Speak Up, Shake Hands, and Smile

by Terren Ilana Wein and Kim Thompson

Chronicle of Higher Education
September 30, 2005

For Ph.D.'s looking for jobs outside of academe, the insularity of the ivory tower is often a handicap, but it doesn't have to be. If you arm yourself with a solid knowledge of business etiquette and a sense of how academics are perceived by the outside world, you will have a better experience on the nonacademic market.

As career counselors at the University of Chicago, we've worked with many graduate students on making that transition. Before we proceed, we'd like to note that we're using "business" and "business world" in this column in a generic sense to indicate any scenario outside the personal and the academic.

What You Are Up Against

In the business world, academics are frequently perceived as absent-minded, tousle-haired, out-of-touch folks who wear elbow patches. They are nerds and nose-pickers with serious social-skill deficits. They are intellectual snobs who think they're smarter than everyone else, and all they do is debate others, just to hear the sound of their own voices. They are hyperspecialized liberals who don't live in the "real world."

While we have all seen actual examples of those stereotypes, just being an academic doesn't mean you fit that profile. But if you are looking to work in a nonacademic setting, you need to be aware of those stereotypes and ready to reply to them (whether in words or deeds).

Business Etiquette

Business works because businesspeople painstakingly build trusting relationships. In that world, you represent your company and/or your client. Remember that episode in season two of The Apprentice where one of the contestants dropped her skirt on camera and got fired? Donald Trump can't -- and won't -- hire somebody whose actions embarrass his business and his clients. That's an extreme example of a truism that can be hard for freedom-loving academics to swallow: At least in some respects, being in business means knowing and choosing to play by the rules.

Before you start putting yourself out there, we recommend getting one of the many good books about business etiquette to learn more, especially about specific etiquette questions like how to dress appropriately for the setting, how to handle yourself outside the office when combining business and pleasure, and how to communicate effectively.

First Impressions and Nonverbal Communication

Few employees in nonacademic settings have anything resembling tenure, and are thus constantly being evaluated. Every aspect of their presentation becomes important, including all forms of nonverbal communication, which is especially crucial in making a good first impression. It may seem supremely silly but you need to evaluate your nonverbal cues -- handshakes, eye contact, signs of anxiety/confidence, and your general appearance.

Handshakes are often the first thing employers notice about applicants. You want yours to be firm and unsweaty. A weak handshake communicates lack of confidence or initiative, but you don't want to crush your potential employer's digits either. Many academics assume that their handshakes are adequate, but in our experience they need a little work, so practice. Feel free to come to your institution's career center to run your handshake by an expert.

Poor eye contact can also make or break an applicant in the business world. Because many academics have a captive audience in their students, and are used to communicating to groups of people in classes, often their eye contact in one-on-one meetings is not up to par. It is important to make frequent, sustained eye contact while being careful not to stare or appear threatening. Again, that is a way of conveying confidence.

Sweaty palms, armpits, and faces are not acceptable. If you know that any of those symptoms of anxiety are going to be an issue for you, stop by the bathroom well before your interview and wash your hands and face. If you know you say "um" a lot, or jiggle your leg when you sit down, try not to do either in an interview. Yes, it's difficult to break your nervous habits, even for a small amount of time, so practice.

Finally, make sure you dress appropriately for whatever business situation you encounter. When in doubt, overdress. In academe, style and neatness are not at a premium. But in most business settings, your clothing communicates volumes about you, so think carefully about what you wear, and make sure everything is clean and pressed.

Written and Spoken Communication

It's equally important, but maybe a little easier, to evaluate your written and oral communication skills. Those skills are an area where you, an educated person with a lot of practice in both, have a chance to shine. However, you also need to keep in mind some of the misperceptions that others may have about you as a Ph.D. -- that you are a know-it-all and too specialized to converse about "regular stuff."

You may have great writing skills honed by crafting your dissertation. On the other hand, you may need to practice writing concise and easily understandable e-mail messages. You may have great presentation skills from years of teaching, but how are you when it comes to chatting with people outside your discipline?

