My First Academic Interview

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Having a not-so-successful #acwri day today, so thought it was the perfect opportunity to catch up on my blog writing! I have recently taken up a Lecturer position in Human Geography (January 2015). After being at Lancaster University for 8 ½ years, this was a massive change for me, and so I thought I would write a little about my first academic interview experience. Many scholars that I follow (eg @ThomsonPat and @Nadine_Muller) have similar posts and I definitely think that the more stories are out there, the better – I find these very helpful. After my PhD, I took on the position of Senior Teaching Associate at Lancaster, which was a teaching-only contract. As my contract was coming to an end a few months later, I decided to try for some lectureships towards the latter end of 2014. After an unsuccessful attempt, I got some feedback on my application from the institution in question (which stated I had mainly tailored my application to one of the departments sharing the lectureship – Social Policy – rather than both SP and Sociology) and from some very helpful colleagues/peers at Lancaster.   We had a system at Lancaster where staff and PhD students would read a piece of “Writing in Progress”- whether this was a grant application, a paper, a presentation or an application etc and provide tips/feedback in a subsequent seminar. This I found very useful (and reassuring – that even very experienced academics suffer from sometimes very similar insecurities), and thankfully this sort of peer support seems to be quite common. If your department doesn’t do this, introduce it! You will probably find several colleagues will be on the same page in wanting this.

The Application Process

The application process itself consisted of a CV and a cover letter – the latter of which didn’t have any specific guidance for focus, but I tried to tailor this to the job description and person specification. I highlighted in bold the teaching responsibilities/experience I had that were suitable for their Geography degree schemes (after some research about the department). As there were no statement questions to answer alongside these two parts, I did a 2-page cover letter. This included the following sections:

    • A brief overview section, starting with what my current position is, a line or two about my general research background, and a line or two about my general teaching ethos.  I then stated that I hope to demonstrate how my skills and experience would be suitable for the role”
    • A research background section, making links between my doctoral research experience and their departmental research interests/projects/desires for future direction
    • A section outlining what I am doing next, including reference to collaborative projects, my experience in organisations outside of academia and subsequent impact
    • 2 or 3 paragraphs outlining my teaching experience – including module convening roles and some detail (such as approximate numbers of students).  Although I had not yet supervised doctoral students, I also discussed my experience in peer support/social writing sessions and thus stated that I felt “confident in attracting and supporting potential doctoral students”
    • I finished the teaching section with another paragraph outlining my general teaching ethos and commitment to improving my teaching skills – such as voluntarily completing the Certificate in Academic Practice course, consistently engaging in reflective practice, and my experience in digital teaching environments
    • Finally, a summary section including reference to my commitment to Geography as a discipline and why I feel research and teaching in this field is important – I also included reference to my voluntary involvement in open days and outreach activities because of this commitment to the discipline.  Therefore, my final line was that I would “hopefully contribute to research impact, teaching excellence and effective outreach capabilities”.  I then finished with a quite-often-suggested final line: “I would very much like the opportunity to discuss my experiences further with you at interview.  I look forward to hearing from you”.

A few days later, I was lucky enough to be offered an interview. I remember I was in the middle of running 3 back-to-back training sessions about reflective practice and took a few minutes in between the final two to check my emails. I (rather embarrassingly!) went outside to do a little victory lap of the building to calm down!

The Interview Process

I was especially apprehensive about the 2 day “academic interview”, which I had never experienced before – my previous roles at Lancaster had started out as covering maternity etc and just kept getting extended, so I had never experienced an official interview for these. Although tiring, the 2 day length enabled me to also experience the city, and get to know the other staff members in the department in a more informal setting. The email explaining the itinerary said that the following would be included: Day 1: Presentation, Tour, Q and A Session, and an Evening Meal Day 2: Panel Interview The presentation outline provided was the following: a 15 minute presentation in PowerPoint entitled “My current research and potential contribution to research and teaching activities” in the department.

