The power of first person

 January 29, 2014


Perhaps you caught the piece “The Magic Word” by Duke’s own David Jarmul on Inside Higher Ed this week. Contrary to what your mother may have told you, Mr. Jarmul asserts that the magic word for academics is the first-person pronoun I. Leveraging the power of personal experience, combined with disciplinary expertise, is, he argues, a compelling formula for engaging the public in op-ed articles.
(Some of you may know Mr. Jarmul, our Associate Vice President for News and Communications, from the workshops he and his colleagues offered to grad students and postdocs last fall on communicating with the media as part of our Professional Development Series. And you may also know some of the success stories that came out of those workshops—stories like Harrison Russin’s.)

The first person is an uncomfortable space for academics. Some of us like to think of our expertise as objective and impersonal, and we’re often discouraged from writing that uses pronouns other than one and one’s. But anytime that we want to engage in broader conversations that take place beyond the boundaries of our narrow disciplinary sub-specialties—for example, in public debates over complex issues—we might do well to try wielding the first-person weapon. The 99% of Americans who do not have PhDs do it all the time.

Graduate students, in this case, would do well to join the crowd. Because the magic word I is not only necessary in op-ed articles: it’s also the currency of the realm in the job search process. The cover letter, the interview, the thank-you note—all of these are forms that require a fluency in the first person. One of the most common laments I hear from grad students about the job search process is that they don’t feel comfortable talking about themselves. Perhaps that’s because the academic environment can actively discourage that practice.

Are you ready to put your first-person self into (virtual) print? This blog provides a new space for grad students to share their voices and their perspectives. We want to hear about your professional development goals and the ways you’re achieving them. We want to hear your stories. And we want you to lean back and relax in the first person.

Learn more about how to become a contributor on the link above.

Melissa Bostrom, Ph.D., is the Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Professional Development.