This post is related to yesterday's and takes into account some recurring themes in the comments.
When applying for an academic position -- grad school, a postdoc, a faculty position -- do you have to 'pretend' that you live only for research and have no personal life in order to be taken seriously?
Some may disagree, but my cosmic answer to this is No, of course not, but that doesn't mean that your application materials should contain information about your personal life. If your application statements are focused entirely on your background and interests, you are not pretending by omission that you have no other life. You are not entering an implicit contract in which you promise to have no other life. You are simply providing the relevant information that will form the basis of the evaluation of your expertise and potential.
There are exceptions. If an applicant has a personal issue that is relevant to the position for which they are applying or is necessary to explain something about the academic record, these issues should be mentioned in their appropriate context.
During an interview or visit, there are opportunities to discuss non-work issues. This is the time when you get get a sense for whether a program/advisor is a good fit for your priorities. Visiting students and postdocs can get a sense for what the expectations are for particular advisors/projects, and you can typically figure that out by talking to other students or postdocs rather than asking the advisor something red-flaggy like "So how much are you going to expect me to work?". Even a reasonably sane advisor who is happy to have advisees who have outside interests and don't work 24/7 would wonder about the motivation level of someone asking a question in that way.
There are many anecdotes, real and unreal, of applicants/candidates having to pretend they were monomaniacs focused only on research and uninterested in other human beings, particularly those of the infant sort, in order to get an academic position. I did not encounter this in my own applicant/candidacy experiences, but I have met people who believe in it fiercely. Example:
Many years ago, I had an interview at a college and, as part of the interview process, I met with a hiring committee that included faculty and administrators from various departments in the college, not just people in my field. I enjoyed my conversation with this committee, which was interested in my views of Science in general; for example, as it relates to other fields and to society, and how we teach students about Science. Soon after my interview, I was offered the job, but, because it wouldn't have been a good place for my husband, I turned down the offer.
Six years later, I visited a certain university as part of a lecture tour and had dinner with a science professor I had never met before. As soon as we sat down, he said "I know that you were offered that job at X College in 199x. I interviewed for that job too and they rejected me right away. So here's what I want to know. When that hiring committee met with you and asked you what your hobbies are, what did you say?".
I only vaguely remembered being asked about my hobbies by that committee, so I had to think about it for a few minutes. Finally I replied, "I don't really remember. I probably didn't say much because I don't really have anything I consider a hobby."
My dining companion said "I knew it! I knew I gave the wrong answer."
I asked him "How can there be a wrong answer? As long as you didn't say that you eviscerate kittens as a hobby or something else disgusting and illegal, how can there be a wrong answer?".
He said "For the last six years I have been kicking myself about this. I should have said that I have no hobbies. That would mean that I work all the time. Or, if I did tell them a hobby, I should have said that I read The New York Review of Books."
Me: Why didn't you tell them that?
Him: Because I don't read The New York Review of Books.
Me: Oh... So what did you tell them?
Him: I told them that I like fishing. What an idiot. I admitted to having a hobby and I admitted to having a non-intellectual hobby.
We argued about this in a friendly way a bit more, but I was unable to convince him that his fishing hobby confession had not cost him the job. I don't think he realized that he was being inadvertently a bit insulting by saying that if he had just given the 'right' answer to the insidious hobby question, he would have gotten the job offer instead of me. He was absolutely convinced that that committee wanted candidates with no hobbies or at the very least an appropriate intellectual one.
I do know of departments in which the vast majority of faculty are droids, and I even have one colleague at another university who only accepts grad students as advisees if their hobbies are on his personal approved list of acceptable activities (example: stamp collecting is bad), so I am aware that extreme/insane advisors are out there. Even so, most of my colleagues, postdocs, students have hobbies of various sorts. Many have families. An important part of life is learning to balance work and non-work. That's what most of us are doing.
6 months ago