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Marcus, thank you for hosting these conversations.

I wonder if advice that one should sell oneself could get confused with advice that one should be self-aggrandizing. Or, if some folks could be understanding this terms differently.

I think that really the takeaway is that, yes, you should build up your accomplishments and sell yourself. But the way to do this is to concretely describe your accomplishments and to avoid making vague, general claims ("I have articles published in top journals") that aren't borne out by the evidence. If your readers have to go to your cv to then see where your articles are published and find that these aren't actually top journals, then you have used up more of their time and probably annoyed them. But stating "I have published in journals such as X, Y, and Z" gives the reader concrete deliverables that they don't have to search for. Or even, "My article X published in [effing NOUS], accomplishes Y."

Regarding tone, I can see the point that one can sell oneself in ways that are more or less self-aggrandizing or obnoxious. For instance, one could imagine any of the following subtle differences in phrasing that will read differently: "My research is in high demand at top journals" or "Leading journals have published my research" etc.

I'm not an expert though and am TT-less.

Marcus Arvan

prepostmarketdepression: Very good points. I'm still inclined to think it's best to err on the side of understatement.

If you write in your cover letter, "I have published 13 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including Nous, Mind, and Philosophical Review', you have given your reader everything they need to know: you have an excellent publishing record. There's simply no reason to say anything more. So, why say it? You never know whether what else you add might rub someone the wrong way. Here's an example.

Suppose you write, "My work is in high demand at top journals, including Mind, Phil Review, and Nous." This might appeal to some readers, many readers even. However, the readers who it will impress would have *already* been suitably impressed anyway by just reading that you published in those journals (without the additional rhetorical flourish that they are in "top journals"). So, with those readers, there is no advantage to the added rhetorical flourish.

On the other hand, there are possible readers who could react *negatively* to the additional flourish. For suppose your reader (and I know some people like this!) is someone who is (A) skeptical that journal prestige reliably tracks quality of work, (B) tired of the widespread assumption that journal prestige tracks quality, and (C) might worry about hiring someone obsessed with journal rankings (since, further, this person might not like rankings in *general*). If this person reads your sentence, "I have published in top journals...", they could react negatively. They may think to themselves, "Hmm...this person assumes that I care about journal prestige, and that I should be impressed by their work because it appeared in a top journal. But I am not impressed by the mere fact that something appeared in a top journal. I hate journal rankings and everything they stand for, and am sick of rankings-obsessed people in philosophy...Bah! I'm not sure I want to hire someone who might be rankings obsessed."

I'm not saying this reaction is reasonable, or even that it is common. I am suggesting it is a possible reaction, and (on the basis of much experience!) that you might be *very* surprised at just how many different kinds of things can rub different people the wrong way. People on hiring committees can have all different kinds of axes to grind...so, why give them an excuse to grind their axe against you? It's safer, I think, to simply let your work
and accomplishments speak for themselves.

You want to stand out on the job market? Be the person who *doesn't* self-aggrandize. As a job-candidate, you might think you need to puff yourself to stand out. But, in my experience, the reality is exactly the opposite: it makes you look just like everyone else, like just another candidate trying to impress a search committee. It's the handful of candidates who let their accomplishments speak for themselves who come across as mature, assured professionals. Well, at least in my experience...


Marcus, yes, I totally agree! I actually meant those last sentences as obnoxious counterexamples to try to help demonstrate the subtleties of tone.


My comments were also mainly trying to address postdoc's frustration that he/she is receiving conflicting advice. Because if what postdoc has been told is essentially, "sell yourself" then this is totally consistent with the advice to avoid self-aggrandizement. Similarly, I think that the advice many of us get to be confident in our letters etc. is also consistent with the advice that we do so in a reasonably humble and friendly tone.

Marcus Arvan

Ah okay - missed the conversational implicature! ;)


I was a committee member at Oxford for a temporary position (a junior postdoc). What I found surprising was the number of cover letters that said something like "I feel like at this point of my career, working at a place like Oxford would be very helpful for me", or "I think Oxford would be a good way for me to further build my career".
Well, yeah, obviously, I thought. It is difficult to put oneself in the perspective of the search committee, who of course don't care about your future career opportunities.

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