An Academic Interview

Context 

24714194_mDespite the sensible advice I received from both my supervisor and my external examiner, I began applying for academic jobs (post-doctoral and teaching fellowships as well as lectureships) before having submitted my thesis. As expected, these applications did not take me beyond the generic rejection message stage, but did provide me with a much-needed template post-submission, when things were becoming much more stressful and serious. Once I could finally apply as “Dr Nadine Muller”, the picture didn’t change too dramatically. Generic rejection emails continued to fill my inbox (for post-doctoral positions, research assistantships, and lectureships alike). It was at the end of my first psychological “rock-bottom week”[i] (only three months post-award, I should say; how was I to last several years?) that I received another email, this time telling me I was invited to interview for a lectureship for which I had been rejected previously. As every self-deprecating academic would, I replied and asked whether there had been a mistake. No mistake, the friendly woman from Human Resources replied; she had been instructed to send me the invitation.

General Preparation

My partner was immediately subjected to a number of unanswerable (and largely rhetorical) questions, delivered in moods ranging from ecstatic to depressed, covering concerns about my early-career status and fears regarding my general (in)capabilities. A wonderful fellow early-career academic, Dr Caroline Edwards (University of Lincoln, @the_blochian), reminded me that being the most junior candidate can be a great psychological advantage: after all, it’s your first-ever job interview and all you can do is learn from it. It’s unrealistic to expect anything, so it’s best to expect nothing and be determined to give it your absolute best. Still, as someone without a regular income and with no family members who can provide for me entirely or with whom I can live rent-free whenever it suits me, I constantly felt nauseated and couldn’t sleep properly the week before the interview, and I know many who share that mixed feeling of financial pressure and faint hope.

My interview day would consist of a 15-minute presentation on how my work might add to the research and teaching culture of the department, and of an interview including four faculty members. I spent 7 days (and sometimes nights) reading everything about the department, its staff, their research interests, teaching and their last RAE submission (most importantly their “Research Environment” narrative, which usually gives you a good idea of where a department sees its strengths and what their current strategic plan is; see http://www.rae.ac.uk/submissions/). I asked for a list of current undergraduate modules as well as for the new VC’s most recent strategic plan for the university as a whole, if only to get a sense of where the institution was heading and what its current priorities were. I may well have gone a step too far, but I ensured that I knew the name of every staff member whose research loosely related to mine, so I could mention and address them, if possible, in the respective parts of my presentation, and I also memorised the names of the compulsory first-year courses which were the equivalent of what I had taught previously at other institutions. So much for “them”, but what would I have to say about myself and my work, both in the presentation and in the interview? The following is a mix of my experience and of some of the brilliant advice I received ahead of the day, and I recommend that whenever you are shortlisted for an interview, you speak to as many experienced colleagues as possible.

The Presentation

Dr Jessica Cox (Brunel University) reminded me that in a presentation in which I was required to speak about almost every aspect of my work to some extent, there was little room or need to go into too much detail, especially when it came to the content of my publications, for example. As in conference presentations, there is only so much people can take in, especially when you address a wide range of topics or aspects. You can see the visual result of that advice in the Prezi which I created for the presentation, available here. As this was the first time I had ever used Prezi, there certainly was the risk of technical failure, but thanks to some Twitter help from Dr Alex Hope (Northumbria University, @DrSustainable) and others, it all went smoothly and my audience was audibly impressed when I loaded the presentation.

Debate-Amber-Inspire1Several people pointed out to me that the presentation would be the only opportunity for potential future colleagues and for the panel members to get a sense of what I would be like in the classroom. So, as with any presentation, I wanted to make sure I was as personable, enthusiastic and clear as possible. Because I had felt incredibly anxious and ill the week before the interview day, it was one of the rare occasions on which I felt unable to write any sort of script. I took some notes on the train, but that was all I managed, and I eventually decided to use the Prezi for prompts, and just do my best. The result was, verbally, a little more convoluted and random than what I would normally deliver, and my shaky knees and the feeling that I wasn’t doing well led me to make what I later considered as a rather unexpected, perhaps too personal and passionate plea for high-quality academic and pastoral student support, but which, I think, ended up being received better than I expected. When it came to questions from the audience, I was extremely lucky to be faced with good-natured, positive people who appeared as though they were looking for a genuine discussion rather than attempting to trip me up,[ii] and this impression was only strengthened when I walked into the interview several hours later.

