Nobody Cares What You’re Interested In

One very common error that writers of job documents make is going on and on about what they are interested in.

It’s often quite a writing tic. “I am interested in…. and I am particularly interested in…and a topic of particular fascination is….and I would be interested in teaching….and my interests in xxxx would fit in well with the interests of the department in xxxxx…..” and so on and so on, ad nauseum. If the word “interest” shows up once in a client’s document, it nearly always shows up at least 5 more times.

Brits: for some reason, you so do this. Why? I’m not sure. But if you’re British, and you’re reading this, please pull up your job documents right now and do a universal search for “interest.” I bet you’ll be surprised.

Anyway, here’s the hard truth: nobody cares what you’re interested in.

They really don’t care.

I know this is counterintuitive, because surely that’s the whole point of the entire exercise, right? Your interests—their interests—common ground—job offer. No?

No. In fact, interest-talk is one of the biggest red flags of a job document, and I’ll tell you why. Because it’s self-involved. And actually suggests that you’ll be a bad colleague, not a good one.

The fact is, departments advertise because they need your labor. The nature of the labor will vary depending on the type of department and campus, and the job described. But basically they need you to teach specific classes that may have been named in the ad, and other classes that will round out their major in very clear and deliberate ways. They need you to do research on topics that are consistent with the scholarly profile of the department as a whole and that strengthen the academic area specified in the job ad. They need you to publish articles and books that will a) meet their standards for tenure so they don’t have a hassle in 6 years, and b) bring fame and glory to the department. They need you to serve on committees and help the department run.

All of these things are entirely outcome-based. You either do the publishing that they want to see, or you don’t. You either teach the classes that they need and expect, or you don’t. Effective job document and interview verbiage will give substantive evidence, quickly, that you produce these outcomes. Bad job document and interview verbiage will drone on and on in a self-absorbed and self-regarding manner about your private fascinations, preoccupations, and obsessions, ie, your interests.

Bad example:

“I have long been interested in relationship between gender and transnational mobility in Japan. This led to my interest in Japanese women as transnational agents. My dissertation addressed this issue and one fascinating conclusion of the research was that women’s investment in transnational identities were not static but evolved over the life course. An article I published in the Journal of XX explored this further.

As a result of my interests in gender, transnationalism, and Japan, I would be interested to teach courses such as xxx and yyy. In the course XXX I bring my interests in xxx into the classroom and have the students do xxx; this produces fascinating dialogues in the classroom.”

You might laugh, but I regularly see verbiage like this.  And by the way, the word “fascinating” is another symptom of this disease.

Here’s the rewrite:

“My dissertation addresses the relationship between gender and mobility in Japan, specifically focusing on Japanese women as transnational agents. Based on fieldwork in Japan using xx and yy methods, the dissertation concluded that women’s investment in transnational identities were not static but evolved over the life course. I published part of this research in an article in the Journal of XX; in this article I argue xxxxx. I have another article on yyy underway for submission this Spring, which focuses on yyy.

I am prepared to teach courses on xx and yyy. In the course XXX, one assignment that I’ve found effective is to have the students do xxxx. In this way they gain an understanding of qqqq that will serve them well in later courses as well as future professional endeavors.”

Remember. All effective job docs show, concisely, with substance and evidence, that you can meet the department’s specific needs. Any job doc that simply spins a self-involved tale of your scholarly fascinations and private preoccupations shows that you do not understand this, that you are likely a self-absorbed drama queen, and that you are not a credible candidate.

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Nobody Cares What You’re Interested In — 28 Comments

  1. What if they specifically ask the question “what are your interests and experience”? I think I already know your answer.

    • A legit question. You’ll want to crisply move from a general line: “My work focuses on xx yy and zz.” to concrete specifics: I have conducted research on xx, using xx methods, and concluding xxx” conclusions..”

  2. Karen,
    What is your opinion on scholarly writing couches? Is that what you do when you go over clients’ papers, job market documents, etc.? I am thinking about getting one… Thanks.

    • A writing coach is someone who helps you plan a writing schedule, set deadlines and stick to them. My partner Kellee Weinhold has been a writing coach for years and several of my clients work with her. There are others as well. The trick is finding one who knows how to work with the special breed of madness that is academic writing.

    • I just want to say that I love this typo. Before reading Karen’s reply I was seriously considering whether a nice, comfy, fluffy couch would improve my writing.

  3. My confusion is with the last paragraph of the cover letter. Part of my discussion of how I fit in departments generally discusses overlap in scholarly “interests” and possibilities for collaboration. Is there a way to address this without reference to the dreaded interests?

    • Another legit question. Worth a caveat. You can use the word “interests” ONCE, in the tailoring para of a job letter, if you really feel like it works there to express your commonalities with some faculty in the dept. There are lots of options for expressing this, so this is not an blank check! But you do raise a legitimate point that in this spot only, sometimes invoking interests does merit consideration.

  4. Again, a great post, Karen. I’ll just add that “interested in” is also really irritating because it’s the default safe judgment that is supposed to display appropriate intellectualism without any actual engagement. When people go to talks, they merely say “it was interesting” in a thoughtful academic way and then wander back to their offices to be interested in something else. It’s a corrupted word all around.

  5. Great advice, though in your example– after being a faithful reader of your blog– I cringed at “my dissertation does X.” I would think that strong I statements, rather than passive “my dissertation” statements would be better? Also, I think you scared me off from ever using the word “dissertation” in my documents!

    • Oh no, I always have people discuss their dissertation in their job docs–letter and RS! “My dissertation examines… In the dissertation I conclude… etc.” In terms of “I” vs. “my diss”–i try to have people vary their sentence openings to avoid too many I statements.

  6. On the British overuse of ‘interest’: I see typical British semantics in it. That’s to say a ‘research interest’ is less direct and more comfortably non-committal than an ‘area of expertise’, for example.

  7. YES. Now that I’ve sat on two search committees I can second this quite strongly. The other caveat I’d add is that if the university is an R1 or has R1-aspirations, they will also be looking very carefully at research fit. This is especially true in the fields in which interdisciplinary research is a must; we want colleagues we can write competitive grants with or that will help flesh out an expertise area we are currently missing to be competitive in XYZ category of grants.

  8. Could you possibly write a post or point me in the direction of how to apply this to research/personal statements? (PhD apps) I’m quite guilty of overusing interests in conjunction with finding things fascinating, but at the same time the nature of the document is to express research interests and passions!

  9. Thanks for the advice, Karen, I also had “fascinates/excites me” in my RS.

    I actually put them in deliberately, after I read some other RSs and had the feeling the authors were very enthusiastic about their work. Since I really enjoy collaborating with enthusiastic people, I thought it might be relevant for the department how enthusiastic I am about my work.

    So isn’t it good if the RS eradiates enthusiasm? If it is, how can I achieve this without using the words “interests”, “fascinates” and “excites”?

    • As with all job docs, your excitement is communicated through the vitality and originality of the research itself and your productivity, and not through the use of adjectives.

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