Skip navigation
Careers Café

Why you need to stop worrying what “they” want


To get to where you are now, you had to be very good at figuring out what was expected of you and delivering it.

As you moved into a graduate program, especially at the doctoral level, this particular skill started to become less and less useful.

It probably wasn’t obvious at first. The coursework and dissertation proposal portions of your program still required it. In fact, it might have felt like it was still a useful skill when writing your dissertation and thinking about the defense.

Knowing when a skill is no longer useful

Applying for jobs. Applying for grants. Submitting articles to journals.

On the face of it, these all look like situations in which being good at figuring out what they want and delivering it will be a useful skill. However, academia values narrow specialization. More academics are suspicious of the privileging of immediately useful or relevant topics than are supportive of it.

Academia wants independent thinkers who do excellent research

People who are personally motivated to research in a particular area are always more highly valued candidates for jobs than people who say they will research what they think the department wants.

The same thing happens in funding competitions. Those who can provide evidence of commitment to particular questions are more likely to get funding, even in targeted competitions addressing particular current needs, than those who pull together an application in an area they don’t normally work in.

This is scary

When there are so few jobs out there, it seems crazy to let your own passions drive your research direction. Shouldn’t you be making yourself eligible for a larger range of positions?

Making yourself look like you are all things to all people makes you a less desirable candidate.

Furthermore, your ability to predict what the hot research areas will be in 10 or 20 years is probably pretty poor.

You will still need to adapt

  • You won’t have complete control over your career
  • You will need to adapt to institutional goals
  • You will need to address the particular objectives of funding programs
  • You will need to adapt your style to fit with that of a particular journal

A strong core

Your own passionate interest in particular research questions is what is going to ground your adaptability to external expectations.

That passionate interest is also going to drive excellent specialized research over your career.

P.S. An academic career isn’t your only option. Keep reading this blog for advice on exploring other options.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Dr.Doinglittle / November 25, 2010 at 22:44

    “People who are personally motivated to research in a particular area are always more highly valued candidates for jobs than people who say they will research what they think the department wants.”

    No offence but this strikes me as a pretty naive assertion. A lot of the “personally motivated” research I’ve seen has been the most biased, self-serving, and irrelevant. Not exactly standout stuff. Personal research topics can also be very problematic in the classroom, particularly when you have a teacher who will not tolerate critical questions, alternate views, etc. because the subject matter is close to his or her heart.

    In the end, what each dept “wants” always comes down to the dept’s outlook, and even moreso, the particular interests of the handful of people on the selection committee. What’s “preferable” varies from place to place.

  2. Olena / November 6, 2016 at 14:25

    While I agree that a personally motivated person is more valued for his/her passion and persistence in a certain narrow field, I would suggest such a scholar to find a broader context (and preferably international one) for their interests, rather than thinking of non-academic career options. Being fond of very specific field is OK, but it is both interesting and useful to put it in a broader context.

Click to fill out a quick survey