Be Professorial

If you had asked me, prior to my opening of The Professor Is In, what I imagined would be the biggest communicative challenge of young job candidates, I would have said, “being excessively pompous and pretentious.”

And I would have been wrong.

The fact is, I’ve learned after conducting some 100 Interview Bootcamps, the biggest problem that young job candidates have is not sounding pompous and pretentious enough.

It’s really the oddest thing.

Client after client, setting out to attain the position of professor, reveal themselves to be completely unprepared to sound actually….professorial.

I spend an inordinate amount of time telling Interview Bootcamp clients to, first of all, pause.  Pause, and stroke your metaphorical beard.  Nod sagely.  Think deeply.  Inhale.  And then—and only then—respond to the question.  This is the classic professorial move.  Learn it.

I tell them to slow down.  The slow, deliberate delivery is a core professorial conceit.  Professors don’t race breathlessly through their words.  They savor them.  They relish them.  The h-y-p-e-r-articulate them, the way Ross used to do on Friends.  Watch here, at 3:57, where Ross hits his stride on the subject of evolution. (sorry this isn’t embedded; i tried!)

Ross from Friends on Evolution

Like Ross, cherish your final consonants, because they are your allies.  Contractions, however, banish.  What are you, an undergraduate?

Practice saying this:  “I. Am. quiTE convinceD that they. Are. correcT in their assumptioNS, although [heh heh—conspiratorial laugh] I mighT dispuTE soME of their con-clu-sioNS.”

Gesture widely, expansively.  Opine.  Assert.  Dare I say it, explicate.

I would never have dreamed that I’d be telling graduate students to be more pompous, but in fact, that’s exactly what you need to be.

What most young job candidates lack, that actual professors have in spades, comes down to one thing:  self-importance.

Remember, if you’re setting out to be a professor, the first thing you have to do is act like one.


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Be Professorial — 24 Comments

  1. Thank you for these tips, I have been working on sounding more “professorial” for the past year. It is really quite difficult to manage if it is not your normal mode of communication. I found the tips in “Nice girls don’t get the corner office” also helpful in trying to cultivate a more ‘adult’ persona.

  2. I always wonder about this, especially where gender is concerned. I’ve been told that I tend to be too humble, too friendly, and, basically, “not pompous and pretentious enough.”

    But I’m always worried about sounding too arrogant, TOO self-assured, TOO pretentious. And I wonder if, for women, there’s an even greater danger of being perceived, essentially, as a “stuck-up bitch.”

    • No, in academia, in actual practice, there is not that danger. For women, your excessive socialization to humility and self-abnegation means, in practice, that you can err on the side of what seems to you excessive pomposity, and land exactly at “just right.” You’ll need to trust me on this, but the dangers of excessive mousiness and fearfulness FAR FAR outweigh, for women, any possible risks of seeming bitchy.

  3. I wonder if the difference between your perceptions of young job candidates before and after starting this business is sample differences. When you were a faculty member, you saw all candidates. Now that you’re in the business, you’re especially seeing those who are unsure of themselves, and want extra help. I suspect that those who are already pompous and self-important are less likely to seek help. Nonetheless, great advice!

  4. I guess you’re probably right, but I despise people who sound like that so much that I hate to think that my not sounding pompous is the thing that would keep me from getting a job. What about the advice to “be yourself” advice. I feel like I’m faking it if I sound like that much of a self-important idiot. Is that really my only hope of landing a TT job?

      • ha ha… i guess it’s a little more palatable there. I think it was the hyperarticulation that got me. I’m in the humanities. I feel almost embarrassed about the way some people over enunciate.

        Well, I’ve had two campus visits that didn’t turn out. I guess it’s time to get rid of myself and start sounding more confident. I noticed in the article you linked that you mention again your advice regarding how to respond to questions about things that you may have overlooked. I had one person who was particularly aggressive about this. I would say she was actually a bit rude. She alluded to some scholars in a neighboring field that she thought had relevance to my project, but rather than ask me about them (naming names) she wanted me to say the names of the scholars she thought I should be working with. Basically like a quiz that I didn’t know the answer to. Do you see that type of thing often?

        The result was that I wasn’t quite able to say, “Yes, I respect the work that ____ has done about____. It’s very important; however, my work is different in that ______.”

