Grad Student: You Are Your Own Spokesperson

You have to hone your public-speaking and other communications skills to compete for attention in today's job market, writes James M. Van Wyck.

November 16, 2015

If graduate students are (to borrow Leonard Cassuto’s phrase) the CEOs of their own graduate education, then a key aspect of this multifaceted role is public relations.

Want to effectively represent yourself? Plan accordingly. Develop communications skills that work for larger audiences and think about ways to connect with individuals or small groups. Tend to your social media identity and compose a few different elevator pitches. Leverage the contacts you do have and plan to reach out to contacts you’d like to have. Remember that when you find your dream job, you’ll probably have to talk your way into it.

It may sound crazy, but you probably should have some kind of a communications plan for yourself. That’s because you are your own publicist, and you’ve got to work overtime to compete for attention in today’s market.

The bad news is that if you’ve been in graduate school for a while, chances are your communication skills aren’t up to snuff. You might have developed public-speaking and self-presentation habits that won’t work beyond academe. These habits might also be hurting your chances for an academic career.

Begin taking control of your own PR by conducting a frank diagnosis of your public-speaking skills. A while back I recorded myself speaking to a group of 45 graduate students. My perception of how I’d done didn’t exactly square with the evidence. As I watched the video, I saw that I’d been waving my hands about in a distracting fashion. My eyes didn’t scan the audience so much as dart from face to face. I needed to slow myself down and channel energy into my voice.

This kind of assessment is important. While we do lots of talking (and some networking) in academe, we often address audiences who listen because they know we have something we can give them. Students want a good grade. Conference goers want the latest research or an opening that’ll allow them to pose a smart-sounding question.

I’m being half-serious here. What’s absolutely certain is that we need to think about what we’re learning about public speaking when most of our experience comes in the classroom or at conferences.

A kind of osmosis kicks in. We’re slowly acculturated to unspoken norms and standards. And these habits can hurt us in all kinds of ways, especially when we’re looking for work.

For example, chronic self-effacement -- a virus most graduate students catch at some point or another -- will, if left untreated, hurt your search for a TT job. Belittling yourself and your work will almost always take you out of the running for jobs beyond the tenure track.

Quick diagnostic: look at the ways you talk about your research, your teaching, your discipline and higher education in general. Are you generally positive about your work, or are you prone to looking down at the ground and belittling your own work? If you do this on daily basis, chances are you’ll have a hard time making an excited case for yourself during an interview.

Seek out new audiences. One sin of omission that graduate students commit is neglecting to connect with audiences outside of academe. The results are just as pernicious as when we learn poor public speaking skills by osmosis. That’s because we’re so deep into our own disciplines and personal research projects that we’re often at a loss to explain what we do to nonspecialist audiences.

The solution is simple. The best way to broaden your public-speaking horizons is to seek out opportunities to speak. Look for a range of opportunities, both inside and outside academe. Don’t wait to be invited to speak. Graduate students rarely get gigs without seeking them out for themselves.

And if you look around, you’ll find good graduate student models to follow. For example, graduate students in Fordham’s biology department developed a community outreach series at a local library. Their peers in the history department have developed an award-winning podcast. Your role models would ideally be those in your discipline, perhaps even from your own institution. Seek out a couple of peers who have gone before you and ask them for tips.

Build up your skill sets by practicing. I’ve taught public speaking for three years and I’ve found there are no quick solutions to most public-speaking problems. The best way to get better at talking about your work is to talk about your work.

The most effective practice comes from pressurized situations. Start small (schedule a talk at your local library) and build up a portfolio of public-speaking gigs. As you do so, you shouldn’t just stick with what works. Instead, try and improve particular elements of your delivery each time out.

Practice coupled with focused reflection will help the most. Recording rehearsals and/or a public speaking event can be a frightening, humbling and helpful exercise. But don’t fall into the habit of analyzing your performances to pieces. Pick one or two elements to work on each time out and frankly evaluate your performance.

You needn’t do this alone. In fact, it has been my experience that most of us benefit most from working on public speaking in pairs or in small groups. For instance, you might take up Jake Livengood’s recommendation regarding improv classes. Want to conquer a fear of public speaking? I’ve found that this is also best accomplished when you work with a buddy or in a class.

Remember that it’s not about you. As the fall semester of 1846 approached, Ralph Waldo Emerson scribbled in his journal that a “college professor should be elected by setting all the candidates loose on a miscellaneous gang of young men taken at large from the street. He who could get the ear of these youths after a certain number of hours … should be professor. Let him see if he could interest these rowdy boys in the meaning of a list of words.”

Lurking in Emerson’s tongue-in-cheek proposal is a key point that we should keep in mind when preparing to speak to a group: it’s more about them than it is about us. If you don’t think about your audience members, prepare with them in mind and deliver your remarks with an enthusiasm designed to keep their attention, chances are you wouldn’t pass Emerson’s test.

Attend to your verbal tics, but don’t be obsessive about it. When we’re lucky enough to get the ear of a group, it generally isn’t because we’ve smoothed our delivery to the point that ums and uhs are completely removed. (In fact, recent research suggests that a certain level of verbal tics or disfluencies might help audiences remember what we tell them.)

That’s because public speaking isn’t about polish but about connecting with an audience. This requires thinking about your material from a variety of vantage points, tailoring your content and delivery for each discrete performance, and making sure to convey -- even if you don’t feel it -- enthusiasm for your content.

Find a style that works for you. If you’re a graduate student, chances are you have an instinctive and justified distrust of the saccharine, the self-promotional and the overly suave. And you’re not alone.

But I’d suggest that there’s a happy medium that graduate students can find between, say, Tony Robbins and Ben Stein. In the current job market, graduate students can’t get away with a monotone delivery or a disinterested affect. Graduate students -- whose futures could very well lie outside of the academy -- need to learn to adapt to different audiences while in graduate school.

You should think about public speaking not as a skill that is called upon from time to time, but as one part of a holistic campaign of self-presentation. Find ways to share your research with others. Bring attention to discoveries you care about. Use public-speaking opportunities to showcase the skills you bring to the table. And have fun with it. Aim for at least one mic drop before you leave graduate school.


James M. Van Wyck is a senior teaching fellow in the honors program at Fordham University, Lincoln Center. He is also the inaugural GSAS senior higher education administration fellow at Fordham University, Rose Hill. He is a Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on 19th-century evangelical fiction.


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