Having talked about the peculiar process of getting a JRF, I’ve decided to devote this post to the topic of getting an academic interview in the first place, before my third and final post on how to prepare for the interview itself. While my record at academic interviews has been pretty dismal, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve done better at getting longlisted and shortlisted for things. The stats for the two years I’ve been on the academic job market are:
2013-14: I made 19 applications and was invited for 4 interviews, one of which was successful. So 21% of my applications were shortlisted, or roughly 1 in 5.
I was also longlisted for 2 positions. Including this data, 31% of my applications were longlisted or shortlisted, or roughly 1 in 3.
2014-15: I made 31 applications and was invited for 14 interviews, one of which was successful (and one of which I didn’t attend). So 45% of my applications were shortlisted.
I was also longlisted for 1 position. Including this data, 48% of my applications were longlisted or shortlisted, or roughly 1 in 2.
I applied for the full range of academic positions, from permanent lectureships to fixed-term nine-month teaching contracts to junior research fellowships to grant-awarding organisations such as Leverhulme and Wellcome. Broadly speaking, the only type of academic post at this level that I have no experience applying for are postdoctoral positions on an existing research project. It was also notable that the seniority of the position did not seem to affect my chances (I was shortlisted for some permanent jobs and rejected outright for some short-term teaching posts!)
So there are two key questions that come to mind: why were my applications doing so well overall, and why did they do substantially better in 2014-15?
It’s obviously difficult for me to say why selection committees tended to like my applications; I can only speculate. However, I have tried to organise my thoughts into two sets of criteria; factors that you cannot control, and factors which you can. I think it is important to highlight the first set of factors, as it would be really disingenuous to suggest this was all due to me personally. However, I don’t intend this to be too disheartening, as there are factors within your control as well.
Luck and Privilege
- The job market. None of us can control if suitable positions come up in our field, and some of us are fortunate to work in fields that hire much more often than others. As a modern British historian, I believe I have been lucky* with both my choice of research specialisation and with the jobs that have come up in recent years. *(I don’t consider this to be a matter of choosing the ‘right’ field to specialise in, as I don’t believe this is a choice that should be made with an eye on the job market – especially given how quickly things can change).
- Oxbridge, Oxbridge. I have been fortunate enough to have been educated entirely at Cambridge, and my first job (building on this privilege) was at Oxford. There is some anti-Oxbridge bias out there, but this in general is an enormous advantage, especially given the number of jobs that come up at Oxbridge and want Oxbridge teaching experience.
- Other Privileges. I am a state-educated woman, but other than that, I am about as privileged as you can get, so all that was working in my favour.
- General Luck. I cannot emphasise the importance of this enough. Unfortunately, this is a big factor for all of us.
What can you do?
There is lots of great advice out there about making academic applications, and I’m not going to reiterate most of it here. The resources that I used most when putting together my applications were The Professor is In (on grant proposals, but this US-focused site is generally very helpful) Steve Joy (on cover letters, but check out all his Guardian columns) and Cambridge Careers Service (sorry, Cambridge students and alumni only). Anne Hanley has also recently written a useful guide to different types of application and what is required.
What I do want to add is:
- The CV. Apologies for spelling out the obvious to most of you, but especially if you are a new PhD student planning a career in academia, it is important to keep in mind that there are four areas that most job applications will ask you to demonstrate competence in. These are (a) research, including publications (b) teaching (c) public engagement and dissemination of findings and (d) administrative experience. The relative importance of these criteria will differ depending on the application you are making, but when building your CV, none of them should be completely written off. As a PhD student, this often means being very savvy with time management to fit all of this around timely completion of the thesis. In general, my advice is: it’s better to take longer to finish your PhD and come out with a strong CV, than to finish it in the minimum time and not have these skills. This is the time to take advantage of opportunities you may not have as an early career researcher. Given the pressure often exerted upon PhD students by institutions and supervisors to finish swiftly, this is not an easy thing to do; but it is important in the long term.
- The cover letter. It is worth spending a substantial amount of time writing a template cover letter. This will be the basis for the vast majority of your applications, although it will of course need to be altered to respond to the specific requirements of the posts you are applying for. In general, my rule for cover letters is that they should be treated, in some ways, like other pieces of persuasive writing; in other words, don’t simply make statements (‘I am an experienced and innovative teacher’) but give evidence (‘For example, I designed a recent seminar on X topic to appeal to students by using Y method.’) Don’t forget the STAR approach – this is often advised for use in interviews, but works in this context as well – and make sure to emphasise the result of the actions that you took, if possible (I was rated on average 4.5/5 by students who took this seminar and comments included ‘I felt much more engaged with the topic than in previous seminars’)* [*sycophantic examples here are completely invented…]
- Thinking like a committee member. What are the most important qualities that the successful candidate will require? What could the department do with more of? What concerns will they have about you as a candidate for this position? How far can you address these things in the written application, before you even make it to interview? While you obviously won’t be answering these questions directly, these are the sort of considerations that you should keep in mind when tailoring your CV, cover letter, and other application materials. The answers won’t necessarily be obvious, and job specifications, although they should be read closely, can be misleading. I would recommend thoroughly checking out the department website and its latest REF report.
Having made these general points, I’ll move on to my second question; why, specifically, did my applications do so much better in 2014-15 than 2013-14?
- The job market and luck – again. As a modern British historian, I was amazed by the number of modern British history posts that were advertised during this academic year, especially at Oxford. This is not a normal state of affairs and, as I was also based at Oxford, I was very well-placed to apply for these positions, which certainly contributed to much of my success in getting shortlisted.
- I had my PhD. My successful viva was held in October 2014, so I applied to virtually all of these jobs with a PhD. This was probably the single biggest difference from my 2013-14 applications.
- I was able to use my external examiner as a reference. While I was lucky enough to have two great referees to call upon before my viva, I do think it helps a lot when you can use your external examiner. This also meant that I could supply three strong references for the jobs that required three, whereas in 2013-14, I had to scrabble around a bit to find a third.
- I had a second publication. I actually wouldn’t put as much weight on this as one might assume, as I have seen applicants with fewer publications being appointed above applicants with more, and I think that the real difference at this level is between being published and not being published, rather than the number of publications you have. But it certainly didn’t hurt to have two journal articles, rather than one, especially as the second was based on a chapter of my thesis.
- I had had an actual job before. While I had a fair amount of teaching experience in 2013-14, I had never been employed in an actual academic job. This is another one that I suspect made a big difference.
These were really the only substantial differences between my applications in 2013-14 and 2014-15, other than the fact that I was submitting a revised version of my research proposal. However, the majority of posts I applied for did not require a full research proposal, so I’m unsure how significant this was.
I hope that some of this has been helpful to PhDs and ECRs looking for an academic job now, or thinking about how to prepare themselves for the job market in years to come. In my final post, up next Monday, August 17th, I will talk about the interviews themselves.