Presentation

Anybody interested would be very welcome to see the original slides. But here were some of the tips I received, or suggest myself:

  • For research, rather like the cover letter, include past (in my case doctoral research), present and future projects/interests.  Discuss findings and impact of doctoral research
  • Include how your expertise specifically complements – and contributes/enhances – that of individuals/research groups in the department.  I had sub-headings that summarised my experience, skills or potential contribution, such as: “Expertise in community cohesion/engagement and socio-spatial impacts of crime/deviance” with names of potential colleagues/projects underneath that this expertise would be useful for. An example of a skills-based sub-heading was: “Keen to promote a variety of dissemination methods and engage in research community activities”. This means that if the audience has switched off a little, at least your sub-headings clearly state why/how you would contribute to the department.
  • A section on your general teaching ethos (rather like my cover letter section outlined above) and teaching experience, but specifically state what courses you could contribute to, and why/how. Sub-headings were discussing my teaching experience (and student numbers), and points underneath were the courses present on their degree schemes. Eg:

Lecturer in Development Geographies (~145) (My experience) –>Core The Geography of Development and core Social Geographies (Course I could contribute to)

  • I then finished with “I hope that has given you an insight into how I feel my teaching and research experience would contribute to the department. Whether I am successful or unsuccessful, here are my contact details if anybody would like to get in touch (I included my email, twitter handle and blog). Does anybody have any questions?”
  • I practised a few times also – usually borrowing a seminar room at my old institution, and in front of a range of people including lecturers, PhDs, my husband and friends.  This gave me confidence about the timing and made my presentation more conversational

This, I felt, went fairly well and I was asked a couple of questions afterwards. These mainly related to what experience I had outside of academia (external organisations for example), and how I would/have dealt with potentially inappropriate comments during seminar sessions (such as sexist etc). After this, we (I was interviewed with 3 others) were taken on a tour of campus by two staff members not involved in the interview process, before returning for our Q and A session. The Q and A session was an informal chat about teaching experience and I had the opportunity to ask questions about teaching practices in the department. One of my questions was the extent to which PhD students get involved in teaching, and another was if the two teachers in front of me enjoyed teaching there. The evening meal was attended by all of the candidates and some other staff members in the department. Although it was difficult to know what to expect, this was a fantastic opportunity to just get to know the other staff in an informal way and did not feel at all like another part of the interview. I stuck with only the one glass of wine of course!

Panel Interview

Prior to arriving, I had conducted all of the typical suggested preparation for such as interview. This included:

  • Looking at their website, investigating: departmental degree schemes, Faculty research groups, general University teaching and research ethos, news stories about University research/teaching achievements, and so on
  • Reading papers written by academics in the department and making links between that of my own work – so I had specific examples to refer to
  • Summarising my own research contributions, impact, and reading through the conclusions of my thesis and recent papers.  Also re-familiarising myself with “what’s next?” for my research
  • Jotting down examples of my teaching experience that I could talk about in competence-based questions e.g. monumental moments with students, favourite module, proudest achievement, how I have changed a module, engaging students
  • Reading and writing responses to practise questions on sites such as:

http://www.jobs.ac.uk/careers-advice/interview-tips/1276/top-5-academic-interview-questions-and-answers https://www.vitae.ac.uk/researcher-careers/pursuing-an-academic-career/applying-for-academic-jobs/academic-job-interviews http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/feb/07/prepare-academic-interviews-top-tips

  • Chatting to other colleagues about their experiences, and getting feedback on my presentation
  • One of my friends also organised a mock interview for her first academic application – I did not do this, but she found it extremely helpful for nerves

On the morning of the interview, I had a bit of time in the morning to go over my responses but I took care not to overdo it and just skim-read. The interview itself had four panel members and each introduced themselves and stated which question theme they would focus on – e.g. general HR queries, research-related and teaching-related questions. Here are some examples of questions I was asked (not necessarily in the order they are in, and not worded exactly):

  • The first question was “why do you want the job?” Upon advice from one of the websites, I had prepared an answer that was succinct, outlining 3 main reasons.  These were based on the research in the department, their teaching and general teaching ethos, and finally the direction of the Faculty/University (and I liked the city after the two-day interview)
  • How would you explain your research to a lay person?
  • What would you say your best paper is/the paper you are most proud of?
  • You mention some projects-in-progress in your submitted information – which of these is your next comprehensive project (and why)?
  • Where would you target funding applications for this project (and why)?
  • We do a lot of group work in the department – how would you potentially manage difficulties in group dynamics?
  • Could you give an example of managing deadlines and prioritising workloads?
  • Can you give an example of your proudest achievement from your teaching experience?
  • What would you say are the main issues surrounding Human Geography today?

I was then given the opportunity to ask any questions that I had, and I was especially curious to find out what the research group environment was like, and if there were any social writing events or reading groups in the department. I also asked about training opportunities. I definitely went into the interview process thinking that, whatever happened, this would be invaluable experience- and it was! I hope that this was helpful to anyone potentially experiencing an interview soon. I would be happy to elaborate on any of the above.

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