Academic Interviews: #2 and #3

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Picture from https://www.pinterest.com/gbmcd/funny-interviewjob/

So I’m a few months into my new(ish) job, which I started at the end of April this year.  Recently, a few of my friends have been applying for academic positions and we’ve been having some great chats about the interview process, so I thought I would add to this post https://ecooper2site.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/my-first-academic-interview/ and talk about my more recent interviews.  That blog post also contains some links to some good blogs/websites I found useful for tips, so give it a look!   Warning: this will be a long post!

So far, my career pathway has consisted of the following:

  1. Graduate teaching assistant in Human Geography at Lancaster University (2009-Feb 2014)
  2. Researcher at Ascentis (May 2014 – December 2014, done alongside my PhD/teaching)
  3. Senior Teaching Associate in Human Geography at Lancaster University (Feb 2014-January 2015)
  4. Lecturer in Human Geography at Northumbria University (January 2015-April 2016) (this is the interview that the above blog post is talking about)
  5. Lecturer in Human Geography at UCLan  (April 2016-present)

Whilst in my position at Northumbria, I also underwent an interview for the permanent version of that role, so I will discuss this process first.

 

Interview #2: applying for the position you are already doing

This was a really strange experience for me, as you a) feel a wally for having to stand up in front of colleagues who already know you and try and promote your achievements, and b) you don’t quite know how much to push the detail, as the panel (in my case anyway) generally have a really good idea already of what you do.  I decided to go for it and pretend I was still a new colleague.  The danger of not doing so means you potentially lose the enthusiasm and the examples, which definitely matter in setting yourself apart from other candidates. My presentation task was exactly the same format as in the blog post above (15 minutes on ‘my research and teaching contributions to Geography at Northumbria’), with the odd obvious tweaks to also show what I had already done/made changes to regarding teaching content and research culture – and what I intended to do for the next year.  Here is an example of how I adapted the teaching slide:

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This all went well (so I was told!) and some of the questions from the audience (of about 10 colleagues) were:

  • Aside from UK-based research councils, what other sources of funding can you target with your research? Would bigger players, such as EU money, be a possibility? My answer was yes, perhaps a little later in my career, but that the topics I research – such as sex work – are important for a variety of disciplines and therefore research funding is possible from health, legal, social and humanities perspectives/pots
  • Would you be wanting to investigate issues such as human trafficking in your research? My answer discussed briefly the need to debunk the common assumption that sex work = trafficking, and so it is implicitly part of my research at the moment, but not a key direction for the immediate future
  • What are the policing tactics in Blackpool regarding the brothels – how much do they intervene? I outlined this briefly, but *shameless plug alert* see my new paper for more details: http://sex.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/05/27/1363460715616949)

 

A panel interview then followed, which lasted around 30 minutes.  Preparation for this part of the interview had largely been writing lists of everything I had achieved so far in the department, including:

  1. a) research advances (writing up papers from my thesis; getting involved in the research group in the department; building networks inter and intra-faculty – with specific named examples)
  2. b) teaching achievements (introducing peer reading groups; making slight changes to module assessment; introducing a student Twitter competition; being nominated for ‘best lecturer’ from the student-led teaching awards.  Again, it is important to justify the changes, to show you are a reflective teacher)
  3. c) additional roles undertaken (e.g. I was ethics rep for the department; started a Twitter account in order to promote research/teaching activities; took part in open days)
  4. d) how I had developed as an academic (what skills have advanced; what would I like to improve on, e.g. PhD supervisor training)

Here were some of the questions asked (I won’t put my answers for all of them):

