Shed Your Grad Student Persona

When it's time for a job search, Ph.D. candidates need to drop these behaviors, writes Karen Kelsky.

August 21, 2015

The biggest challenge for the tenure-track-job seeker is not finishing the dissertation, churning out publications or cultivating fancy recommenders. It is transitioning from the peon mentality of graduate school to the peer mentality of the job market.

Approaching the job market from the peon subject position means that almost every word of the job application materials will have a wheedling, pathetic, desperate tone. Substituting emotionalism and pandering -- interspersed with overcompensating moments of wild grandiosity -- for actual facts and evidence of the academic record renders the application materials worthless for the purposes of securing a job.

The irony of graduate training is this: the better a grad student you are, the worse job candidate you make. While in the realm of ideas, faculty will allow for independence, in the larger interpersonal “frame” of graduate training, they expect deference. This is, of course, never expressed and would likely be vehemently denied. Because the hierarchy is thus disavowed, graduate students have little means of recognizing how marked they are by their place in it. Here are some ways it’s expressed:

1. You Drone On and On About Your Dissertation

Please stop talking about your dissertation. Search committees don’t want to know about your dissertation beyond proof that you wrote one and that it’s (soon to be) finished and defended. What they want to know is how that dissertation accomplishes specific goals that serve the department: how it produces refereed publications, wins grants and awards, translates into dynamic teaching, transforms quickly into a book (if you’re in a book field), and inspires a viable second project.

2. You Think People Are Out to Get You in Your Department

Beware paranoia, which is endemic to graduate student life. With very rare exceptions, faculty members barely even think about the graduate students in their departments, beyond asking, once a year, whether any of them will just finish already so the dean can get off their back about their pitiful completion rate. The people in the department want you to finish. Whatever that takes, that’s what they want you to do. So just do that, OK?

3. You Think People Are Out to Get You in Your Discipline

You’re sure that your “radical” perspective has earned you powerful enemies in the field. It likely has not. Likely few people are even thinking about you. If you’re getting negative responses to your work, it’s not because your argument single-handedly overturns the foundational orthodoxy of your field and has inspired widespread jealousy and resentment. It’s because the work is not yet good enough. No search committee wants a drama queen.

4. You Constantly Repeat Your Main Point

Graduate students are insecure. This is understandable, because your status is insecure. One outcome of the insecurity is that you tend to pile on examples that “prove” that your topic is a legitimate one. Search committees are looking for a colleague who might be fun to talk to. What that means is someone who is confident that their topic is sound, and then who can talk about something else that is interesting.

5. You Make Excuses for Yourself

Talk like the expert you are. When the search committee asks, “How would you teach our intro course?” do not answer like this: “It didn’t really go very well last time I taught it, so I need to make changes.” Answer something like this: “I will take a balanced approach that introduces the X and Y perspectives.”

6. You Wait for Permission

I wish I had a nickel for every client who explained a lack of publications by saying, “My adviser never told me to publish.” Nobody told you to publish? Really? You really never once grasped, after reading hundreds of articles, that publishing might be a thing you’d need to do? Advisers should help, but make no mistake: ultimately, responsibility for your job market preparation is on you.

7. You’re Submissive

Graduate students tend to display the classic signs of submission -- tilted head (ref: your puppy), bowed shoulders, tightly crossed legs, weak and vague hand gestures, a tentative, questioning tone. You have a wimpy, cold-fish handshake. You avoid direct eye contact. Above all, you ramble in an unfocused and evasive way. Few people have all of these traits, but most have some.

Square your shoulders, straighten your back, lift your chin and loosen your elbows. Take up all the space in the chair. Make direct eye contact. Do not fuss with your hair, clothes or jewelry. Speak in a firm, level tone. Smile in a friendly way at the beginning and end, but not too much while you’re talking about your work. Beware of mumbling, rambling and trailing off indistinctly. Lastly, attend to your handshake. Get up from your chair, go find a human and shake their hand. Shake it firmly. Really squeeze! Do this until it’s second nature. If you aren’t sure if you’re doing it right, find an alpha male in your department and ask him to teach you.

Banish the wet noodle handshake.

Seriously, grad students, butch it up.


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.

This essay is adapted with permission from The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job (Three Rivers Press).


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