        • I do see (and experienced myself as a job candidate) aggressive “pop quiz” style questioning. It’s so devastating! I lost a supporter once when I didn’t know all about the work of British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. I was flummoxed, and embarrassed, and later, pissed, ie: “Dude–he wrote Remains of the Day! Hardly pertinent to my work on the ANTHROPOLOGY of gender in contemporary JAPAN”! Anyway, the point is to remain calm and non-defensive (I failed this at the time), and perhaps turn it around by saying, “I’m not sure I follow your question,” or “could you be more specific?” etc.

  5. Honestly! What awful advice! Don’t you think we professors can see through that? There is a difference between pompous and reflective, and it’s immediately obvious to anyone who’s been in the game for any length of time. I rejected a grad student candidate this year specifically because of shallow pomposity–vacuous jargon-slinging, metaphorical beard-stroking, the whole bit. There’s no substitute for being genuinely thoughtful–and if you’re bright and well-read, *not* being pompous is a big plus.

    • There are always some who are too pompous to be sure. But I’ve come to understand that the serf-like conditions in which most graduate students/adjuncts labor lead the majority of them to err far more on the side of cringing and hunted (“I’ll talk as fast as I can before they lose interest!”) than excessively self-important. There is also a self-selection aspect to my readership/clientship, as a commenter above pointed out. The truly pompous will not be seeking advice from the likes of me, while the potentially servile and cringing most definitely will. It is to them that I always address my advice.

    • My impression is that Karen was going for some shock value with this post. The article that she links in the comment above is a bit milder and focuses on a measured, clear, logical presentation of a career trajectory. I am more convinced by the “stop being a grad student” posts than this “start being a professor” post, however.

    • Read this superbly insightful blog post by the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel on the phenomenon of “Sounding Smart.” Schwitzgebel talks about grad students in particular (and also makes a reference to the show Friends!). Karen is simply spot on.

  6. I believe you’re right — and it’s not just women who have this problem (actually, when shy and deferential women fail, they’re just perceived as normal; when shy and deferential men fail, they’re perceived as deficient. “Mama’s girl” doesn’t carry quite the same sting, does it?). I’ve actually made a promise that, should I ever find myself on the other side of the room, I will do everything I can to hire the shy and disappoint the pompous. But at this point, the odds of that ever happening don’t look good.

  7. Pingback: The “Be Yourself” Myth: Performing the Academic Self on the Job Market | The Professor Is In

  8. You are right. Sounding self-important is part of the training. Brought up in a semi-conservative family in India, I was rigorously trained to be a soft-spoken, introvert, humble, shy, strictly non-pompous and a ‘good girl’. Now in US, I feel I have to create an alter-personality to survive the job market !! I feel like cursing my parents.

  9. I can only imagine that in the begining stages of the formation of institutions of higher learning that people believed that when someone acted like an over bearing, obnoxious and pompous windbag then “by golly, they must really know what they’re talkin’ ’bout.”

    But seriously? What value does acting like a pompous windbag add to the educational process? It’s 2012. If you want to act like an ass I’m more than happy to take my educational dollars somewhere else and your institution of higher learning can learn market forces first hand. I’m not going to tolerate that kind of behavior from a waiter, a lawyer, a doctor, a shop clerk or anyone else much less a “teacher”. If you want to teach, then teach. If you want to show your ass, do it on your own dime.

  10. You usually give very good advice. This post, however, does not fit into that category. Had you encouraged graduate students on the market to articulate with confidence and conviction the substance of their ideas and interventions, and perhaps given examples of what that looks like, that would be sound advice. But to encourage more hot air? Unless this post was meant to be ironic, I am sorry, you’ve done people who need solid direction a real disservice.

    • Actually, this advice comes directly from my work with live skype Interview Interventions. For every one blowhard I have about 100 meek, deferential, mealy-mouthed, slangy, breathy people who can’t stop saying “like” and “ya know” and “um” and “really, really, really important.” To tell the truth, I am not sure I have ever had a blowhard in three years of doing these skypes. What there is, is a sea, an epidemic, of people who sound more like undergraduates than faculty, and who have absolutely no idea how to don the mantle of the professional identity. This advice has helped those people dramatically–right there, in the skype, before my very eyes–and it’ll help readers too.

  11. I LOVE this advice. And I chuckle because my husband has a much better rate of snagging jobs after interviews than I do. He enunciates better than anyone I have ever met. Non-English speakers love him. Now I know his secret.

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