Sunday, June 26, 2011

Selling your honor for a job

How does one get an academic job in a competitive environment, surrounded by many equally qualified candidates? How can one have an edge, without actually changing one's research folder in any way? The book "Influence" suggests a number of marketing techniques that can presumably be applied to that setting, for example, while attending a conference just prior to hiring season.

One technique is called reciprocation. If someone does us a small favor, we are much more inclined to do them a favor later, even if it is completely out of proportion. So, at that conference, the eager job candidate can do all sorts of small favors for the members of hiring committees in attendance: call the elevator for them and hold the door; give them your umbrella if it's raining out; pay the tip at the restaurant; lend them your laptop, phone, connector, etc. Be on the lookout for small favors, and make sure to refuse to have them repaid to you in any way.

Another technique is called "commitment and consistency". If you can make them say something positive about your research, they will be much more likely later, when they review your folder, to think well of it, because they will want to be consistent with themselves. For example, ask them: "What would you say are my strong points?", or manage to extract some mention of a harmless commitment: say, if you happen to be in town or on campus for some other reason, could you come by at the same time? Or you could tell the person how much you appreciate the attention they pay to all candidates, how they are particularly careful to be fair towards this or that category of applicants to avoid discrimination, or otherwise clothe them with some quality of character that they might accept; then later, for consistency, the will feel obligated to act in that way.

Another technique is "social proof": if someone is unsure how to evaluate a situation or person, they will look at other people's reactions to form their own opinions. You could enroll some other student who could subtly intimate, by their attitude or words, that you are an awesome star. You could have "clappers" in the audience when you give your talk: plant some friends who will clap or ask questions that will make you look good.

Another technique is "liking": you can make yourself likeable by, for example, being good-looking, being taller (wear heels), or trying to be similar to the people you want to suck up to. Dress like them, talk like them, watch them attentively and discover common interests in golf or books or whatever. Discover some connections. Go to their talk, know their work, find connections to your interests.

Another technique is "Authority": get a trusted authority to say good words on your behalf. I'm not sure how that can be done independently of the quality of your research, but maybe someone with more imagination than me can come up with it.

Another technique is "scarcity": convey the impression that you are sought after. You could have a busy schedule. You could have some fellow student mention that the department of x is showing much interest in you. You could say that you have some upcoming informal visit to some prestigious place.

My impression is that those marketing techniques are used very little in academia. Certainly, when I recognize an attempt at one of those, I am disgusted and write off the person doing it. But I can see how the skillful manipulator may be able to use them to have an edge.


  1. My impression is that these techniques are *ubiquitous* in academia! (Who hasn't heard of people getting an external job offer as a hook to fast promotion, and then using the fast promotion as a hook to a better external job offer? Scarcity!) But many of these techniques have less nefarious interpretations:

    Reciprocation: Be generous (both quantitatively and qualitatively) in citing other people's work.

    Social proof: Get lots of citations.

    Liking: Be genuinely interested in other people's research.

    Authority: Get strong letters of recommendation from well-known experts.

  2. I agree with Jeff. Indeed, I was slightly hurt when you said you were disgusted with people who use such "marketing techniques", since I'm sure I've used many of them to some degree -- although more in the ways Jeff describes than in the more mercenary ways you've described -- and I've always thought you and I got along rather well. :)

    As Jeff points out (or perhaps I'm extrapolating), the issue is not necessarily these marketing techniques themselves, but how strikingly they're employed, and how much "content" there is underneath the surface backing it all up.

  3. Yes, I do some of that too, and I have all sorts of good excuses too.

    Mike, I can assure you that I wasn't thinking of you in the least when I wrote that post. Isn't it interesting that you thought it might apply to you?


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