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I see some academics – both professors and grad students – write their biography on their university webpages in the third person, and it sounds really weird.

What's the purpose of writing about oneself, e.g. research accomplishments, research interests, in the third person? Is it considered more professional to do so?

It reads very arrogant and self-indulgent, so I wonder if I'm just missing something.

  • The only time I knew someone had read my bio was when I was giving talks and they read it as an intro. (sometimes leaving it intact, sometimes editing out the more random things I left in there to see if anyone at work would bother reading it) – Joe Apr 16 at 14:48
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    Maybe this is a personal quirk, but sometimes you hand them off to random administrators and they get edited. I don't want people editing things written in the first person without sending them back. Third person seems a bit less off to me. – Azor Ahai Apr 16 at 18:24
  • Would second person be a compromise? – J. Fabian Meier Apr 17 at 8:45
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When I wrote a biography of myself, it was because someone in administration asked me to so they could put it into a prospectus, where there would be lots of biographies in a row all in the same editorial voice.

It was specifically required to be in the third person for that reason: all the profiles are presented as though they have been written by the omniscient author of the document. It wasn't written that way because I wanted it to be, but for an actual purpose.

Once written, that biography went on file and was put everywhere that needed one. That includes the university website, future grant applications, other advertising material, commendations for students, reports, papers, and sundry other places. Sometimes I copy it there, and sometimes it happens without my even being involved (sometimes without any actual person being involved!).

In particular, it's useful to put it up front on a public website so that collaborators can easily just copy accurate pre-written text in when they need to provide a profile of me for one of their own purposes.


There are places that I've written a first-person biography, which is generally a lot shorter. Those are places that are 1) in my voice, and 2) where it was worth the fuss of rewriting something tailored to the situation. In general, and particularly for things published by the university, my "official" biography just goes back in again, because it's there, it's been edited, and it's comprehensive enough.

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    Ahem. "When Michael Homer wrote a biography of himself ..." – Tasos Papastylianou Apr 15 at 11:05
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    @TasosPapastylianou: I was never able to put this feeling into words, why so many (auto) biographies sounded unnatural. Thanks a bunch. +1 – virolino Apr 15 at 13:38
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    The other common use for bios, closely related to this, is when you're being introduced for a talk - the introducer often looks online for a summary and it's nice to have something accurate ready for them – iayork Apr 15 at 14:56
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    @emory I think you mean "uninterested" (i.e., bored). "Disinterested" means unbiased, and nobody is disinterested in a biography of themself. – David Richerby Apr 15 at 19:51
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    @DavidRicherby There are occasional difficulties, as possibly indicated in your own comment... I once attended a talk where the introducer said "he has done this, he published that, he comes from wherever blah blah blah..." - and then it turned out that the speaker was female. (She had a slightly unusual given name, not immediately recognisable as female.) Admittedly, very remiss of the introducer not to even have bothered checking. – David Apr 16 at 1:40
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I’d always considered it a means to achieve uniformity throughout the bios when one person is writing them. That is, if you have to write a short biography for each author of a paper, it makes more sense to do it in the third person.

Also, a lot of academic writing styles discourage the use of the first person (or used to). It’s more likely that the web page third person bios are a copy-paste, or simply written in a style to which the author is accustomed, rather than an attempt at a stealth brag.

They’re biographies, not autobiographies.

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    Hahah. I liked stealthbrag; nice play on "humblebrag"! – Tasos Papastylianou Apr 15 at 11:15
  • That is why biographies should be written by somebody else, and not by the person impersonating somebody (anonymous) else. – virolino Apr 15 at 13:37
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    @virolino, in an ideal world, yes. And every biography would be specifically targeted to the platform where it is presented. But, the easiest way to source info for the bio you have to write and to avoid offending the subject (by inadvertently missing their greatest accomplishment) is to ask them to write it. Never attribute to malice what can easily be explained by (ahem) "efficiency". – Pam Apr 15 at 15:06
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My This author's own opinion is that occasionally this is due to how ingrained 'academicspeak' is in academia. 3rd person / 1st person plural is the norm when writing journal papers.

In this sense, the reason may well be in fact the opposite to what you state: people avoid writing in the first person, in order not to come across as self-serving and arrogant and claiming personal recognition, but rather appear impartial and recounting events dispationately from a third-person perspective.

This, along with 'bio reuse' from contexts which specifically required the use of third person narrative, may be a reason why you might see such bios even in contexts where third person narrative would seem less relevant.

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    Biographies in theater and concert programs are typically also in the third person, yet do not necessarily appear in an academic context or one in which "academicspeak" would be expected. @WGroleau it's not possible to change one's vote on a post more than five minutes after casting the vote unless the post has been edited in the meanwhile. – phoog Apr 15 at 17:42
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In addition to the key "written for use by others" reason put forth by @MichaelHomer, another reason that many academics have a 3rd person biography is that many organize their online present not as "Prof. X" but rather as "Prof. X's group/lab, including Prof. X, students, postdocs, and alumni".

If the group is the subject, rather than the person, then there is no "I" to narrate, and it's appropriate for all to be listed in 3rd person.

1

To somewhat build up on what Jake Beal said, consider the following two texts:

  • Cunningham Group

    I am Iocasta Cunningham and I did my PhD in Astrochelionology on “Great A’Tuin is a black body” … I am interested in all sorts of interesting topics from the vast field of theoretical lepidopterology, ranging from the quantum butterfly effect to flapping dynamics. My group consists of:

    • Aaron A. Aaronson wrote his master’s thesis on “Analogue search-engine optimisation – a shameless self-study” and is now a PhD student investigating trunk manifolds.

  • Group for Theoretical Lepidopterology

    We investigate all sorts of interesting topics from the vast field of theoretical lepidopterology, ranging from the quantum butterfly effect to flapping dynamics. The group consists of:

    • Aaron A. Aaronson wrote his master’s thesis on “Analogue search-engine optimisation – a shameless self-study” and is now a PhD student investigating trunk manifolds.

    • Prof. Iocasta Cunningham is the group’s leader. She did her PhD in Astrochelionology on “Great A’Tuin is a black body” …

Both texts convey the same information, but (for whatever it is worth) the first one leans more on the arrogant side. Now, webpages may have a more complex structure, but the general style is translatable and you can find analogues of both texts out there:

  • Professors who name their group after them and whose webpage puts the primary focus on them – which is not completely unjustified since the professor is not only the boss but usually the only constant.

  • Professors who focus on presenting their group, whose leader they happen to be. In this light, it makes complete sense for them to use the third person – for a reason that is quite the opposite of how you are perceiving it.

Note that I do not want to say that one of the variants is generally better or worse here. (Perceived) arrogance or modesty are only one reason to choose between these styles.

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