Knowing How to Succeed: Do Academics Need Agents?

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An article published recently in The New Yorker had me gripped as my train pushed south along the east coast mainline. Entitled ‘The Programmer’s Price’, it explains that the best computer programmers are now turning to agents to find the right vacancies, sell their skills to employers and – importantly – to negotiate the most lucrative salary packages. Entrepreneurs face difficulties finding staff with the right programming languages, and these agencies are willing to scour the world to find them. The article describes how programmers, when left to negotiate alone, often end up being paid much less than they are worth. These technically-gifted individuals are notoriously bad at selling themselves, as the co-founder of ‘talent company’ 10x reveales: ‘programmers tend to undersell themselves. (One potential client described himself as “pretty fast”; it later emerged that he’d won a speed-coding competition in India).’ In addition, tech companies sometimes form pacts not to poach each other’s staff, which denies programmers the salary negotiations that arise when they threaten to clear their desks and leave.

       The article takes the reader on a safari of the programming world, showcasing the clients that these agents might expect to represent. In the words of talent scout Altay Guvench, there  are the ‘rock-star developers’ – the designers and user-interface engineers who are ‘sort of hip’. In contrast, there are the back-end engineers, ‘like data scientists and system engineers’ the ‘neckbeards’ who are the most ‘brilliant’ but ‘not [so] fun to talk to at a party’. This is all rather tongue-in-cheek, of course and Guvench protests that his clients do not actually fit these stereotypes. However, the typologies demonstrate that the most remarkable individuals – those judged by their peers to be the boldest, the most likely to take up daunting tasks – are not always the most eloquent when faced with a potential employer. Aside from computer programmers, there is no group of people to whom I think this sentiment better applies than early career academics. Self-deprecation is endemic among us. I have heard many a scholar refer to his or her own Ph.D thesis as ‘boring’. Often, I have seen brilliant academics preface a conference paper with an apology. I know I’ve been been unduly modest myself : ‘oh, sure, I’ll put the application in, but I don’t think I’ll have much of a chance’. Even when this is in jest, or a kind of ‘humble brag’, it is quite unsettling. Surely, the competition is rife enough without us damning ourselves with our modesty? However, jobs are scarce, and rejection letter after rejection letter can breed an unsurprising lack of self-worth.

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Stepping out

      On the same visit to London, I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard, which announced  that two women had set up a dating website based on the premise that we Brits are awful at ‘selling ourselves’ to potential partners. If we put ourselves on eBay, we clearly would not reach the reserve price. These dating entrepreneurs believe that the friends of singletons are much better placed to write their dating profiles. Clearly we cannot see, in ourselves, the qualities that make us appealing to friends and prospective lovers. I think that this applies in the job search too.

       Obviously, most early career academics are not going to employ agents. We do not have enough money, and  – unlike in the case of computer programmers – the numbers are stacked up in favour of the employers. We have very few bargaining chips. However, the world of academia is tight-knit. We are often fortunate to be surrounded by friends and colleagues who know our CV almost as well as we know it ourselves. Therefore, I propose that those who have had success in their early career should offer guidance to newly-graduated postdocs and postgraduates. This is important, because it is experienced early career researchers/lecturers who best understand the pressure experienced by those just starting out. I know that, 2 years after finishing my PhD., I am much wiser than I was back when I submitted my thesis. I’ve been proud to offer guidance to others just starting out – even if it’s just reassurance after the fifth failed JRF application.

        Also, universities often offer free training workshops, and I’d recommend taking advantage of these whilst still enrolled in/associated with your university. The University of York offers excellent researcher training, and last week I attended a job interview workshop. This gave me the opportunity to have a practice interview with another postdoctoral researcher, and do the same for her in return. The insights that I received were unrivaled. My workshop partner helped me to identify my skills and to strengthen my newest research proposal. She was too kind to point out my weaknesses, but the exercise helped me to do that for myself. Mock interviews are a fantastic incentive to think about your own skills and how you present them to others.

        Another helpful exercise has been to seek guidance from my supervisors and other ‘critical friends’ about the quality of my written applications. My critical friends have read and critiqued my latest research proposal, and others have let me see their own successful proposals for inspiration. I recommend asking a friend, partner, or colleague to look at your CV and help you to put together a convincing application. It can be cringe-worthy, but it’s worthwhile. It is very likely that they will do a good job of picking out your best qualities. it’s often surprising what others view as your most important strengths. I have also found if useful to offer this service to other people. I’ve found that it is much easier to write about a friend than myself. The exercise has not been entirely altruistic – it’s given me food for thought about what I should emphasise in my own applications.

       For those with the cash, there are paid services for academics, such as those offered by The Professor Is In. However, ‘The Professor’, aka, Dr. Karen, also offers a range of wonderful free guides. For example, on how to write a good C.V. I also think that blogs are a wonderful way of passing on nuggets of information about the job search. I particularly liked Sophie Coulombeau’s post a few months ago on ‘Applying for academic jobs‘. However, reading the article in The New Yorker made me realise that though the job-search is tough, I am surrounded by people who want to see me succeed. I don’t have to pay an agency, because I spent the three years of my doctoral studies making academic friends, both amongst my peers and superiors. These individuals are willing to give me advice and help me to sell my skills – and I can do the same for them and others in return.

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