The 'Be Yourself' Myth
To get hired, you need to master the six elements of a professional persona, writes Karen Kelsky.
Today's myth is: "When interviewing for a tenure-track academic position, it’s best to just be yourself."
A number of months ago, I was working with a client whom I'll call Margaret, a full professor and department head in the social sciences in an East Coast R1, who had contacted me for assistance in refining the letters of recommendation she was writing for the increasingly desperate job-seeking Ph.D.s and adjuncts under her care. I was impressed with this client. She was sincere, earnest, and generous of spirit. She was committed to the welfare of these candidates, some her own Ph.D. students and some the adjuncts who had been contributing their labor to her department for years. She had no idea how unusual she is.
Toward the end of our work together, in a Skype conversation, she asked if I had any final thoughts on how to advise people to prepare for interviews and campus visits. She said, "Of course I always tell them to just be themselves. I mean, that’s always the best advice, isn’t it?"
"Oh good god, Margaret!" I burst out. "Are you kidding me? THAT’S what you tell them?"
A started silence, followed by a sheepish laugh. "Really? That’s not good advice? Why?"
O, Margaret…. O, job candidates…. Where do I begin?
The exchange took me back to the day oh so many years ago, when my very own adviser had also told me, when I asked her for some advice for an upcoming campus visit, to just be myself.
And not knowing any better, I heeded that advice. And went out and made a complete ass of myself.
The fact is, Dear Readers, "yourself" is the very last person you want to be.
In this occasional column I will address commonplace myths that are widespread in academia, particularly among its not-yet-completely-enculturated junior members. Using my training as a cultural anthropologist, as well as my experiences as a former R1 tenured faculty member and department head, I will take up one myth, briefly explore its origins, consider its impact on believers, and then evaluate its value. It is my hope that in doing so, I will pull away the veil of mystification that seems to obscure so many aspects of the academic career, and assist graduate students and junior faculty in distinguishing the realities of life in the rapidly downsizing academic industry from the myths and half-truths often inculcated, oftentimes with the best of intentions, by their usually well-meaning dissertation advisors.
Because no matter where you are in your career, but most especially if you are just starting out, or (god forbid) a grad student, you are, as an academic, insecure, verbose, defensive, paranoid, beset by feelings of inadequacy, pretentious, self-involved, communicatively challenged, and fixated on minutiae.
Consequently, here’s how you act in interviews: rambling, obscure, petrified, subservient, cringing, disorganized, braggy, tedious, emotionally over-amped, off-point, self-absorbed, defensive, and fixated on minutiae.
I'm sure the comment stream will erupt with objections, but … I’ve worked with enough interviewees — as a search committee member, Ph.D. adviser, and coach and consultant — to know whereof I speak.
Sorry, academics. You/we suck at interviewing.
Here's what actually needs to happen.
You have to jettison "yourself."
In its stead, you have to create a professional persona. That persona is a full-fledged adult who demonstrates a tightly organized research program, a calm confidence in a research contribution to a field or discipline, a clear and specific trajectory of publications, innovative but concise, non-emotional ideas about teaching at all levels of the curriculum, a non-defensive openness to the exchange of ideas, and most importantly, a steely-eyed grasp of the real (as opposed to fantasy) needs of actual hiring departments, which revolve ultimately, in the current market, around money.
Let me take each of these characteristics of the non-yourself professional persona in turn.
1. A tightly organized research program. You will articulate your dissertation project/current project in approximately five sentences that sketch the topic, its sources, its methods, and its core argument. Five sentences in all.
2. A calm confidence in a research contribution to a field or discipline. You will be able to articulate the orthodoxy-challenging intervention of your dissertation in a field or fields. This will not be simply "additive" ("People have looked at x and y, but nobody has yet applied the method to z"; "I am building on the work of xx and yy … "), but will articulate your work as distinctive, individual and unafraid to challenge previous understandings. ("In contrast to common views in the field of xxx, my research shows that in fact the core variable is yyy. This shifts how we view ppp and qqq.") If you cannot articulate this, you are not ready for the job market.
