and likely lack of a sense of humor), and a profound misunderstanding of what constitutes effective job market communication.
Job documents in the United States must be written (almost) entirely in the active voice, with an occasional passive voice sentence thrown in merely for rhythm and variety. Active voice communicates that you are a self-starter, resourceful, and confident, all qualities that are necessary to get a tenure track job in the United States. It suggests you will be an effective and engaging teacher. And it communicates that you are interested in dialogue and collegial exchange, rather than being in a self-absorbed monologue.
You probably don’t even recognize all the passive voice sentences you use, so please have a trusted advisor or colleague read for you and point them out.
(Note: Replacing the passive voice does not mean you turn to an endless stream of “I statements”: “Last year I taught xxxx….and in that class I assigned xxxx….and I had the students work on xxxx….and I was careful to encourage xxxxx…..and I got excellent evaluations.” The I statement narrative is equally deadly, as I describe here. and here. But it is quite possible to write in the active voice without falling prey to an unimaginative I narrative).
2. You are boring.
This follows on point #1. Your sharp wit and killer sense of comedic timing is not making it on to the page. You consistently bury your leads in quantities and quantities of verbiage. The sheer number of words you use to articulate simple ideas is mind-boggling. You sidle in to your main point in a barrage of caveats and subordinate and dependent clauses that addle and defeat your readers. You undersell, and you KNOW that’s never going to work in the States. You have an aversion to specificity and examples, and stay stubbornly at the level of generalization and abstraction, which operates as a giant snooze-fest in a job document.
Job documents in the United States work best when they move quickly and in linear fashion through ideas in relatively short and (my favorite word) punchy sentences with clear and specific examples. This is not because American academics have short attention spans, but because we like, and respond positively to, energy and dynamism. You want to give the sense that you are resourceful, dynamic, responsive, alert, energetic, and poised for the next big thing. While no search committee member would ever articulate those as qualities that they are consciously prioritizing, nevertheless, those ARE the qualities that characterize the most successful job candidates. In a drastically shrinking economy, even more so. You have to show you can do more with less, not by telling them so, but by demonstrating it in the economy and vibrancy of your prose.
3. You are, sometimes, tendentious*.
While it is true that we all need to sound smart in our job documents, there is a good way and a bad way to sound smart. The bad way is to sound tendentious. What I mean by that is verbiage that has a hectoring tone, or, more commonly, verbiage that proudly states scholarly sentiments and observations that are hackneyed, dated, or obvious, as if they were brilliantly original contributions.
I have no idea why this would be more common among British Ph.D.s, but it is. I suspect that it derives from the massive neglect by advisors that I have come to understand is the modus operandi of the Ph.D. system in England. While I rail against the systemic neglect and indifference of American Ph.D. advisors vis-a-vis their advisees in the United States, frankly they could all win humanitarian awards compared to what apparently goes on in the U.K.. I have it on excellent authority that the norm is: no professional, or job related, advising whatsoever and a general abandonment in terms of anything beyond the narrowest possible dissertation work. This includes, I understand, advising related to encouraging conference participation or publishing or networking. Consequently, it is likely, it seems, for Ph.D. students there to complete their Ph.D.s with no or few opportunities for the kind of intense and hard-hitting intellectual and scholarly challenges that come from being pushed and pressured by colleagues and peers and intimidating senior people. I speculate that this may be a reason behind the tendentiousness that I’ve seen.
Whatever the reason, it needs to stop. It’s very difficult to identify tendentiousness in your own writing, because it tends to crop up in the scholarly claims and arguments that you fondly believe are the most brilliant and original. So identifying tendentiousness in writing often requires identifying flabby and lazy argumentation in your work itself, and that’s painful. This is where you have to “kill your darlings” and really listen when a sharp critical reader tells you that your dearly beloved scholarly claim is dull, circular, ineffective, or, frankly, obvious. The trick is finding the sharp critical reader who will tell you that. But find that reader you must.
Beyond these three writing problems is another problem related to the c.v. This is one that truly mystifies me. U.K.-trained people routinely submit dreadfully cramped and squashed and over-crowded c.v.s. Is this related to frugality and a desire to not waste paper? If so, that is admirable, and I respect it. Nevertheless, for the U.S. job market, it has to stop. There are conventions for U.S. c.v.s, which your c.v.s (unintentionally) ignore. Your c.v.s make us want to cry. Be aware that there is almost never a length limit for c.v.s on the U.S. job market. For postdocs, yes, sometimes they will specify a maximum length for the version to be submitted. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO GAME THIS LIMIT by manipulating margins and fonts! The margins must remain wide, and the font legible.
U.K.-trained people, please listen to me carefully. Your c.v. must:
Have full one inch/2.5 cm margins on all sides!!!!!
Be in 12 point font throughout, without exception
Have your name in larger font, possibly all caps, at the top, centered
Have the words “curriculum vitae” underneath your name, centered, in 12 pt font, with one space between name and these words
Have your personal and institutional addresses underneath, on parallel lines, right and left justified
Make use of abundant white space between Headings
Have a space between each Heading title and the first entry under that Heading
List your publications first, after Education and Professional Appointments
Not include narrative verbiage under Research or Teaching or Professional Experience or Grants
Not include the monetary amount for grants received, unless they were institutional grants above $75,000//£50,000
Finally, in terms of interviewing: Brits, please do whatever you have to to cultivate what will undoubtedly feel like an overweening sense of your own importance and excessive and unwarranted self-confidence. By doing this, you will over-correct for your training in excessive and unwarranted humility and self-abnegation, and probably land just where you need to for the U.S. job market, where confidence sells. Also, please, get to the point. We don’t have all day.
*2020 update: a commenter just today pointed out that “tendentious” doesn’t mean what i thought it meant! I thought it meant, droning on and on obsessively about a minor point. It actually means, arguing from a biased or partisan viewpoint. So please note my use of the word is incorrect.