  • Why do you want the job; to continue your career here? I gave 3 reasons – one, outlining how I felt I had carved my own place in the department, but had still slotted into the research and teaching roles effectively (I gave a couple of examples about why I felt I had done so quickly); two, I briefly discussed the networks I had built for possible research collaboration and a little about the projects I had in mind with such colleagues; three, a personal reason
  • What is unique about you – why should we give you the job? This was probably the most tricky question for me, as I didn’t want to come across as arrogant.  I discussed the social media presence I had built and the new ways I had tried to get students to engage with the department and module content (e.g. a Twitter competition, with a prize for the best tweet about the fieldtrip module content); and my push for more independent learning skills being built into the programme.  I also discussed my additional roles (that I had voluntarily worked open days, and taken on admin roles such as ethics rep etc).
  • What would you say your best paper is/the paper you are most proud of? I changed my answer from when they asked me this last time, to discuss a new paper I was working on
  • Could you tell us about your next journal article submissions – why these have been targeted? In the end, the journals I was planning for submission were not deemed high quality enough for me to secure the permanent contract, according to the measures they were looking at – the Web of Science journal citation list – so be wary of this
  • What key issues does your research speak to, or your future research? Think about discipline-specific issues, plus wider relevance, and show that you have done your homework on potential impact at a variety of scales (give examples of how your work has begun to tackle said issues, or has the potential to – and why)
  • Where would you target funding applications for the projects you are currently planning (and why)?
  • Can you give an example of your proudest achievement from your teaching experience? What have you contributed so far?
  • What skills have you developed as an academic while working here? I was *very* stumped on this at first, so think about it! I think I discussed the ability for me to know what a journal expected regarding publication, now that I had been through the process once

 

Interview #3: Applying for a lectureship as an external candidate

The application process was again very similar to the outline in my first blog, with a cover letter (included in ‘supporting information’) of a very traditional academic application form, which just asked for CV information, and no additional statements.  If anybody would like to see a copy of my cover letter, please do ask!  When offered an interview (another victory dance ensued!!), the letter stated that the format would be:

–          A 5 minute (this was SO difficult!) presentation on your research as if part of a lecture for first-year geography students

–          A panel interview

–          A final interview with the Executive Dean at the end of the day

The presentation

After some assistance from a colleague (the fab @planographer) – and do see if you can get some peer feedback wherever possible! – the 5-minute presentation format was as follows:

Slide 1.  I introduced myself, and explained that the point of the presentation was to discuss my research interests and projects to date. I also said that: ‘But another key take-home message is the diversity of geography as a subject to study and its ability to understand and tackle a variety of social issues’

Slide 2 – I then presented my research interests around these three said issues.  Here is the slide:

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The rationale for the set-up here was that the power of 3 is difficult to beat, especially for first-years, and that I situated myself as a social geographer; predominantly interested in the connections between society, and space and place.  I then explained how my research slots into these 3 themes and then gave a very quick summary of my findings (slide 3), with some photos and a slide (4) on ‘what’s next’ (keeping this to two boxes – and taking care to relate this back to why geography is a great subject to study).  Again, if anybody would like to see the full thing then please just ask.  I was only asked questions from the audience about the research itself, relating to how many parlours there are in Blackpool, and policing strategies.

 

The panel interview

This included the associate head of school, the head of geography, a lecturer from a different school and a HR representative.  Here are as many of the questions (and answers!) that I can remember:

  • Why do you want the job? (a commonality across all 3 – so prepare this one well!) – again, I gave 3 reasons.  Always name particular research clusters/people you want to work with, identify modules you can contribute to, and I also included reference to how I really felt the ethos of the University spoke to my personal feelings regarding academia and education – such as being committed to widening participation at University (e.g. foundation courses are offered).  Another key thing to not forget is that they want to know what *you* can do for/bring to them, as well as what *they* can do for you (this will certainly be important in later questions).
  • Why should we give you the job/what makes you stand out from the room full of candidates out there in the next room?  I think I gave three reasons again here – one, that I felt that my research complemented several research clusters and would connect geography more readily with other UCLan researchers, both in its own Faculty and outside of it (and how/why this was necessary). I initially just mentioned the research clusters, but they prompted me to give more specific examples.  As part of my preparation, I had already identified 2 individuals who had interests in sex work and community dynamics – so I discussed research projects that had been previously done at UCLan and how my work would be relevant to them/contribute to them. Secondly, I discussed my social media focus, and how I had noticed that the department didn’t have a strong web presence in this regard – and what I had done at my previous institution to improve theirs. Thirdly, I mentioned my past work experience – my CV includes several roles in University administration and I said that I therefore had a good understanding of how Universities work operationally, plus was very aware of the importance of excellent teamwork across the various administrative and academic teams.  This also sent the message that I had juggled several different roles while completing my PhD; something definitely worth mentioning if you have also done so (voluntarily or paid).
  • How is your research impactful? I made sure that I discussed both the local context here – i.e. my doctoral research uncovered some intricate detail about relationships between various agents in the community, and how these relationships could be improved; and the issues with localised regulation of sex work and what can be done to address these) and the national/international context (i.e. contributions to sex work regulation; theorisation of community dynamics more broadly). Looking back, I should have mentioned the ways in which this impact should/could be disseminated going forward (e.g. I am now considering training events, and finding ways of incorporating better quality outreach services to existing organisations)
  • What will it bring to the Faculty/what projects are you working on?  Here, I returned briefly to the previous projects conducted at UCLan, and mentioned my next steps for research (plus what funding I intended to go for, and why).
  • Where do you see yourself in 10 years (this then got changed to 5 after my initial answer)? What contributions do you want to have made in your field? I always struggle with such questions – and I found myself blurting out that being in a temporary contract made it very difficult for me to think as far ahead as 10 years (this is when they switched it to 5!).  What this did do, however, was make me feel like I had made a bit of a personal connection with the panel (or more of one).  So when this got changed to 5, I discussed how I did not think about what I want for the future in job titles (e.g. ‘I want to be a Reader by the time I am …’).

1) I said that I wanted to have a paper out (or at least in press!) in Progress in Human Geography.

2) I hoped that I would be nearing completion of my next big post-doctorate project (I reiterated the details briefly of what project this would be)

3) I hoped that I was continually inspired by academia and the value of geography as a subject– so my final goal was to have carved my place at UCLan as a respected teacher, and to have seen off 5 rounds of happy, enthusiastic and successful geography students.  A little cheesy, but genuine!

  • What stage are you at with writing up publications from your thesis?  Bear in mind the panel often has your CV in front of them, so make sure you know what dates you have put down as predicted submission!! This was a straight forward question – but one paper had been delayed since submission of my application and so I was also honest about the reason.
  • You had a lot of teaching experience at your previous places of employment seemingly, with some considerable responsibility – how did you find managing the teaching load? This was a fairly generic managing workload question, so I mentioned my strategies for doing so, including: lots of colour-coded lists with deadlines on them, ensuring good working relationships with GTAs and the rest of the academic staff by having regular meetings and making use of the VLE, and setting myself small goals on a daily basis.  Anything novel for managing deadlines/workload is worth a mention – especially if it enables a bit of humour!  I love stationery shopping and so I’m sure I mentioned this obsession.
  • What teaching content would you introduce here? Always go prepared with material you could potentially contribute to what already exists – and what new module content/modules you would introduce and why.  Remember, key things on the minds of departments are employability and research-led teaching!
  • What do you do to make your classes interesting? I discussed my in-class quiz questions, my strategy of ten-minute intervals (i.e. every 10 minutes, I switch the tone of a lecture, ranging from me talking, to them thinking about a question, to having a two minute break, to getting them to work on something in pairs etc), and including guest speakers/little snippets of research stories.  I also said my general teaching ethos is do ‘anything to make the material relatable’ (which has involved me, rather embarrassingly, dressing up as an example!)
  • How do you incorporate research-led teaching into your modules/sessions? I always make a point of including research examples from staff in-house in my teaching, as well as my own, and I invite guest speakers working on key research projects.
  • What sort of support do you feel you would need from HR/the University in order to succeed in your academic roles? Rather a personal question, but I said that I would appreciate guidance on applying for research grants as I haven’t been a PI on a post-doc project yet.  I also mentioned that I would want some training on being a PhD supervisor.

