The Grad School Saga: Making Impressions

Whilst in Philadelphia I attended a training workshop entitled “Coaching Strong Women in the Art of Strategic Persuasion“. Affiliated to the American Chemical Society’s bi-annual National Meeting, the course was aimed at female chemists in industry & academia who wanted to get their own way in negotiation situations. We were asked to introduce ourselves to the group at the start of the day; unbeknown to us one of the coaches was monitoring our body language and delivery and marking our “mistakes”. Did we use unhelpful language such as “umm” or “I guess”; did we have sloppy posture; did we fiddle with our hands and clothes. The implication of this exercise jolted me awake better than the free filter coffee ever could: it isn’t about what you say, it is entirely about how you say.

It becomes especially relevant when you consider that my task over in the US was to meet with prospective graduate advisors working at several competitive Eastern Seaboard universities.

“You only have about 90 seconds to make a good impression, after all.” one of the trainers told me after the workshop.

I reckon ’90 seconds’ is an incredibly liberal estimate.

When you see a person for the first time it takes a couple of milliseconds to pick up their basic statistics. Age. Gender. Ethnic background. Dress sense. Posture. Any physical abnormalities. These basic stats are all you need to form an impression. When an applicant for an mechanical engineering job walks into the interview room, the panel will only need the quickest glance to see that this particular candidate is female. The panel may have pre-formed opinions about the suitability of women for engineering jobs. Simply by knowing the candidate’s gender they will be able to form their first impression.


In my own case, not only am I female but I’m white and with really long dreadlocks. If you don’t already have some pre-formed opinions about people with dreadlocks you’ve probably led a very innocent life. You might use positive words like “creative” and “liberal”; you might use words like “damn hippies” or “dope smokers”. You are unlikely to think “scientist”.

On the other hand, the distinctiveness of dreadlocks make me far easier to remember and recognise. If I want to stand out then the odds are in my favour that I will stand out Like A Sore Thumb.

So…how to cultivate a good impression based on appearance & behaviours? I’m a believer in slowing everything down. I slow my speech down. I slow my movements down – no fidgeting. I slow my conversational pace down – I do not rush to fill in silences or answer questions. It helps me retain control of my actions and sort out what I’m going to say before I say it. It makes me appear deliberate and calm.

DanceSport gave me a good grounding in impressions. Each dance is judged on a 60-90 second clip of your dancing abilities. You don’t have the time to warm-up into your confidence or posture – it needs to be there from the start. A lot of DanceSport judgement is based upon how well you fit in to the judge’s ideal of ballroom dancers. It isn’t about busting fancy moves: it is about executing simple moves in a sharp way.

Handshake: it should mean business. Full grip and firm wrist. Eye contact: it should be on target. I knew within 3 minutes of walking into an interview that I wasn’t going to get the position because the interviewer was missing my eye by several inches. Posture: I’m leaning forwards (with a straight back) because this conversation is so darn fascinating.


I’m still a few months away from submitting my grad school applications and hearing back with any offers. Yet I’ve navigated an important challenge: (a) convincing potential advisors that I should be taken seriously as an applicant (b) convincing myself I’ve got what it takes.


2 thoughts on “The Grad School Saga: Making Impressions

  1. So how did you score(?)?! What did the marker say about you?!

    I mean I guess its going to be good, cause you’re awesome, but I’m still dying to know the outcome!

    (if its not too personal)

    • The meetings themselves went well – I won’t know until January next year (when offers are mailed out) if I’ve made a REALLY good impression or not. But the meetings and visits were useful for me in sussing out where I most wanted to study, and hopefully will be useful for the professors who now know the face behind 1 of their many applications…

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