Interviewing for an academic post in the UK

A few years back, I wrote a blog post on how to apply for an academic job in the UK. I ended it commenting that I would do something similar on how to interview, but never did—partly time, partly Covid, partly not wanting to say too much while I was still the one doing the interviews several times a year.

I write simply as someone who has interviewed something over a hundred candidates for academic jobs, and has formed some views on the things that, in my view, helped some candidates, and the things that seemed to disadvantage others. I dismiss some points as embarrassingly obvious (the candidate who referred to the students we were asking them to teach as ‘lazy little f**kers’ did not get the post, oddly enough). The points below are things I have seen credible, well-prepared, candidates trip over, and as such are things I have wanted to pass on to those who have sought my advice.

The comments below are roughly what I have passed on to every colleague or student who has asked me for advice in the last few years. They seem to have worked for most of them—no doubt more because I have had the privilege of having outstanding colleagues and students than because this advice really changes things, but this stuff at least hasn’t hurt… These comments are about the UK system, because that is what I know.

Typically, in the UK, a candidate for a lectureship in an Arts discipline will be asked to give a presentation (20-30 minutes, to prospective colleagues and (perhaps) graduate students) and to attend an interview. I am assuming that pattern in what follows, as it is what I have experience of, from both sides.

  1. Getting an interview is the tough bit; if you keep getting interviews you will get a job fairly quickly.
  2. To make the point I made previously again: you can appear as someone wanting any job, or you can appear as someone wanting this job. Try to know as much as you can about the context, and explain why this particular role and your passions and experience are a perfect match. (Yes, and then do the same next week for a different role.) From my perspective, as an interviewer, I am interested in how you will fit into our context; if you can show me you have looked into who we are, and still want to work with us, you go a long way to reassuring me on this point.
  3. The person specification matrix remains king (or monarch of unspecified gender). Look at what we say we are going to test at interview and give us what we need, or at least as much of what we need as you can.
  4. There is an incumbency bias, but it is not vicious, or at least should/might not be. The committee is essentially asking ‘can you do this job?’; if one candidate has been doing it on a temporary basis with some success, they have a clear advantage over other candidates.
  5. You can blow it in the presentation session, but you can’t win it there. If the crowd form the view that your research is facile, or that you wouldn’t be able to teach our students because of a lack of presence/broad knowledge of the subject/whatever, then you have a very high mountain to climb (Typically, after these sessions, those present are asked for comments, to rank the candidates in order, and to specify if any candidates appeared unappointable; if your prospective colleagues suggest that you are unappointable en masse, you will not get the job—no-one wants to have to manage that car crash. If they rank you as appointable, but behind other candidates, then you have a chance—the committee have access to documents and the interview, and others will understand if these made the difference.)
  6. For the presentation: do what we have asked you to do (please?); keep to time (please?); present adequately well—if you are brilliant, this will be noted, and will count in your favour; if you are inadequate, this will make you unappointable. ‘Adequately well’ here means: audible; expert; clear; able to engage with questions. Bonus points for saying something interesting, but if we are asking you to role-play an undergraduate lecture, you don’t need to excite the experts in your field.
  7. On this, remember that most of the committee are not experts in your field (although most of the presentation audience might be). Probably only one of the committee members from within the School is actually a subject specialist; the others are adjacent —Biblical scholars assessing a theologian, e.g.—but that generally means they stopped giving serious attention to your discipline before they finished their undergraduate studies. The Dean of Arts is a modern historian (say); they will reckon that if you can interest them, then you will be able to interest undergraduates. The relevant Vice-Principal (PVC) might be a scientist; how will they hear your presentation (& indeed your interview answers)?
  8. Moving to the interview. In the UK, it is brief: probably 30 minutes for a junior post, an hour for a chair. There is a committee of people who each have a question to ask, and the chance to add one follow up, maybe two if things are running to time. The questions are relatively obvious, although they might be variously phrased: research trajectory; approach to teaching; collegiality; service (admin jobs); perhaps one on impact; perhaps another on broader career trajectory: ‘where do you see yourself in ten years time?’ or similar. We are generally required to ask much the same opening questions on each subject to each candidate—there a bit more latitude in the follow-ups. As a result, we probably won’t pick up on your presentation, unless it gives us a good way in to the question we were already planning to ask.
  9. On research, we need (in the UK) to be convinced that you will contribute to the next REF. Think about the cycle, and the deadline dates. Think about what we need to hear—outputs, of course; increasingly impact and contribution to research culture. Think about—ask people who know—what the current expectations for the next REF are. Give the committee a clear sense of what you will offer, with dates that are well within the expected deadlines.
  10. Impact and culture are becoming increasingly important. At present, we expect the next REF to require not just impact case studies, but a broad account of how impact is embedded in the research culture of the unit. Have something to say about this—just now, having anything at all to say about this is likely to put you ahead of the pack for a junior post. (It is not just what you say, but the demonstration that you are aware of how the academy is developing, and are committed to doing what you can to aid your prospective institution in that.)
  11. On teaching, know the particular emphases of the institution. Do they pride themselves on supporting non-standard students through to degrees? Do they trumpet ‘research-led teaching,’ even if they don’t really know what that means? (What do they think it means?). Have they, fashionably, stopped talking about ‘teaching’ and started talking about ‘learning’? You cannot be dishonest here (you don’t want to be: if you get a job in a context that you hate, it will kill your career, and damage your mental health), but you can choose what to emphasise to different institutions.
  12. There’s another pile of advice on presenting and interviewing online. Think about camera angles and lighting—ideally, do a practice call to a friend from your proposed set up (at the same time of day if you are relying on natural light at all), and ask them what you need to do: should the camera be higher or lower? Do you need a fill-in light source because half your face is in shadow? What can they see over your shoulder? (I am assuming that your camera is somewhere near your screen, and so the folk you are talking to are not presented with a view of your left ear.)
  13. If you choose to sit in front of a bookcase, those panel members who are specialists in your discipline will be looking at what books are there, and making judgements on that. They should not be so venal as to be swayed by spotting their own books, but they will be assessing what the collection says about your approach to your subject, and how it coheres with the approach of the institution. Books are movable; curate the background you want for the particular interview.
  14. What happens if the technology fails? Absolute minimum: have you got a phone number to call if you are having problems? Try to imagine everything that could fail at your end (batteries; power cuts; any wifi/bluetooth connection; …) and how you will rescue it. Be ready for failures at their end, and be cheerful and accommodating in your response.

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