Finally, the interview with the executive dean was largely, I was told afterwards, to clarify the research plans I had and to see if I was somebody that would fit into the Faculty/department.  I’m happy to say I got the job!

 

Tricky Trickster Questions

As an additional contribution to the bank of potential interview questions above, I did a bit of a social media survey on ‘what is the trickiest question you have been asked at interview?’ from my colleagues.  Here were their responses:

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Another response to my call was: ‘I asked a question to stump the panel’ – this candidate had done some homework on a relevant new government circular, and they asked what the panel thought this might mean for the area (the panel hadn’t heard of it!).

Many thanks to all who contributed! I hope this post has been helpful rather than terrifying for potential candidates, and do ask me for any additional clarification 🙂

Here’s hoping I’ll be seeing lots of victory dances from successful candidates in the near future!

 

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Gif from http://giphy.com/gifs/dance-fresh-prince-of-bel-air-IJBIpMtVD7yla
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RGS-IBG Geography and Employability Event, 19 May 2016

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Due to marking season, it’s been a few days since I could sit down and write a blog about the fantastic ‘Geography and Employability’ event that was organised by the RGS-IBG (http://www.rgs.org/OurWork/Research+and+Higher+Education/Research+and+Higher+Education+events.htm) for those that couldn’t make it.  I was hopeful that the day would provide some good tips for how to embed employability into degree schemes/extra-curricular activities for our undergraduates and postgraduates – and thankfully the event provided several of these.  I was also lucky enough to bump into the fantastic Prof. Fiona Tweed (@ProfFionaTweed) from Staffordshire University, who was invited to do a presentation at the event (more info to come later) and she kindly agreed to co-write the blog post with me.  So what follows is a collective summary of the event from both of us.

 

‘Geography is in good health!’

Led by Stephanie Wyse and Catherine Souch, we began with a very positive discussion about the popularity of geography in relation to uptake by GCSE/ A Level students in recent years (which was also picked up by the media – e.g. see http://geographical.co.uk/rgs/news/item/625-geography-student-numbers-increase and http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/13/the-guardian-view-on-geography-its-the-must-have-a-level).  Geography at degree level also typically does very well in NSS scores relating to student satisfaction and, according to evaluations (e.g. see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationpicturegalleries/9852535/Ten-recession-proof-degree-subjects.html?frame=2472759), seems to demonstrate a recession-proof strength in relation to employment figures post-graduation.

 

Key findings in recent employability studies

We then discussed the changing policy context for geography and employability – including the well-publicised white paper and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – and some recent findings in employability studies. We won’t list them all, but here are some key points:

  • Careers advice needs to be tailored to subject; career options introduced early in studies and reinforced throughout the course
  • Responsibility for improving employment outcomes needs to be shared between HE providers, employers and students – this should be a partnership (both Wakeham/Shadbolt 2016)
  • Many students/graduates are, from the employer’s perspective, unable to make themselves stand out from a crowd
  • Employability offerings by HE providers are considerable and diverse, but students are dissuaded by some offerings (e.g. certain sectors/recruitment channels), and take-up needs to be more strategically timed (early/throughout degree) and targeted by subject/course
  • Employers have relatively limited engagement with HE providers but messages conveyed by employers carry more weight for students (all 3 IEW/IFF Research/QAA 2016)

Of course, the workshop participants also recognised the issues with data capture strategies and, as outlined by the organisers, there is an urgent need for improved longitudinal data about graduate employment.  One of the key messages to come out of the later discussions was that, for geography in particular, routes after graduation often involve the individual becoming a ‘global citizen’ (e.g. by undertaking voluntary roles). Therefore, a significant proportion of geography graduates may not have chosen traditional graduate routes, linked to graduate salaries, which are the measure of success in the alumni capture methods.  Some other key factors affecting the outcomes post-degree are:

  • The potential disparity between student and employer views of ‘graduate preparedness’
  • The changing graduate labour market (regionally and nationally) and the changing nature of employment, alongside the processes by which graduates are matched with graduate jobs
  • The role of universities as intermediaries (before and after graduation): subject-based support, careers services, other interventions

After some discussions of graduate attributes more broadly, we moved on to how geographers specifically are more employable.  Answers from the room included: diversity of contact time (fieldwork, lectures, lab work, seminars) and diversity of assessment (exams, traditional essays, data visualisations, oral presentations, reflexive journals, etc); a breadth of transferable skills (alongside subject-specific skills); a holistic understanding of world issues, which draws on several disciplines; geography is an ethical subject – graduates therefore leave University as global citizens as well as graduates.

