When searching for a job last year, I initially focused almost exclusively on universities as this was an environment I was familiar with and felt really committed to, even more so after completing the Aurora development programme run by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education whose aim is to support female leadership in universities. However, even though I was going for numerous interviews, I kept getting knocked back, and it seemed it didn’t matter how hard I worked on my interview skills, the result was still the same. At a certain point I decided that maybe it was time to change my strategy and broaden the search. I may have only worked in the education sector but project managers truly work everywhere and if universities weren’t interested what I had to offer, then it was time to take my skills elsewhere. Except I wasn’t quite sure what the “elsewhere” was or how to venture beyond the world of jobs.ac.uk where I kept checking for new jobs being advertised and where the process was – you see a job being advertised, you apply for it via the university website, usually fill in the form, occasionally curse at the clunkiness of the application portal and maybe send in a CV and then hope for the best. What really helped at that point was having access to a great resource at home in the form of my spouse who has only ever worked in the private sector where things work quite differently. To start with, it is very common for companies to use recruitment agencies where rather than applying directly to the organisation, you will first go through the agency and deal with them in the first instance. The other difference was that when applying for those positions in private sector quite often you will not know until quite late which organisation you are actually applying for, all you will have is “my client” and a rather generic description and the person specification will often be much less specific than in the ads supplied by universities which seemed to describe a combination of qualities maybe found in one or two people on the planet…
So one thing I would recommend to PhDs who want to venture beyond the world of university and public sector recruitment is to reach out to someone they know that works in the area they are interested in and can give them tips on how to manage that process. You will probably be pleasantly surprised how many people love talking about themselves and all they need is to be offered a coffee! The advice I received was to start by registering myself with a number of agencies that were relevant to my areas of expertise, which in my case were project management, information technology and public sector. It turned out that there’s quite a few of agencies out there and it is easy to locate them with a focused Google search although as the first port of call for PhDs I would definitely recommend Hays as they have a wide range of opportunities and seem to understand the needs of people moving from public sector into private and vice versa. The other piece of advice was to stop thinking about having to tick all of the boxes and be an “ideal candidate”; apparently a lot of the time a recruitment agency will make a subjective judgement call on whether the candidate will fit the brief they received from the client or not and it’s not worth it talking yourself out of a potential opportunity.
The way it worked for me was that I spotted a job I liked the look of, for a position of an IT manager. At that stage I didn’t know it was for a university, and I was a bit hesitant about not having much of a technical background as the ad mentioned software and applications development and my experience in that area was very limited but I decided to send my CV anyway. So the first difference was that there was no personal statement and only a limited opportunity to tailor my CV but I made sure anyway that I pulled out any relevant bits of experience such as my work on e-learning projects and involvement in projects that included an element of software development even though that was only minor. I was advised that after I send my CV I should follow that up with a phonecall within a day or two but didn’t have a chance to put that into practice as I received a phone call from the recruiter literally half an hour after sending my CV through. The call lasted about twenty minutes and was a brief chat about my experience and interest in the position advertised so it may be worth preparing something in advance should the phone ring. The preparation might focus on being able to explain your interest in the advertised role, what you might bring to it and the highlights of your CV. It is always useful to have some questions you might want to ask the recruiter. But one thing to remember, you should assume that all conversations with the agency and all your interactions with the agency are part of an extended interview.
I must have made a good impression as at the end of the initial chat I was invited to come into the agency the following week to discuss the position in more detail. I also received some more documents from the recruiter which made me realise that the position would involve working for a university. The bundle included the university’s IT strategy and quite an extended person specification document, based on the Skills Framework for the Information Age which initially made me question whether I was indeed appropriate for the role as I didn’t tick some of the more technical boxes (in fact, Unified Modelling Language Tools still continue to be a mystery…) however I decided to trust the judgement of the recruiter.
The face-to-face meeting with the recruiter turned out to be essentially the first stage of the interview process. We went through my CV in more detail and once again I was asked to illustrate some of the highlights, with the questions focusing on lows and highs of my project management experience so far. It wasn’t technical at all, it was more about my understanding of what makes a successful project in a university environment and at times felt like the recruiter was slightly coaching me and trying to tease our stories that would work well in the actual interview. Overall, I got the feeling that the recruiter was gauging whether I would be potentially a good and employable candidate for the role and in general, I found the experience fairly straightforward and not too stressful. A couple of days later I got the call that the university was indeed happy for me to proceed to interview stage and I had one arranged a week later. This bit felt quite challenging and I received a solid grilling on my understanding of project management methodologies and emerged an hour and a half later feeling completely drained and convinced that I managed to blow my chances. It didn’t help that the feedback I received from the agency following the interview was that the panel felt I was appoint able but they wanted to see more people and so I suffered an agonising two week wait to be told finally that I got the job and then the rest as they say, was history.
So here’s my takeaway from the experience and some top tips for people:
- Do consider working with a recruitment agency if you’re interested in transitioning into non-academic roles. Increasingly, universities use recruitment agencies anyway to manage hiring so registering with an agency could help you ensure that you don’t miss out on potential opportunities within the university sector. And most importantly, going through a recruitment agency means that you are opening up a vast pool of potential opportunities outside of the university sector.
- If you see a job you like the look of but feel that you only meet maybe 70-80% of the criteria, apply anyway. As my experience demonstrates, I was able to translate my project management experience to get highered into a somewhat technical role even without an IT background. So my advice would be not to get too hung up on being a “perfect fit” and instead focus on being able to clearly articulate your accomplishments and what you can bring to the role.
- Remember that all your interactions with the agency are part of an extended evaluation so be professional from the first moment you call them (or they call you) and be prepared to talk about the highlights of your CV and the contribution you can make to the advertised position. Equally, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and talk to the recruiter.
- Do talk to other people within your network about your job hunt, they may be able to show you options you are not aware of, as was my case. It took me a while to get round to the idea to expand my search but when I bit the bullet, I was at least prepared in terms of what to initially expect. And ironically enough, I ended up where I wanted to remain originally anyway!