3. A clear and specific trajectory of publications. You will map an "arc" of publications that links past, present and future. You will say something like: "As you saw from my C.V., I have two refereed journal articles published on this body of work in the Journal of X and Journal of Y. I have another in revise-and-resubmit stage at the Journal of Z. Beyond that, I am finalizing my book manuscript, and am speaking with editors at Duke and Chicago about a contract. I expect that to be complete in spring of next year, and after that I am planning two more articles based on material that didn’t make it into the book. Those publications will complete the publishing arc of this work, and I will then move on to my second major project." You will have this answer prepared for all interviews regardless of rank of the institution.
4. Innovative but concise, non-emotional, ideas about teaching at all levels of the curriculum. You will speak to specific courses, both intro-level and more advanced, both those those already on the department’s books and new ones you anticipate developing, in a brief and organized manner that gives the course title, the take-away point, the primary thematics, the texts or readings, and one innovative assignment that ideally incorporates digital techniques or social media. And then you will stop. You do not endlessly list course names, numbers, ideas, readings, or lecture topics. You also do not wax emotional about the "thrill" of teaching and the selfless efforts you dedicate to it. That says: adjunct.
5. A non-defensive openness to the exchange of ideas. When an interviewer says something like, "I notice you don’t really address gender in much detail in the dissertation. Do you have plans to develop that?" you do not respond, "Oh my gosh, yes, it’s true, I didn’t really get to include gender. I really WANTED to, but, uh, you know, I just ran out of time, and that’s a total lack in the dissertation, I KNOW, and I’m totally going to focus on correcting that…." You do respond: "Yes, thanks for raising that point. In fact, as I worked deeper into my analysis I discovered that gender was not the primary variable in operation, and that a focus on xxxx allowed me to keep my emphasis on yyyy." This is the non-defensive part. You can then, if appropriate, follow with, “I am increasingly intrigued by the role of gender, and am working up a manuscript that addresses it from the perspective of zzzz to submit to the Journal of QQQ. I’d look forward to talking to you more about that.” That is the openness part.
6. A steely-eyed grasp of the real (as opposed to fantasy) needs of actual hiring departments. Departments do not care about what makes you tick. They do not care about how you came to be who you are, or how you "feel" about the "privilege" of teaching and the "honor" of research. They are investing time and money into the addition of a new research and teaching resource (alternatively, new capital investment) to their department, and they need to know if you will be that resource/bring that capital. They are under the gun, from the dean’s if not the chancellor’s office, to increase enrollments, grow class sizes, bring in grant money, increase faculty productivity (i.e., publications and grants), improve student retention, consolidate departments, eradicate “underperforming” small courses/programs, and reduce lines. Here’s what is not prioritized: the scholarly minutiae of your research. Here is what is prioritized: your ability to demonstrate, with evidence, quickly, that you publish a lot in high-ranking journals, bring in grant money, thrive in large classes, harness digital resources to do more with less money, work interdisciplinarily, and teach well enough to avoid lawsuits.
Developing these six elements of the professional persona is exceedingly difficult, and requires enormous levels of practice. For many candidates, writing out versions of these responses and practicing them -- in the shower, in front of the mirror, with your significant other, and in mock interviews with peers and professors in your department -- is the only way that they become second nature. Over time, practicing these responses allows some of this persona to feel more natural, and indeed, legitimate. But to a degree, it may never feel that way. And that is fine. In the privacy of your own mind, you can continue to be beset by insecurities, anxieties and self-doubt, and the victim of rambling, disorganized thinking and an obsession with minutiae. But when you go out for an interview? This self needs to stay firmly out of sight, while your persona takes center stage.
Karen Kelsky is a former tenured faculty member and department head who taught at the University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the departments of Anthropology and East Asian Languages and Cultures. She left the academy to open an academic careers consulting service, The Professor Is In.
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