 

Developing employable geographers

The event then moved on to a series of presentations offering a range of different approaches by various institutions, which are focused on enhancing employability. We haven’t included everything – what follows is a summary of some of the key messages from each presentation.

‘Re-chartering our employability offering’ – Jonathan Potts (University of Portsmouth)

Jon outlined a series of actions that have been embedded into the geography schemes at Portsmouth as a result of a multi-faceted, applied approach (involving academic and non-academic staff).  Key parts to this plan include:

  • An employability working group, including academic staff, technical staff and students (to brainstorm and roll out strategies)
  • A professional advisory group (consisting of external organisations and alumni students)
  • Employability resources embedded in all units and at all levels of study, including:
  • Introducing new placement (sandwich) degrees for 2016-17
  • Introducing a new ‘Employability for Geographers’ unit at L6 (feedback from students suggests this is also desired at L5). Assessment includes a reflexive journal and a portfolio
  • A dedicated Moodle site (feedback from students did, however, suggest that this was not particularly useful – and so a more social media-based strategy is to be adopted)
  • Guest speakers in units – former students (again emphasising the importance of alumni) and professionals
  • Monopolise key research skills and research contacts of staff!

 

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Related to the final point, another important message – and problem – that was mentioned is that it is often not just the issue of trying to engage students to think about employability that presents barriers; sometimes staff are difficult to get on board.  Similarly, educating employers is also key – so involve them in such strategies wherever possible.

‘Employability day’, or, as they called it (and I really enjoyed!), The ‘Bath Spa Treatment’ – Becky Schaaf (Bath Spa University)

Becky introduced the presentation by explaining why they had introduced an employability day; namely to try and get students to think about what they want to do after their degree and figure out what values are important to them early on (at Level 4).  This was a non-compulsory day (although, as attendance was outlined as an issue, making the day compulsory is being considered).  Below are some of the activities included:

  • A reflective skills/values audit with paired discussions
  • Discussions around what is possible in their subject, and from students as individuals
  • Relatedly, making students think about the ‘you-shaped’ hole in employment opportunities; what is unique about them and how to sell this in applications and interviews
  • A creativity/enterprise activity involving being given data from a local council to develop an idea to improve the community – with a prize for the best idea. This activity encouraged students to use data in a creative way (and enables creativity to be seen as more than just art and design – including how to apply this to a professional environment) in order to solve problems. This idea was then mapped out onto a business canvas and pitched back to the group; another key skill
  • The feedback was very positive, with all participants saying they would recommend the event
  • Issues – this was not subject specific, so the presenters discussed the possibility of making this solely a geographical-based event

‘Alumni Networking Events’ – Kean Fan Lim (University of Nottingham)

Co-coordinated with the careers office, Kean outlined the alumni network events that University of Nottingham run for Geography. He mentioned how key the events team were for promoting such events (weekly bulletins), and that the Geography society were also involved in promotion.  The events are run as follows:

    • Informal setting, usually in a pub (and with a budget – for one drink on the house!)
    • 7-8 alumni students from different sectors and at different career stages are invited
    • Speed-dating set-up, with students moving round each visiting alumni
    • Informal setting meant that students felt relaxed, could talk honestly and openly about their experiences, and ask questions
    • Around 70 attendees at the last one, indicating a positive response

 

‘The Geography Undergraduate Research Assistantship Module – Fiona Tweed (Staffordshire University)

