…while hunting for an academic job.
For five years I was employed in a variety of (most welcome) short term contracts, and I interviewed the length and breadth of the land. I’ve been the person people thought was the ‘internal candidate’ (and been rejected), I’ve sobbed all the way to the airport after a question about the finer points of Lacan and I’ve walked into a room with people I’d never met before and started a great conversation that led me to my current job. Along the way I bothered everyone I’d ever met for their tips and suggestions. I endlessly scrolled through Nadine Muller’s excellent New Academic blog, and was particularly won over by Caroline Edwards’ excellent post: http://www.nadinemuller.org.uk/the-new-academic-guides/academic-job-interviews/ I even bought a few generic job application books, but I think the advice given in the corporate world doesn’t fit us. We usually don’t get asked which biscuit we would be and why (Coconut Cream, in case you’re wondering).
1. Not doing enough research
At the beginning of my job hunting career, I swanned up to interview with the confidence of youth: ‘I have written a whole PhD and it passed a Viva and you should hire me’. Sure, I had a cursory flick through a website, but I didn’t really get to know a department and what I could bring. You need to know how you would fit in and what you could specifically offer (without telling them everything that’s wrong with them: not cute). There are many sources for this: research centre and course information online, the REF research environment reports are always worth a look, Unistats to see what aspects of student satisfaction you could help improve. You don’t have to be CorporateBot 5000 as most panels won’t quiz you on the finer points of 11b of the Strategic Plan, but reading the executive summary might give you an idea of what is important to an institution. See what you can find out on the grapevine: is it a particular person that is being replaced? If so, find out their courses and what they contributed. It’s all about imagining yourself in the job as a friendly, supportive colleague who can work with the unique demands of an institution. People also love to hear what’s working, and for you to show your enthusiasm for their projects will stand you in good stead.
2. Selling yourself short
I’ve dealt with questions of ‘fitting in’ on other posts, and this applies doubly for job interviews. We know some of the diversity issues in University management, and it will usually be very senior people making these decisions. Unless you are bulletproof (tell me your secrets), the whole job interview process will bring out your every issue, whether structural inequality or your public speaking tells. It is, essentially, be judged by a roomful of complete strangers or people you know and want to impress. They will then decide whether you get a wage and what city you live in, based on your ability to describe your life’s work. It is NO JOKE. Personally, I have an issue with eye contact when I’m very nervous and I’m also not terribly comfortable saying ‘I’m absolutely brilliant and this is why’. I don’t have that relaxed confidence that people have when they’ve been to certain institutions or have never had to worry about rent. Here’s my tip for when you get in your head at interviews: think about your favourite class of students. Think about the ones who weren’t privileged, who you helped find their voice and articulate their ideas. You are doing this for them and for everyone who needs a role model of diversity in the classroom. Think about your family, about the subjects you work on, about the political reasons you got involved in academia. Talk about your subject with that light in your eyes that you get when a class is going well, or you’re having a passionate discussion in the pub at a conference. You met the criteria, you deserve to be there: go get yours.
3. Forgetting the important things
I love going to music festivals with my friend Amy (https://twitter.com/amysrushton) because she remembers everything. Even for a one dayer, she has a magic bag full of rain ponchos, plasters and hair bobbles. It is this attitude that I have tried to bring to the day of interviews: bring everything you can. Here are some of the things I always bring: a Powerpoint clicker, my presentation on a memory stick (and on email and several copies printed out), the CV and covering letter I applied with, snacks in case blood sugar drops, a spare pair of tights, a detailed google map and a portable USB phone charger. On my iPad or printed out, I will also have all the information mentioned in the first point as well as the courses I would be able to teach in case of memory failure. I have been in places where there was no clicker and I shuffled awkwardly from audience to computer and I’ve presented where the laptop wouldn’t connect to the internet. Prepare for tech fails the way you do for conferences: presume that things could go a bit wrong and you’ll seem cool and prepared, rather than have to go to the loos for a wee cry. I also think this is a good time to develop a Power Song to give you a boost before you go in. If you don’t already have one, may I suggest you pick something that is impossible to take seriously (to take the gravity out of the situation) but also motivating.
The job hunt is hard physically, emotionally and financially. Every rejection can feel like a punch in the gut or a judgement on your very being. It is not. It’s a tough career, and a hard time to be hunting. I nearly gave up several times, but here I am between morning classes (including my own module on Northern Irish Literature) and an evening MA seminar on Ulysses with amazing colleagues who include a truly amazing research mentor. I wish nothing but the best for you, too.