Crafting an Academic Elevator Speech

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Elevator pitchIn my conversations with first- and second-year graduate students about transitioning to Ph.D. study, I sometimes hear anxiety-tinged comments about figuring out the academic “elevator speech.” It’s not really about the elevator, of course. (I don’t know about you, but most of my elevator chitchat consists of quiet mutterings such as “Excuse me,” and “Fourth floor please.”) Rather, this concept evokes the pressure to account for oneself in a very brief window of attention that a Person of Significance may grant you in a seminar, a conference, a social event, or a job interview.

In a perfect world, graduate students half a semester into their Ph.D. program should not have to worry about an elevator speech. Indeed, I have heard faculty counsel first-year students to keep their scholarly horizons broad and to soak up as much as possible, via both seminar readings and the many talks and colloquia they attend around campus.

Yet graduate students, staring down a funnel-shaped model of scholarly training, can hardly be faulted for wanting to figure things out as soon as possible. As much as we valorize the life of the mind in the academy, our traditional model of professional development resembles something like an elaborate sausage-maker: Multiple semesters of coursework and stacks of books and articles are efficiently processed into a focused scholarly agenda (nary a scrap wasted) that has purchase on the academic job market. Yet the end product can look unsettlingly mass-produced, as the canned elevator speeches of some early-career scholars suggest.

For anyone who wants to progress through a Ph.D. program smoothly, the sausage maker is, to some extent, simply an entity to be reckoned with. As a scholar in training, you need to understand the conventions of your discipline, its lingua franca, its methodology, its significant questions and ongoing conversations.

Yet a generative tension might (and perhaps should) exist between the sausage maker and a different (though no less clichéd) culinary image–flinging spaghetti against the wall. This model suggests play, experimentation, and an understanding that not everything will stick (it’s not like you’ll remember everything you’re reading now anyway). You may not want to do something your adviser deems risky for a dissertation topic, but consider seeking out lower-stakes opportunities to push the boundaries of your scholarship, such as interdisciplinary explorations, collaborative projects, digital enhancements, or innovative pedagogy. Among other benefits, these scholarly excursions will make your elevator pitches so much more interesting.

A few other tips as you refine the speech:

  • The elevator speech is very much about forming a scholarly identity: It will change and evolve as you progress through your program. Be patient with yourself.
  • The elevator speech should be audience-based, so we’re really looking at multiple elevator speeches. The way you talk about your scholarly interests should vary, based on whether you’re speaking to your faculty adviser, scholars beyond your subfield or discipline, undergraduates in your classes … or your grandma.
  • Err on the side of simplicity. Advanced scholarship has become so siloed that even a scholar beyond the subfield may have only slightly more knowledge on the topic you are studying than an educated layperson.
  • Err on the side of brevity. Say enough to make your listener want to know more, and ask you questions.
  • Err on the side of humility. Most people (even in academia) are far less interested in our specialized topics than we like to think. This explains the default academic response to another academic’s elevator pitch: “That’s fas-cinating!” (Try not to get in the habit of saying this to your colleagues; it’s one of those polite, “I’m not fully engaging with you” conventions of academic discourse. Much better is a thoughtful pause, followed by an equally thoughtful question about what you’ve just heard.)
  • Have an elevator speech that goes beyond parroting the central argument of your dissertation. Instead, keep the focus broad, inviting a wide-ranging and (perhaps) playful exchange of ideas. “My research grapples with the age-old questions of why we do X and think Y.” “Although my core texts are from the 18th century, the themes I explore are highly relevant to 21st-century preoccupations with Z.” And whatever you say, follow it with: “and what do you work on?”

Finally, know that the ability to hone a compelling speech in academia transfers to nonacademic professions as well. Academics may face challenges in rendering their work comprehensible to others, but it’s hardly a unique situation. Lots of people make their livings in ways that are complex or opaque to the uninitiated.

Personally, I’ve sometimes found it more difficult to explain what I do as a higher education administrator than I did as a faculty member (at least everyone knows what teaching is). Recently, it’s come to my attention that even terms academics take for granted don’t always translate beyond the ivory tower. At a recent (nonacademic) social event, I switched my tagline midway from “I support doctoral students in the humanities” (which was generating confused looks from very smart people) to “I support doctoral students in non-STEM fields” (which elicited knowing looks and nods). While you won’t be hearing about the “Versatile non-STEMists” anytime soon, remember that audience is everything, and meeting them where they are is half the battle.