Dr Caroline Edwards is Lecturer in English at Birkbeck. She is author of the forthcoming monograph Fictions of the Not Yet: Time in the Twenty-First-Century British Novel (2015) and co-editor of China Miéville: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2013), Maggie Gee: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2013) and Adam Roberts: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2014). Caroline has published articles, interviews and reviews in a number of journals, including Modern Fiction Studies, Contemporary Literature, Textual Practice, Telos, Radical Philosophy, Subjectivity, Historical Materialism, Left Lion Magazine and the New Statesman. Caroline is Founding and Commissioning Editor of the open-access journal of twenty-first-century literary criticism Alluvium. You can find her website here, and you can follow her on Twitter via @the_blochian.
Academic job interviews can take a variety of forms, and I’ve experienced a few different kinds of job interview – both from the perspective of a candidate, as well as from the perspective of a member of the interview panel. As with any public speaking engagement, preparation is essential and managing your nerves on the day is a challenge. I found that the interviews I attended after I’d started teaching in a full-time position were much less nerve-wracking, so if you’ve already had teaching experience and got over the initial horror of having to stand in a lecture theatre or classroom in front of students and adapt your prepared material according to their questions or how much time you have left in a lecture/seminar, you’ve already experienced the kind of spontaneous skills required in an interview presentation.
Many traditional interviews ask you to be available throughout the day and you will have a scheduled time to deliver your presentation in the morning, followed by some waiting around whilst other candidates deliver their presentations. Then you will typically be invited to a buffet lunch with members of the department, before the interviews get underway in the afternoon. The hardest part of these kinds of interview are holding your nerve in front of other candidates, being polite and friendly with everyone, and managing to eat buffet food whilst trying to ask intelligent questions of the academics at the department. As with conferences, it’s up to you to make sure you approach the people you would like to talk with, or who you felt connected with your presentation well, and use the opportunity to let them know a little more about you and your achievements (without seeming pushy in any way) as well as asking them further questions about their own research and teaching at the university (without appearing as though you haven’t done your research in advance of the interview). Other forms of interviews might only invite you for a presentation followed by an interview. In this case you wouldn’t meet other candidates so the experience can be more intimate and less unnerving.
PREPARING FOR THE INTERVIEW
Prepare thoroughly and know the department’s course structure, which modules you could teach (be aware of whether these are core modules at first and second-year level, or specialist option modules at third-year level which you may not be required to teach since they are tailored to individual members of staff’s specialist research). Think about how your proposed new modules would complement existing modules. This shows not only that you have understood the department’s overall strengths in teaching and research but have also “thought yourself into the job”, as they say, i.e. you’ve considered how you and your own strengths could work within the team and how your research and teaching could offer something different as well as helping to consolidate the department’s current provision and expertise.
Read up on the department’s research strengths and strategic aims. Read their REF report (available online), and look up their postgraduate researchers. Remember that the people in front of you are only human and usually enjoy being flattered (but not in a creepy way). They do not want to be told that their department is weak or lacking in any way and that you would be the person to fix this. If you really think that of the department and the university you shouldn’t be wasting their time in attending the interview.
Practice with a willing friend or family member. Put on the clothes you will wear for the interview and rehearse delivering your 10-15 minute presentation. This will be invaluable in terms of putting you at ease on the day, helping you to refine some of the things you will say off script or without notes (really important that you do this), as well as give you a sense of timing and just how much you can realistically deliver in the given time frame.
If this is your first interview tell yourself that it’s fantastic experience no matter what. This is really hard when you’re unemployed or in a difficult financial situation but you have to take the pressure off yourself and try to relax. It’s rare for people to be offered the first job they’re interviewed for, so think of each interview as gaining experience and improving on your last performance – as well as being a really useful way of finding out your own unique strengths and qualities, and how you come across to people in an interview.
If you are fresh out of a PhD (or still completing one), or are an early-career researcher, it is crucial that you understand the value of your own potential and project this accordingly. This might sound completely counter-intuitive, but the potential of a promising ECR in my experience counts for more than an older colleague who perhaps hasn’t achieved that much for their career stage. I found this a helpful way to approach large interviews where I met other candidates who were much older and more experienced than me and whose CVs, publications and experience would have otherwise been very intimidating.
Remember to come across as a human being. Try to find a way to incorporate anecdotes (where appropriate) which show that you are flexible and easy to work with, enthusiastic and down to earth. This will make a big difference. Having sat on the interview panel side for senior appointments I’ve seen big names not be appointed because they seemed aloof or arrogant. Remember that they are hiring a future colleague and you could become the person in the office across the corridor from them, so they will want to establish whether they would enjoy working with you.
It is crucial that you are extremely friendly with everyone you meet on the day, from the HR contact, to the front desk security people, to the department administrator, to the undergraduate or postgraduate students you might be introduced to. Remember that you are being watched even when you’re not doing your presentation or interview (particularly at the buffet lunch). I’ve heard a department discuss how they didn’t appoint the candidate who didn’t bother talking to the junior secretary or office member.
Try to enjoy yourself! The worst part is the travelling to the department via an often unfamiliar train route (usually on the day), managing nerves and lack of sleep etc. I always tried to get to the interview location at least one hour early so I could have a coffee, eat something and read through my notes.
