Tuesday, January 31, 2012

To be yourself, or to not be yourself?

Courtesy of Lisa Balbes: As assistant professor candidates are heading out for interviews, someone who has billed themselves as a consultant to professor candidates speaks up in the pages of Inside Higher Ed:
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.
In some sense, I actually agree with her. People are drawn to self-confident candidates and you want to be the best version of yourself. Keeping your speech disciplined is a good way of getting there.

At the same time, in the course of the day-long interview process that happens in both academia and industry, there is no way that you can keep up a facade for that long. Hiring committees and hiring managers (I'd like to think) are typically fairly perceptive people. Contacts with references and direct questions to interviewees will reveal whatever negative tendencies you might have. If the reality is far from the illusion, people on hiring committees will respond negatively.

On the other hand, I find her business model remarkable. On her website, she writes: "My clients: Get  grants. Get tenure track jobs. Get tenure." (Really? Eyebrow raise.) She charges $20 for an initial consultation. She charges $110/hour for a Skype interview consultation. Wow -- I'm guessing she gets a fair number of takers. (Shouldn't someone do this for chemistry assistant professor interviewees? Maybe, maybe not.) 

12 comments:

  1. $20 seems like a bargain to get a job for life. She's right in one sense, most universities offer little to no training for how to do interviews for PhD candidates. Most universities have career centers, of course, but not ones specialized in helping science/academic job seekers.

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  2. It is probably a good idea to do this type of 'mock interview'/coaching for any interview, but would really depend on the quality of the observer. The idea of creating a "professional persona" seems like crap (unless maybe you're Stephen Colbert).

    Sounds to me like another HR-hack waiting to extract $ from the unsuspectingly gullible.

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    1. FWIW, she's received tenure and been a department chair, so there's that.

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  3. I could understand the potential utility of the service - I, too, have watched PhD candidates interviewing who seem to have never had a critical appraisal of their speaking style, or how to discuss their research. Old tricks like speaking in a mirror with a stopwatch going, elevator pitches, and recording yourself discussing chemistry help to some extent.

    There is a finer level of refinement (speech patterns, handshakes, social graces, suit advice), that I suppose $110 / hr might buy you, but I can't imagine it would be best done over Skype.

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  4. there is no way that you can keep up a facade for that long

    I think you've hit the nail on the head, there. There is no way one person can teach you to have a "tightly organized research program, a calm confidence in a research contribution to a field or discipline, a clear and specific trajectory of publications," etc etc in the time span between getting an interview invite and actually going on it. If you don't have at least most of those things already, you're not ready for TT to begin with.

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  5. I don't think you can have a complete personality transplant during an interview, but I think you can (and should) show the best, most outgoing side of yourself. In real life, I'm pretty shy and quiet and self-effacing. I'm not very good at coming up with quick answers - if you ask me a question, I will take some time to think about it and research my answer before getting back to you. But those are not qualities that come across well in an interview. In an interview you are supposed to be outgoing and gregarious and quick on your feet. (It's kind of bizarre because when you think of the qualities that you want in a research scientist, outgoing and perky are usually not among them, but being outgoing and perky definitely helps when you're interviewing.) And so, after struggling with interviews during my early career, I forced myself to act like I was really an outgoing, confident extrovert when I went on interviews. Sometimes I would have to dig my fingernails into my legs and grit my teeth to force myself to act in a way that wasn't my "real" personality, but I was able to keep that up for an all day interview - and I became much more successful in interviews as a result.

    However, it makes me very relieved that I don't have to do that any more. I would have to spend days psyching myself up to the appropriate "perkiness level" before an interview and it was exhausting.

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  6. I think this is one of the most interesting posts Ive seen up here for a while. Im not surprised about the provision of this service - there is an obvious deficiency in the training of grad students and post docs to be capable of nailing an academic interview. (along with teaching skills... most postdocs arent even *allowed* to do undergraduate teaching). As for not being able to keep up a 'facade' for that long - this is clearly not about pretending to be someone else for a sustained length of time. Its about selling yourself and getting your foot in the door.

    One thing she mentions as a negative quality is pretentiousness.. well, revising your presentation style in order to imitate someone elses image of an effective person is.. very pretentious!

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    1. Glad I was able to provide you with something of interest. If you'd like to suggest areas that I should post more about, please do! If you'd like to do so in private, e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com/.

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  7. I noticed that some successful and popular professors in the synthetic community actually happen to be quite unscrupulous calculating manipulative bald-face lying douchebags once you really get to know them. The good-humored, sensible tough-but-fair persona they had perfected over the years helps them them to get what they want, both with their group members and their academia colleagues. (Like good politicians they know how to deal with people and situations they dislike in a completely smooth inoffensive way that masks their true leanings. They will studiously avoid taking the losing side in a conflict and making adversaries.) They are highly intelligent and they worked hard to get where they are - and many are willing to do outright nasty things in a pinch - if they feel their position is being weakened.

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    1. Whoa...sounds exactly like my postdoc advisor.

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    2. One thing that getting a postdoc in a famous group makes you understand is that you are there as a hired help and some of the pretenses and niceties designed to appeal to grad students do not apply to you... or so I hear. Anyway, you do all the work, sometimes supply all the ideas and even write your own grants, the credits and the intellectual property all go to the professor and the department and sometimes he is even too busy and cannot be bothered to pick up a phone for you when you are having a trouble with finding a job afterwards

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    3. Sounds like my advisor too. I'm convinced he is a sociopath, the way he could turn on/off certain facets of his behavior depending on the situation/surroundings (teaching his undergrad course, teach his grad course, group meeting, seminar, or around his wife and kids).

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