Yet Another Blog on UK Academic Job Applications

My department at St Andrews has a job opening for a fixed-term (3-year) lectureship in medieval history. (Details here). Although there are many good ‘how to’ blogs about applying for such posts, there is never any harm repeating good advice again. The bottom line is always: the institution wants someone to do a particular job, so make sure that’s what you tell them you can do. And bearing that in mind…

1) Try to talk over basic strategy with someone who knows what they are talking about. Preferably someone who has actually sat on a job committee in recent memory.

2) Only consider applying if you actually meet the specs. Work on fifteenth-century Byzantium? Don’t apply for a job that requires an Anglo-Saxonist. It shouldn’t need saying. (There may be exceptions: I was once asked by a Very Senior Academic to apply for a job I wasn’t right for at her institution because she wanted to make a case about the strength of the discipline to Senior Management. Not that that went anywhere for me).

3) ‘Meeting the specs’ will often boil down to whether you can make a convincing case that you are qualified to do the teaching they want you do. This is usually a matter of research interests plus teaching experience. But it is also staggeringly amazing how few people read the specs. If you are serious about the job, the whole application is about how and why you meet them – don’t forget this.

4) Look up the courses they want you to teach on the website. If anything is unclear, email and ask about it. Many applications start to unravel because it is clear the applicant hasn’t done this basic research about the department, and then they start to offer things that don’t fit with what the institution does, or they volunteer to restructure the entire first-year syllabus single-handed.

5) While you are on the website, don’t forget to look up who is actually at the institution in question, properly, to see if there are some useful points of connection with their research. This might be useful in the covering letter when you want a cheap line to show off how you will fit in. Also, it is a bit weird when people stress how much they really want to work with ‘Person X, who has made the institution famous for Thing Y’, when the person retired ten years ago and no one does Thing Y any more.

6) The cover letter is an exercise in offering a 3-minute sales pitch. A dream cover letter has two main paragraphs: one that succinctly outlines your research (stress on publications) and one that outlines your teaching experience. The best cover letter I have read was 1 ½ pages long and really just said ‘I meet the job specs because x, y, z’. That was all I wanted to know and I was happy. (I later married her, but that’s unrelated). If you’ve hit two pages and are still going, stop: the reader has lost interest, sorry.

7) The cover letter should also convey something of a little story: I did my PhD on x, but now I am moving onto y, and this job is part of that journey. It’s not a very exciting story, I admit. But don’t ruin it by trying to explain all the intricacies of the research for the benefit of the uninterested, or by outlining the five impossibly large project you want to complete over the next 35 years. Headlines plus modest, realistic 5-year plan is fine.

8) The CV should also not test patience or endurance. Easy sections, with titles, mostly bullet-pointed: university education > posts held if any > prizes/ funding > publications > conference organisation and papers > courses taught. Avoid padding. (This includes that speculative sixth article ‘in preparation’ you haven’t actually started).

9) Most jobs are horribly competitive. Departments can get 50-70 applications for a shortlist of four and there can only be one winner. Like most things in life: never have too much hope. And you never know: I have got more than one job I was convinced I stood no chance of getting.

10) Looking ahead: if you get through to interview, chances are you will be asked to do a 20 minute presentation (15mins on research, 5mins on teaching). The basic rules here are just the same as the application process: address the specs, don’t overcomplicate things for an audience who basically just wants the headlines, stick to time, don’t decide there is a Secret Instruction (eg reading aloud from the bit of your thesis you thought was best…). But most of all: don’t show off, be the future colleague with whom the audience wants to work.

Will following any of this get you on a shortlist? Who knows. (See point 9). I started getting on shortlists for academic posts, a full year post-PhD, once I had my first two articles out in solid peer-reviewed journals, plus a book contract. Teaching experience and promise alone didn’t help until that point. I had no Oxbridge benefit of doubt or blag. I had wonderful, patient, and experienced people around, happy to read draft CVs and letters and to talk strategy. I screwed up worst when I didn’t take the time to do proper research into where I was applying. I was once part of a shortlist that was interviewed in what was (the successful applicant pointed out midway through) reverse REF-submittable order when I was second to last; there was nothing more I could have done and, in the grand scheme of things, I lost a fair fight that day. All you can do is give yourself the best chance and not hope too much. Good luck!