The presentation will usually be in a classroom in front of a panel of anything from 5-15 members of the department (and sometimes also academics from other disciplines, so watch the disciplinary jargon). You will likely have been asked one week earlier to prepare a 10-15 minute presentation in response to a specific question or two – often something like: “Outline your research for the next 5 years and describe a module that you would teach here.” Usually the room is arranged with the panel sitting in a horseshoe of tables and you have a table at the front of the classroom with a chair, and a projector screen and computer behind you. Some key tips:
Always stand up for the presentation (if you are able to). Sitting at the front desk really doesn’t look good (from my perspective having been on presentation panels). You can then sit down to receive questions after you have delivered the presentation.
Make sure you are wearing clothes that you are comfortable in. (I favour trousers with pockets so that during the more awkward parts of the day e.g. at the buffet lunch you can feel more at ease).
Don’t use a script (as I tried to do in my first ever job interview presentation) and whatever you do, don’t deliver a conference paper.
Make sure you stick to your allocated time. If you run over you might be asked to stop and it doesn’t bode well for your timekeeping skills in lectures.
It’s really important that in your presentation you come across as well-prepared but also lively, engaging, fun and enthusiastic. This is the department’s chance to assess what you might be like in front of students lecturing, or taking a seminar.
This sounds hard but do try to enjoy yourself! It’s always nice to talk about the subject that you’re passionate about, that you devote all of your time to, that makes you jump out of bed in the morning. In my experience no one at interview panels or presentations is ever there to try to catch you out, and they just want to see whether they could work with you and what sort of colleague you’d be like.
As with the presentation, this is your chance to showcase your own achievements as well as to connect with, and try to win over, the panel. Some panels are more friendly than others and I’ve experienced panels where they deliberately tried to avoid much eye contact whilst writing copious notes. Body language is also important in this context, so try to be open in your gestures and relaxed in the way that you are sitting.
The interview questions will usually address 4 main areas required by the job (although these may vary depending on the specific requirements of the job and may be different, for example, for a teaching-only position):
- Research publications and REF outputs
- Teaching provision – your experience and what modules you could teach
- External activities and grant income potential
- Administrative experience
The first question will almost always be “Why would you like to work at this university?”, so make sure you have a strong response which demonstrates that you have done your homework and that you value this particular department (rather than giving off the impression that any job will do, or any job in that particular part of the country).
The following are the kinds of questions you may be asked (and you can find more examples in Nadine’s posts on her first academic job interview):
- What are your 4 potential REF submissions?
- Are you a team player? Can you give examples of collaborative projects?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
- What can you do in terms of quality assurance and your teaching?
- What can you do to encourage student participation in seminars?
- What would you do to attract PG students?
- Have you convened a team-taught module? What challenges would there be? How would you handle these?
- How do you conceive of the relationship between research and teaching?
- How comfortable are you teaching outside your research specialism?
- What opportunities would you see for bidding for collaborative research grants?
- What do you feel is the major contribution of your research?
- What do you feel appropriate learning outcomes would be for a Level 3 module?
- What is your approach to teaching? What pedagogical methods do you use?
- How do you enthuse students who are disinterested or disengaged?
- Studying for a Ph.D. can be quite a solitary activity. What experience do you have of working in a team?
Remember also that you’re interviewing them (this is hard to get your head around when unemployment is the alternative, I know). You will always be asked if you have any questions at the end of the interview, so make sure you have a prepared question or two.
AFTER THE INTERVIEW
From my own experiences and those of my friends and colleagues a number of different things can happen after the interview. You can reasonably expect to hear back from the department within one week. This almost always takes the form of a phone call from the person who chaired the interview panel, who will offer you feedback on your performance and the decision-making process. If you hear back on the same or next day it either means you’re going to be offered the job or you’re out of the running. If you have to wait longer this can be because the department and HR process is slow (remember that weekends and bank holidays will extend this waiting time, as will colleagues taking annual leave), or it could mean that the department have made a job offer to another candidate but are waiting to see if it is accepted and have you in mind as a second choice. Job application procedures are not always perfectly organised, and sometimes a certain amount of negotiating is taking place behind closed doors.
If you don’t get offered the job, don’t despair. Make sure you ask for feedback if it isn’t forthcoming (which it really should be). It doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on your research or performance. A common reason for not hiring a strong candidate can be that their particular research area is already well covered in the department and a different gap needs to be filled in terms of teaching (this can be the case with completely open job applications where no particular research field or period is specified). Having sat on both sides of various interview panels I can reveal that panels often disagree and in some cases a certain amount of wrangling can take place between different academics’ preferred candidates. Sometimes there are financial considerations which mean that a department can hire more than one of the candidates they interviewed if they can make the case for both being equally outstanding; similarly, they may not hire at all from the round of applicants they interviewed, and can decide to readvertise the post at a later date.
Don’t forget that the right job will be the job that you are offered. I know this sounds self-explanatory, but there’s only so many things you can do in terms of self-fashioning to make yourself the candidate you think a department wishes to meet or hire. Beyond this, your own personality as an individual and as a researcher come into play and you wouldn’t want to change who you are, or enter into a department that didn’t value your specific area of research. You are always going to connect more with some academics than with others, and this goes for your research profile too.