The Strategic Signaling Dynamics of Assistant Professor Office Decorating Decisions

3 September 2013, 1010 EDT

Having all read the canonical signaling literature within International Relations, new faculty members in IR are faced with a crucial and excruciating dilemma: how best to decorate their academic office.  The following blog post examines this dilemma in detail and is intended to create an inter-university dialogue and research agenda on the issue.


While some may say that an office is just a place to put your desk/computer and hold office hours, the very strategically astute assistant professor realizes that her office motif could possibly reveal information to senior colleagues as to (a) research productivity (high or low) and (b) intentions in the university (life-long employee, the as-soon-as-possible department rankings “jumper,” or the committed but still-entertaining-all-options-employee).  Given that this is private information available only to the assistant professor, many junior faculty members seek to send signals of their “type” through their office decoration decisions.  Most junior faculty members want to signal high research productivity but vary in whether they want to appear that they will retire from the same university in 40 years or not.  Unfortunately, based on numerous ethnographic observations by this post’s author, there does not seem to be a separating signal when it comes to office decorating: all types of assistant professors seem to send all types of office decorating decisions.  Some may even try to “mimic” the signals frequently sent by alternative types of junior professors.


Further complicating matters, the strategic logic of each signal is messy: it is not clear how various types of senior colleagues will interpret the decorating decisions.  Senior faculty members often react to the same signal differently or seem to not understand the message the junior faculty member is trying to send with the choice of office decorations.  Some senior faculty appear to be oblivious that such a dilemma exists and may even be under the misimpression that junior faculty members are just trying to get a comfortable work environment through the choice of office motif!


Based on my participant observations, the signals sent by junior faculty members with regards to office decorations seem to fall in two general camps: (a) the “Crate and Barrel” office and (b) the “Academic Refugee” office (see exhibit 1 or exhibit 2).  Let us examine each of these signals and the frequent logic of the decision maker in turn.


First, the “Crate and Barrel” office motif typically involves some of the following elements: (a) framed and hung pictures, (b) plants that are alive, (c) a comfy office chair that was brought in from home, and (d) books on shelves.  Filing cabinets may actually be used for their intended purpose.  In a few rare cases, Vitamin D sun lamps and “Bath and Body Works” candles may be purchased.  A white noise machine may be observed. Interviews with junior faculty with such offices revealed to this author the following logic behind such an approach:

(a) wanting to appear to be an adult,

(b) wanting to signal that research responsibilities were established enough to have extra time for decorating,

(c) wanting to signal that it would be difficult to deny tenure without at least providing moving boxes,

(d) wanting to signal that outside offers should be countered and counteroffers will be seriously entertained.


The second option, the “Academic Refugee” office, contains none of these elements.  Instead, printed Stata output and the materials received at “new-faculty orientation” are often the only thing present on the bookshelves.  Besides Red Bull cans and coffee cups, no decorations exist in the office space.  Extensive ethnographic and participant observations of junior faculty members sending such a signal revealed the following stated motivations:

(a) wanting to appear so busy with research as to not have time to go shopping and decorate,

(b) wanting to appear easily “poach-able” – you could leave for the Ivies at any minute!,

(c) wanting to appear broke and in need of a raise, or at least a better research account from which to buy books,

(d) wanting to appear to not notice any issues with old or cracked walls in said office and just indicate thankfulness for the job and office space at such an ideal university.


Unfortunately, time and space constraints negate the possibility of a full treatment of senior faculty responses to these signals in this blog post.  Future work should address these responses in detail.  Time and space constraints also do not allow for the full development of a game-theoretic treatment of these dynamics but the approach may be fruitful.  Randomized experiments across universities would also add to this emerging literature.  By raising this dilemma via this blog post,  the author hopes that a dialogue will be created where this author will finally be able to decide (a) whether to actually purchase a plant and/or candles for her office and (b) whether she should throw away the Ramen Noodle containers presently decorating her desk.