Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Signalling: Confidence and jobs

The main topic of this blog is the job search and transition into an academic career, but I talk so much about dating partly because it's very similar to the job search. In both cases, you have people who can learn a limited amount of information from each other before making increasingly greater commitments to each other, and so must rely a great deal on the information that they receive. In both cases, that means that messages can be sent non-verbally through many channels. These non-verbal signals shouldn't be overthought, but I've found that I can ignore them only at my own peril.

Some examples which have come up recently for me:

1. Patterns of communication: replying too readily signals eagerness or desperation, which depending on the context may or may not be a good idea. I don't think that work should be the center of my life, but I've found that treating work communication before personal communication helps me in both areas: there's no disadvantage to replying to every job search related email or phone call right away, and there's often an advantage; by contrast, answering an early dating email or call right away makes it seem like I've been just sitting there waiting for a phone call or an email, which I have so I'm worried about people being able to tell that. The one exception, I've heard, is teaching: if you reply right away, people say that students always expect instant reply; I intentionally delay answering until I have more time. Since I do have my email program open quite a lot of the time, I can in theory answer anything instantly, so have to restrain myself not to, both for external impressions and so I can get some work done.

Extraneous communication signals irregularity, and people aren't sure what to make of it. Sending emails or making phone calls for purposes other than the normal ones of setting up meetings or pre-date chitchat make people wonder. At least, they make me wonder when the roles are reversed. I made a mistake, I think, in contacting a potential employer to ask whether I could mention them as a potential mentor in an application for a national fellowship: the kind where you get money with few limits on where you research (anywhere at one or more institutions, anywhere period), and this is someone who I genuinely would want to work with at the institution. The next morning, I thought better of it because it puts them in an awkward situation, and said never mind in hopefully a reasonable way. While the request signals my interest, and it looks good that I'm applying to such a competitive fellowship, it may have made them feel uneasy, and that's never good.

2. Earnestness versus status. During my job search, I had a few interviews with places which were in the lower tiers of schools, many of whom were so incredibly nice to me. One postdoc said to me, "Tell us what you would need in order to accept this position." Someone else repeated over and over how famous one of his collaborators was, and how important this body of work was. (Funnily, the body of work is a bit out of my area, so the fact that I had never heard of it didn't mean anything about its importance, but somehow it seemed maybe it was unimportant because this guy was trying so hard. It turns out that it really is quite important and I have a friend who's learning about the area right now.) They wrote up the offer letter while I was visiting and I walked away with it. I turned them down, but I wonder what I would have thought if they showed a bit less earnestness.

Recently I had an interview for a postdoc at a top tier school, and they also were almost excessively nice and earnest. Because they had status, it didn't feel insecure or ingratiating, just nice.

Likewise with dating: someone who's really desirable in some way and seems excessively nice, just seems cute for it. Someone not so desirable who is trying so hard seems creepy, and that's exactly how I felt about the guy telling me about his famous collaborators.

Many more parallels to come in future posts.

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