How to read a job advertisement

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Reading a job advertisement may seem like a fairly simple and obvious task, but the language of job adverts can in fact be rather baffling, especially for academic jobseekers just starting out on their career. This article is intended to give a brief guide on interpreting what adverts actually say and targeting your application accordingly.

Changes in the law

In recent years numerous changes have been made in how adverts are written. Part of this is to do with fashions in recruitment, but also employers now have to be extremely careful to follow the latest employment legislation on discrimination. These laws are designed to prevent race, religious, sexual and age discrimination. Where employers may once have asked for ‘junior' or ‘senior' applicants, they now have to refer to skills sets and experience levels. Being ‘energetic', ‘active' or even ‘tireless' is now not sought because all three of those descriptors could be interpreted as requesting someone able-bodied. So the language of the advert has been tightened up and should only refer to qualifications and skills needed to do the job.

Changes in recruitment practice

Whereas previously many individual heads of department wrote their own adverts based on the sort of person they were looking for, today's adverts are the result of input from HR teams, recruitment agencies and even PR companies. Universities are concerned to present themselves in a consistent manner so all adverts are subjected to central checking and university branding. This can make all adverts seem very similar. It is harder to see what that specific job requires as adverts are becoming more generic.

Job title and salary

Some academic job titles are very specific so you know exactly what they are looking for, but in other cases they seem very broad. You may see an advert for Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in History for example. Only by reading the body of the text can you see which area of specialism is required and even then the description can be unfocussed. This is often the case when a post is a new position rather than a direct replacement. The department, in effect, want to see who applies before deciding what sort of scholar they want. This is common practice in the U.S. too. In these cases it is important to find out from a member of the department whether they would be willing to consider someone with your area of expertise. The job level and salary bands are often not fixed for the same reason - they are willing to hire at lecturer or senior lecturer level, depending on the experience of the successful candidate. If you get through to the interview stage you will be able to ask someone whether you would be considered for entry above the basic salary level. Most academic adverts still carry a salary scale, although some senior posts follow the commercial sector model and do not publish a salary at all, often meaning that salary is negotiable for the right candidate.

Informal contact

Some adverts (although it seems, fewer and fewer) include the phone number or email address of what is called an ‘informal contact'. This will almost always be a member of the academic staff in the department where the job is available, usually someone with responsibility for hiring. You can contact them and ask them for more details about the job. Make sure that you have some constructive questions, and recognise they are probably very busy. It is definitely worth making the call to the informal contact. If you impress this person with your enthusiasm, you may find you stick in his or her mind. Unfortunately quite a few adverts do not include this information, and you will probably find that the address you have to send your application to is in the HR department. It is unlikely they will be able to offer you advice on your application.

Job description

Most of the vital information you find will be in the accompanying job description rather than in the body of the advert itself. This is usually available at the click of a mouse if you are accessing a job online, but if you have seen the advert in a newspaper, you may have to send off by post or telephone to get your job description. If you know how to interpret this document, it will basically tell you how to write your application. It will list the duties and skills required of the new member of staff. It is your job to address each one of these points somewhere in your application, either in your covering letter, your personal statement or your CV. If you can prove that you can match (if not exceed) every one of their requirements, and you do so clearly and consistently, so the hiring panel do not have to try to interpret your information, you will be well on the way to being interviewed for the position.

Added extras

One of the advantages of checking out adverts online on sites such as is that you can instantly see more information about the job you want to apply for or the institution where you hope to work. This is not available in paper resources where advertising space is at a premium and the only information you get is a brief section on the post itself and where to contact to apply. In some adverts now you can see information about the employer through the medium of video, you can see employees describing what it is like to work there, something which is especially useful if you are applying for a job somewhere that you are not familiar with.

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