David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Career Lingo: “Potential”

Full potential

Image: compass/Wikimedia Commons

As a professor, when you are asked to write letters of reference for students you like whose abilities are marginal, you talk about their “potential” — because there isn’t much else to say. So what are we to think when the same word pops up in the faculty hiring process?

In this series scrutinizing the keywords and phrases of the academic job market, we have already seen how hiring lingo can take on different meanings in different contexts. The same goes for “potential.”

In the job market of 20 years ago, ads for postdocs and assistant professors would expect the candidate to show potential because it was unlikely that you had an actual list of accomplishments so early in your career (you were either a brand new Ph.D., an A.B.D., or just a year or two out of grad school). With empty CVs, all hires then were about estimating the promise or potential of a new scholar. For example, as an A.B.D. seeking a tenure-track position, I had two published articles— not bad at the time. So someone reading my CV could legitimately conclude: “He has started publishing, that’s good; he shows potential!” Moreover, the pubs were within the area targeted by the search, so more evidence that — potentially — I would turn out to be their ideal hire.

That was then. Now the A.B.D.s and Ph.D.’s we hire for tenure-track positions tend to have five or six publications already and are even co-principal investigators on a grant or two.

Yet I still hear the same phrases uttered about them: “Yes, she certainly shows potential.” Surely that is an indicator of the hugely ramped up expectations for research in my field — as is true of many other disciplines, too. Potential is like an arrow, pointing in a direction that your future (potential!) colleagues hope you will travel with them.

Another key aspect of potential is its freshness date. If you have just completed grad school and boast a brace of recent pubs, then you show potential. But if five years have passed and you have published nothing new, … you don’t show potential anymore. You risk a dreaded “stale” or (worse) “expired” CV. A committee might conclude, “He once showed potential, but not anymore.” So potential, like youth, is fleeting.

Different kinds of potential may be weighted differently by search committees, and some types may actually count against you. Suppose you are a candidate for a position at a teaching-focused college. The search-committee members see, on the plus side, that you have already taught and TA’d for the courses they want the hire to teach. All good. They can visualize you in the position, doing what they want the hire to do. But then they notice you are heavily published, and in an area that requires high resource and funding support. That may suggest negative potential — that is, you may potentially be dissatisfied with the department’s mission and level of support and, thus, not likely to hang around for more than a few years.

So how can you demonstrate for the hiring department that you have the sort of potential it wants? Here is a checklist of things you can do:

  • Make sure your CV highlights, specifically, how you would fit areas of potential mentioned in the job ad.
  • Have letters of reference that cite your enthusiasm in the area listed as important in the job ad and profile — e.g., “Allison’s research in nanolinguistics is extremely promising and will almost certainly gain her great attention in the years to come.”
  • In your letter and interviews, mention how that critical area is something you aspire to keep getting better at — for example: “Teaching Intro to World History has proved to be extremely enjoyable but I feel I will always be passionate about updating and improving the course, especially in light of the challenges in the modern classroom.”
  • Focus one or more of your presentations on those things in which the hiring department wants you to show potential.
  • On your CV and cover letter, list the area of potential as vital to your “where I see myself in five years” goals.

Potential is in the eye of the beholder, but with some planning and craftwork you can convince the department that you do, in fact, show promise to succeed in what it holds dear.

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