You may also need to make yourself aware of some specific rules of business etiquette when it comes to job-seeking -- such as when and how to call for informational interviews, the best wording for thank-you notes after an interview, and the like. Get one of our recommended resources to use as a reference.

We'd like to offer some advice on two specific communication issues, the "elevator speech" and the "airplane test."

The Elevator Speech

Picture this scenario: You find yourself getting in the elevator with, let's say, the president of a company where you want to work. The president presses the button for the top floor. You now have that amount of time to introduce yourself, exchange cards, and say something meaningful about why you deserve follow-up. Go.

If you can't do that, you need to know that people who succeed in the business world can. Get comfortable introducing yourself. And be ready to explain who you are and what you want to do.

To come up with your own elevator speech, start by thinking about what you did while in graduate school. Remember, this is a persuasive speech -- you need a punch line about what makes you stand out from the crowd. If you can't explain that in lay terms, and make it interesting in three minutes or less, start practicing right now. Jargon should be avoided. Many of those in business pride themselves on being able to communicate anything to anyone. If you'd like to practice an elevator speech, find your local Toastmasters chapter, and unveil it there.

The Airplane Test

Here's a scenario that many employers use as a screening tool: The hiring manager imagines having to sit next to the applicant on a cross-country flight. Are you pleasant, engaged, interesting, or friendly enough that the hiring manager would enjoy the experience? If the manager thinks he or she wouldn't mind sitting next to you for five hours, you've passed the airplane test.

That is a standard question employers ask themselves about potential hires. It doesn't mean they have to love you, but it does mean they have to think you are a pleasant, personable person.

One way to start thinking about that is, seriously, to consider your "small-talk" skills. As a Ph.D., you are an expert in something. But do you know what was in the news today? Can you listen as nicely as you talk? Take time during the day to catch up on recent news and trends. Being able to small-talk well is a skill.

Business 'Netiquette'

How employees use the Internet can be more restricted in the business world than in academe. A key fact to grasp is that, unlike universities, many corporations don't care about your intellectual freedom. They are not interested in protecting your freedom of speech. They do care that you are not doing anything for which they could be made liable. They also care that you use your time at work productively and that you don't inadvertently expose their computer networks to worms, viruses, or spyware.

Many companies have very serious computer firewalls to protect their intranets. Employees are prohibited from accessing certain Web sites, even some that may be completely innocuous -- like a site for sending and viewing e-cards (so don't send one as a thank-you after an interview, just in case).

What does that mean for you as you seek to pursue a nonacademic career path? Be sensitive to the constraints of the people you are dealing with and be savvy.

Good Internet etiquette, or "netiquette," also requires some basic rules of thumb that shouldn't surprise you.

Erase any "funny," religious, dirty, or potentially controversial signatures or information from your e-mail signature.

Get rid of any "cute" icons, colored lines, weird fonts, etc.

Make sure you are sending e-mail to the correct recipient, and that the recipient knows who the e-mail is from.

Don't forward e-mail from your business contacts without their permission, especially if their name, company name, or other identifying information is visible.

Treat e-mail the same way you would paper correspondence from potential employers or business contacts: Respond promptly; don't use your contact's first name unless you get an explicit or implicit OK to do so; use standard English; be as clear and concise as possible; spellcheck.

If you're angry or upset, wait until the next day to send your message.

If you are looking at specific industries and companies, asking about the correct netiquette is a good question for your contacts. Just ask, for instance, if there is any company culture around e-mail.

Aside from the books that we've recommended, you can also learn more by attending nonacademic meetings and conferences. In the end, getting up to speed on proper business etiquette can serve you well, regardless of where your career takes you.

Terren Ilana Wein and Kim Thompson work at the University of Chicago's office of career advising and planning services. Thompson is the assistant director for graduate services in the social sciences and Wein is the director for library and information services.