Understanding a Job Advert: What is an Informal Contact?

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Many job adverts, although not all, list the name of an informal contact. This is the name and email address or phone number of a member of the academic staff who can be very useful to you as a jobseeker and can help you put together a winning application. But who are they?

An informal contact is:

  • a member of the department in which the job will be based
  • on the selection panel and perhaps on the interview panel
  • involved in drafting the job advert
  • informed about the precise interests/skills that the department is looking for

Do not get confused: some job adverts list the contact details of a member of the HR team to whom the applications must be sent. This is not the same as an informal contact.

The informal contact is a key part of the recruiting process and can offer you the jobseeker important advice. If you are unsure about anything to do with the recruitment process the informal contact can help. But what sort of questions can you ask?

  • Some job adverts are vague and are deliberately left that way to attract as wide a field of applicants as possible. Some do not even specify a level of hiring (i.e. lecturer/senior lecturer etc). You can ask the informal contact whether the department has a preference for a certain research topic or level of hiring.
  • Another way of asking this is to explain briefly your own interests and ask whether the department would be interested in hiring someone with your expertise.
  • Is the job a new appointment or replacing someone who has left/retired? (this will also give you an insight into what the department is looking for)
  • Is there a specific skill/responsibility that they hope the candidate will have? (eg e-learning skills)

 What you shouldn’t ask: 

  • General questions about the size of the department and interests of current members of staff that can be gleaned from the website: you don’t want to waste this person’s time or come across as unable to do basic research on the department yourself
  • What will the salary be? (this should be negotiated after the candidate has been offered the job. A broad salary band should be given on the job description)
  • Do you have an internal candidate applying for the job? (an informal contact will not discuss this with you and, anyway, even if there is an internal candidate, that should not put you off applying as the person who performs best at interview should still get the job.)

In most cases, an informal contact will encourage you to apply for the job so that they can judge your application in full. Occasionally, if your skills and interests are definitely not what the department is looking for, you might be advised against applying. Do not take this personally: it’s not a rejection. It will save you time in the long run because you can focus on applying for jobs where your interests do fit the profile of the ideal candidate.

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