Academic Interviews: #2 and #3

@planographer

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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

Fostering Student Engagement

Bkso1eZIQAAlnU3I have been working my way through the Certificate in Academic Practice (CAP) qualification this academic year, which has involved a portfolio of reflective exercises and pieces of coursework.  The main piece was a written critical review to summarise the main learning experiences, and I chose to structure mine around the multiplicity of roles a teacher has, and how these are managed (or not, as the case may be!). One of these roles is seemingly the most obvious – to be an educator – but also, for most keen lecturers, they aspire to be an effective and engaging educator; one that students can relate to, learn from, and enjoy being taught by. This brings in the important issue of student engagement: what this means, and how to ensure it occurs.

I recently attended a fantastic event facilitated by the Organisation and Educational Development department at Lancaster University, called the “Sharing Practice Event: Fostering Student Engagement” (see here for the abstracts http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/hr/OED/spday/prog.html).  Departments from across the University came together to discuss these issues, and to offer suggestions as to how their department encourages students to take ownership of this engagement process, and make it more of a two-way experience.  Part of my problem this year – as a new lecturer – was that I felt this responsibility to be solely on my shoulders, and in rather superficial ways (are they writing in lectures, or is their body language suggesting interest? – as examples). These are valid points, but, as I am learning, student engagement is much more about “giving students the tools to self-regulate and have agency” rather than “telling them what to do” (LUMS, 2014) and thus being mainly responsible.  An engaged learner, as defined by Exeter et al (2010) is “one who is a ‘deep’ learner, seeking to develop his/her knowledge, reflecting on the facts and details presented in the lecture related to their own experiences and ‘the big picture’” (p. 3).  By contrast, the disengaged student typically takes notes during the lecture and memorises facts and key points in order to obtain a ‘pass’ for the course; they are therefore just “passive learners” (Hover et al, 2010). This is not to say that students who write furiously and pay attention in lectures/seminars cannot be effective learners; rather that student engagement is not just confined to the classroom. It must be when conducting independent study-related activities – such as critical thinking when reading journal articles, or collecting dissertation data and having to make key ethical on-the-spot decisions – and also in employment (Krause, 2007).  Thus, it has a temporal as well as spatial facet.

As such, one of my suggestions for my own teaching next year is to make use of some more formative methods of feedback – conducting short, (hopefully fun) quizzes for example, providing research ethics “scenarios” for students to provide their thoughts on, or finding appropriate formative methods of collecting student feedback rather than relying on end-of-module feedback forms.  These are obviously not exhaustive suggestions – any more are welcome!

Another suggestion by Gill Burgess and Sharon McCulloch from the Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) in their paper on the Student Engagement Day was given via their discussion of their Academic Writing Zone.  Postgraduate students are given the opportunity to have shared writing slots with Undergraduates in a specified zone, in order to improve writing skills, but also to make writing a social practice.  One of the issues that many of my Undergraduate students have been facing is that they have a lack of confidence when it comes to writing; making this a social practice therefore hopefully allows them to see that they are not alone in this, and allows open discussion and shared practice with peers.  What LUMS also find is that the PhD students benefit greatly from this; not only in relation to career-related experience for their CV, but also because their own writing confidence and aptitude improves. There is no better way for improving one’s own subject expertise or writing style than by communicating it effectively to someone else. They also become more effective at being a fair but assertive self-critic.

One of LUMS’ other main messages was to “involve students as co-creators of learning development” – consult them and find out what will support their learning experience and make them partners in ensuring this “depth” to the learner identity.  After it was expressed by several students that the mathematics skills support was limited, LUMS began consulting with students to discover what additional mathematics provision can be provided by the department – again, with the hope that both postgraduate and undergraduate students (of all backgrounds) can come together to make learning a social practice (learning with and from each other).

Finally, one of the most uplifting sessions of the day, I felt, was the presentation by Dr. Saskia Vermeylen about teaching a second-year Geography field trip to Tunisia (exploring colonial legacies, inequality and injustice).  This trip unfortunately could not run because of political unrest and therefore an in-house residential had to be run at Lancaster with obvious changes to the assessment methods for the course.  Upon recruiting someone from the Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts (LICA) one of the assessment methods selected were propositional objects. It was decided that these were the “more appropriate tools to allow a deeper understanding of multiple narratives related to post-colonial theory, but also use critical reason as a mechanism to explore and experience agency in the hope to transform or change a world characterised by injustice and equality”. Giving students the ownership to decide what “object”, how it was to be performed or presented, and what this represented for the community in question – as opposed to a traditional essay for example – allowed them to step into the colonial legacy and communicate it to an audience, and thus generating this “deeper” experience.  Although the method of assessment was initially met with some concerns from students – due to its more open, less prescriptive format in relation to assessment criteria – the fantastic coursework produced was incredibly moving; it was, as she described in the presentation “magical”, and it was felt that this was a far more appropriate method of assessment.  Students produced work ranging from works of art, to a board game, to creative (dramatic) presentations.  See her abstract also for some interesting references to border pedagogy.

What I have taken from my teaching experiences in using non-traditional assessment methods, the CAP course, and from the student engagement day, is to understand the term “student engagement” and the practice in relation to its temporal complexity, the importance of encouraging this “deep learning” experience, and the importance of students in this process. They have fantastic ideas – involving them in designing and facilitating support to provide this depth is mutually beneficial, and experimenting a little with the collection of student feedback, and in designing assessment methods (where available/appropriate), is welcome practice. Going out of both teacher and student comfort zone in this latter regard is evidence of the importance in prioritising the “deep” learning identity and learning outcomes of the course (and their longevity) over course or teacher popularity sometimes!   

References

Exeter, D., Ameratunga, S., Ratima, M., Morton, S., Dickson, M., Hsu, D. and Jackson, R. (2010).  “Student engagement in very large classes: the teacher’s perspective”. Studies in Higher Education 35 (7), pp. 761-775

Hover, J. and Hartle, M. (2010) “Read/Write Lectures: Fostering Active Participation and Increasing Student Engagement in the Lecture Hall”. 10th IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org.ezproxy.lancs.ac.uk/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=5573171 [09/07/14]

Krause, K. 2007. New Perspectives on Engaging First Year Students in Learning. Brisbane: GriffithInstitute for Higher Education.