Interview & Preparation

job-interviewWith a 5-hour gap between presentation and interview, I had sufficient time to beat myself up over what I felt was an at best shaky presentation, have a wonderfully distracting lunch with a nice colleague who was also interviewing for one of the posts, and finally take some time to think about what the interview questions may be, and how I would answer them. Those who saw my tweets post-interview may well feel that I was not being genuine or that I was hoping to gain some sort of benefit by speaking so positively of my experience, but I stand by my statement that my first academic interview was the best experience I could have wished for. My panel was friendly, and clearly determined to get the best out of me, rather than intimidate or embarrass me, and it rarely happens that I walk out of a situation happy and satisfied with my performance; this time I did.

As I have a tendency to waffle aimlessly and thoughtlessly when I’m excited or nervous, I was determined to stay calm and order my thoughts before answering questions. From this experience and from what I have gathered from other people’s advice, no one will mind if you take a few seconds to think before you answer. If anything, a thoughtful answer will make it easier for your panel to follow what you say. I was also painfully aware that I was at risk of overcompensating for a supposed “flaw” of mine which has been pointed out to me at an interview I attended during my PhD (for a semi-academic job). In my feedback email, I was told that my handshake and my eye contact were too firm, and they were after someone more reflective. Insecure as I am, I have wondered ever since if I come across as arrogant and obnoxious (“Yes!”, you may shout), but I was sure you were expected to look at people when you speak to them, and there is nothing I despise more than the feeling of shaking the hand of a corpse. Yet, these things went through my mind when I was waiting to be called into the interview room, but as far as I’m aware, no one felt intimidated or stared down this time.

10554520_mlWhen I asked on Twitter about what aspects you’d like me to write, most of you replied requesting the interview questions and my preparation process (which I have already covered in Part I, to a certain extent). So, for the permanent record and as the final point of this post, here are the interview questions as I remember them, in the order in which I think they were asked, and a few short notes on the points I tried to make in my responses. Please note that these weren’t the only questions I was asked and that each of these led to more detailed prompts and discussions.

 

Interview Questions

What attracted you to this post?

I interpreted this question as “why do you think you would fit this post, this department, this university”, and addressed the interdisciplinary nature of the post and of my research, the student-focus of the university, how the department’s current strategic aims make it a good place for my work and how, in turn, I can contribute to achieving those aims.

28152667_mlWhat makes your research distinctive?

What do you think makes a good funding bid?

Interdisciplinarity;

Proposes to benefit and appeals to a wide audience;

Identifies the gap it fills clearly and convincingly;

Follows guidelines provided and addresses all criteria in detail and with examples;

A competent and realistic budget.

19614992_sWhat have you learned from having your work peer-reviewed?

Choose your journals wisely;

The more rigorous (and harsh) the review, the better the end result.

What distinguishes a highly-rated article?

Originality of approach and/or topic;

Situates its analysis within a wider framework of questions;

Teases out the wider relevance of topic considered.

How do you accommodate different learning abilities in your teaching? Do you believe there is such a thing as “different abilities”?

Next to listing/ explaining some of the various teaching methods I used, my answer was that it is our job as lecturers to ensure that individual learning needs are met. That someone learns differently does not mean they are more or less able, especially when assessed by often rigid scales and by very limited, standardised methods. Before judging a student’s ability, we should always question whether there is anything we can do better or differently as teachers to convey the subject matter.

What kinds of teaching and administrative experience have you had?

How would you define good teamwork?

Identifying and making use of other people’s strengths;

Acknowledging validity and effectiveness of modes of working that are different to one’s own.

