How to win (academic) friends and influence people

It is well known that professors can have favourite students, which usually irritates the heck out of the students who finally work out that they are not on the list. Being the favourite student can carry a lot of power – like access to the supervisor’s time and resources (in a perfect world, of course, research supervisors would not give preference to one student over another, but the world is far from perfect).

Working out how to become the favourite student can be difficult. I often meet new PhD students who are mystified by the subtle workings of academic pecking order, despite substantial career success in other industries. I always point the confused at Rugg and Petres’ excellent book “The unwritten rules of PhD Research” where there is a good discussion about the importance of recognising the difference between ‘instrumental’ and  ‘expressive behaviours’ in an academic setting.

Instrumental behaviours are goal directed: you do something to get something done, or to find out things you need to know, whereas expressive behaviours demonstrate to others what kind of person you are. I have talked about expressive behaviour before in relation to thesis writing, but the concept can be applied more widely.

An example of an instrumental behaviour might be only downloading articles that you are interested in for your own work. The expressive behaviour counterpart would be to take the time to be aware of the work of others around you – your supervisor or people in your extended research network – and occasionally send them articles you come across which you know will interest them. This is because journal articles are tokens of knowledge which can you can use to buy the attention of other academics.  But, like any other kind of gift, the articles have to be VERY well chosen to be effective. (Twitter can be used to great effect here by the way).

Rugg and Petre would understand this sort of journal article sharing activity as sending a special kind of signal, one which helps you to become known as a generous and interested academic. Of course the side benefit is that more people talk to you at mixer parties and conference morning teas.

Such expressive behaviours are often not ‘taught’ because they consist of taken for granted ways of operating, which you could think of as a form of  ”insider knowledge’. One could be paranoid and see this sort of insider knowledge as a form of power – which tends to be hoarded – or you could be more realistic and see the common failure to induct newbies into this knowledge as a sin of omission rather than commission. Many academics will assume you know the things they know about academia, merely by virtue of the fact that you have had long experience as a student. But being an undergrad is very different to being a research student. You are now a colleague in waiting – and need to act like one in order to be taken seriously.

Writings on academic sociology – of which there is a surprising amount – are a great place to start finding out all the things that no one thinks to tell you. However, we at the Whisperer know you have a lot of reading to do on nuclear fusion, global terrorism and such like, so we try to do this sort of reading for you.  Which is why I recently read with interest a book called “How professors think” by Michele Lamont.

“How professors think” is a fascinating and well written account of how humanities academics working on peer review panels come to decide which grant proposals they will fund. One of the things the author was interested in was how academics come to recognise excellence – both in academic work and in academics themselves. To this end she asked the panelists how they recognise a good peer review panelist. The answers revealed a hidden set of assumptions about what makes a good academic, which I think research students should heed.

The first thing mentioned was that a good panelist should show up fully prepared and ready to discuss the proposals. Those panelists who had carefully read the proposals – enough to be able to make thoughtful comments on them and argue their merits on the fly – were seen as most credible. Another desirable characteristic was the demonstration of intellectual breath and expertise, which stemmed from the command of large literatures in their field and some adjacent ones.

Along with this command of intellectual territory was the ability to be succinct and to respect other people’s expertise and sentiments. After encountering more than a few pompous windbags I know I have  appreciation for academics who can make their point quickly and clearly, then move on. There are very few people who can intelligently comment on what they know, but have the humbleness to be able to listen and recognise people who have more expertise.

So there you have it: “… preparedness, expertise, succinctness, intellectual depth and multidisciplinary breath and sensitivity to others”, as Lamont puts it, are highly valued – among top humanities scholars sitting on these peer review panels at least. I wouldn’t be surprised if these qualities translate more generally and into the sciences; I hope similar research is done to see if this is indeed the case. I suspect carefully cultivating these qualities and learning how to display them through appropriate expressive behaviour is the work of a lifetime, which is probably why many of the best of us are also the oldest.

It might be more helpful to think of these qualities as a set of principles for action, rather than a list, so I will leave you with a few questions. How might you go about applying the principles of preparedness, succinctness and sensitivity to others with your supervisor – or your colleagues? What actions display these qualities – and which do not?

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9 thoughts on “How to win (academic) friends and influence people

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