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Fiona outlined the introduction of a research assistantship module into geography degree schemes; this module originated as a research-engaged learning exercise. While it still operates as such, she emphasised the benefits of such a module as an employability tool– enabling students to gain valuable research assistant experience, to ‘demystify’ the research environment for them, and to make them stand out in an interview panel.  Fiona also noted the broader benefits for academics – such a process boosts research culture in a department and makes students feel more included.  A brief overview of the format is below:

  • The module is for Level 6 (3rd year) and totals 150 learning hours, which can be spread over one or two semesters
  • Assessment comprises an oral presentation and a reflective report, including a work diary
  • Projects are advertised and students apply for them, providing a CV and cover letter. Students’ skills and aptitudes were assessed against the requirements of the post, as they would be in an ordinary employment situation. Interviews then take place, should decisions not be made from the written process alone.

A more comprehensive outline can be found in:

 

The journal article (Tweed and Boast, 2011) also discusses how the module was evaluated – namely by two key measures: student performance and student/staff/client feedback.  Students generally perform very well, with upper second and first class marks gained for the module – and, most significantly, excellent research outputs are often produced.  Feedback contained a plethora of very positive responses from students relating to the depth of the knowledge in specialist subjects gained; the research, presentation and organisational skills that were enhanced; and their belief that the module had enhanced their employability.  Staff reported that they felt the assistantships allowed the reinvigoration of their research, plugged a gap in resources and acted as a spring-board for future grant applications.  Client feedback included in the article described the impactful student projects, the more effective consolidation of working relationships between academia and external clients, and enabling clients to conduct research where only limited resources are available.   Overall, the module has multiple benefits for multiple stakeholders.

 

‘Bristol Q-Step Degrees’ – Rich Harris (University of Bristol)

Rich began by highlighting that, generally, quantitative analysis aptitude is poor for social science students. Bristol Q-step is, he outlined is, ‘part of a £19.5 million initiative designed to promote a step-change in quantitative social science training in the UK. A set of three (B.Sc.) and four year (M.Sci.) degree programmes are offered, with a shared cross-disciplinary pathway designed to boost confidence in analysing, presenting and interpreting quantitative data, as well as promoting understanding of quantitative social science’.  Examples include BSc/MSci Geography with quantitative research methods – with the latter deliberately being tagged in the degree title to emphasise its presence.  The QAA statement for Geography, he stated, clearly emphasises the need for numeracy and numerical skills, for attention to spatial statistics and scale, and to being able to use a range of statistical data collection and analysis strategies.

Rich outlined that students are taught there is more to quantitative geography than ‘just numbers’; they are shown how to turn quantitative data into useable formats, to do creative things with it, and to communicate it effectively.  Importantly, this strategy is also very much about employability – Rich draw from this report http://www.niesr.ac.uk/publications/state-nation-review-evidence-supply-and-demand-quantitative-skills#.V0iGzWf2aUk which reviewed the evidence on current levels of demand for quantitative skills (QS) from employers the UK, and the extent to which this demand is matched by supply. This clearly showed an increase from 1997 to more recent years in the levels of which more advanced maths/stats skills are considered essential/important for candidates. Rich was not making a case for quantitative methods to be the only relevant aspect of a degree; rather he was highlighting the need to reinvigorate them in geography degree schemes, keeping the view of the holistic discipline that covers several methodological bases in mind.

 

Finally

The event finished with a series of very short, sharp presentations on what the RGS-IBG offers to complement such strategies in degree schemes. These include:

 

The appendix of the handout also contained an executive summary of the fabulous project undertaken by Dr Anna Laing (@AnnaFLaing) while she was a Research Associate at Northumbria University, entitled ‘Embedding Employability in the Geography Department’.  This included several tips for departments to research the effectiveness of their employability strategies, alongside some important findings.  Contact Anna for more information.

Overall, the event was a great way to share ideas and best practice, alongside prompting some really positive discussions about why we all think Geography is such a great subject to study and teach. It was thoroughly enjoyable and we highly recommend similar events.