Do you have any questions?

What do you envision the research/teaching load to be for this post?

What support is there for the submission of external funding bids?

Is there an opportunity to complete a PGCAP?

Finally, and in case you are wondering, the Director of the School rang me the next day, as promised, and told me that, unfortunately, I had been unsuccessful. He did, however, also take the time to tell me that the panel was extremely impressed with my track record, with how I presented myself, and with my interview responses, especially considering my career stage (which was a nice thing to say, though I couldn’t accept it as true at the time, as you can probably imagine). I desperately tried not fall into my usual behavioural pattern, but must admit that a good cry was necessary, and I decided to try even harder to deliver a good conference presentation the next day, if only to regain some sense of self-worth and purpose (a short-term measure, yes, but an effective one).

And just when I least expected it and had recovered from the disappointment of the interview, I received another call from the Director, telling me they would like to offer me a permanent lectureship after all as additional funds had become available, and asking whether he should give me some time think about it and call back later. Needless to say I didn’t require time to think about what my answer would be, but I did need several weeks to stop wondering when they would ring to say it was all a big misunderstanding. They haven’t yet.

 


[i]            Rock-bottom week in this case meant completing only 1 of 3 applications because I had allowed myself to sink to that state of mind where even looking at the person specification (describing someone with “desirable” special interests in rocket science, ancient Greek, and queer medievalism) makes you wonder why you’re bothering, and when crying on the sofa whilst watching Brokeback Mountain appears a far more satisfying and rational option than just “getting on with it”. Rock-bottom weeks vary in their definition by person, but are universal in their occurrence among doctoral students and early-career academics (note that rock-bottom weeks for tenured academics are a different species altogether, as they are accompanied by a regular salary).

[ii]           Two questions were concerned directly with my research topics, one addressed a potential issue with my proposed engagement work, another sought my opinion on the role of lectures in the learning process, and the last asked me to address potential issues regarding the use of social media for teaching (Twitter in particular).

Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2018), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory research and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

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6 Responses

  1. Franziska says:

    Hi Nadine,
    Love your site! It’s been so helpful in preparing for job interviews. However, the link to your interview presentation doesn’t seem to work anymore. Did you have plans to upload this back onto your site.
    Thank you!

  2. Becky says:

    Nadine – thanks so much for this post, its really really useful and I love your honesty and realness in the emotional minefield of interviews and selling yourself as an academic!

  3. Heidi Yeandle says:

    Hi Nadine,

    Thank you for this, it is very useful. I’m half way through my PhD and am already dreading the aftermath while trying to retain positive thinking! What sites did you use to find the jobs that you applied for? I’ve only looked in jobs.ac.uk…

    Thanks again,

    Heidi

  4. Alexia says:

    Nadine. A great looking blog site and I look forward to more of your entries! It’s often hard to know how other candidates feel and gauge their own experiences against your own – this will be immensely helpful in de-mythologising the experience for those starting out and those still attempting to find more permanent posts! A great support to the academic community – thanks!

  5. Stephen says:

    Thanks for this post, Nadine, it has been very helpful. Firstly, most early career researchers will, when they have finished their thesis, be in the same position. As I come to the end of my PhD the worry of getting a position is all consuming. Is my research too parochial? Am I good enough? Will I manage to get two things published? What about my personal life, will I have to move?

    Your post, however, proves that, like other job interviews, preparation is key. This is a good thing, are we not, after all, trained researchers? I think also doubt about the validity of our key subjects can be overridden with enthusiastic presentation and also how that research benefits the department and university.

    Finally, however, it’s all about personal determination. It is easy to put on the ‘Peep Show ‘boxed set and say, ‘sod it.’ I have learned that the good positive times do, believe it or not, outweigh the bollocks to it moments. A good conference, an invitation to write a paper a talk to a local society and so on.

    Keep it up

    Stephen Etheridge
    University of Huddersfield

  1. 10/03/2016

    […] 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): […]

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