How to Succeed in Academic Interviews : Securing that first lecturing post

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To mangle a well-know quotation: ‘universities are funny places; they do things differently there’(1). To an extent, the same principles apply when preparing for any interview, but the following advice will be of particular interest to those applying for their first post at a university or making a first application to a UK institution.

Preparation - ideally you will have researched the university and the department carefully before submitting an application. Check the following:

  • Lecturers teach, research and administer. Administration is the area least researched by candidates and can catch them out.
  • The university’s strategic plan: are particular disciplines mentioned, is there a specific emphasis on areas such as widening participation, developing Masters programmes, undergraduates as independent learners? Could you suggest a new course to support the plan?
  • Teaching and Learning and Research strategies: these will be mentioned in any longer-term plan, but more detailed policies may exist and have more detailed mention of your discipline.
  • Departmental plans and policies: possibly trickier to root out, but using the ‘search’ facility on the university website can yield very good results. And don’t forget the obvious: the course provision.
    Research your potential colleagues and what they teach and how your research complements theirs.
  • Ideally, talk to someone who is already at that university. But do not take any one person’s opinions as the truth. Talk to a few: some newcomers, some established. And include someone who works in administration who may have a different slant on the workings of their department. Look at online comments by students.
  • Get yourself involved in interviews at your current university. There can often be a general invitation to staff to attend presentations by candidates. HR may also run courses to help you prepare. 

The Presentation – Although the content of your presentation is important, a key objective is to find out if you can communicate well to a range of audiences. As a teacher, you could be supervising PhD students one day and running a workshop for Year 12 students the next. As a researcher you may be presenting to peers at an international conference or pitching for funding. It’s important to try and demonstrate a range of communication skills even if you only have 10 minutes

Preparation - before you even open a new blank PowerPoint slide ensure that:

  • PowerPoint or the equivalent is allowed
  • Ensure you are clear about: duration, does it include time for questions, do you need to send it in advance, how many back-up handouts are needed, what is the size and composition of audience. Be enthusiastic!

Delivery – read the rubric carefully. You could be asked to talk about your current or recent research, future plans to generate grant applications or deliver all or part of a current teaching session. 

  • Anticipate questions: give your presentation to someone who knows your field and someone who doesn’t and ask what questions they might ask you
  • Show a range of communication skills: hiding behind a lectern or computer terminal will not show you can build rapport and interact with your audience; breaking up your talk with an activity will.
  • Vary your communication style: particularly important if you have a longer time or more than about 20 minutes. For example, vary the tone of your voice, break up statements with rhetorical questions.
  • Balance: essentially stay within your comfort zone in terms of topic and tone, but take the opportunity to show what you can do and do it well.
  • Audience: you may have a mixture of experts in your field and non-experts, so tailor content accordingly. It’s important to be flexible as some people may only decide on the day to attend; you can always start by asking for a show of hands as to their background. Have a simple explanation of your research to hand.
  • Practice! …so that you get used to hearing yourself deliver the content and you get the timing right.

Panel Interview – most panels will comprise about 3 people, more for senior roles. Find out who is on the panel and what their roles are and also their background; it can help you anticipate questions. In addition to the usual advice about preparation, body language, tone - which you can find in other articles – consider:

  • The tone and manner can be quite challenging and possibly seem abrupt – don’t let this put you off; challenge and questioning are at the heart of what it is to be an academic. Be prepared to defend your views clearly and with good humour. Don’t panic! Remember: your ideas are being interrogated, not you. If this style is not what you are used to, practise with a friend.
  • Use your earlier research to anticipate questions about areas which are specific to this particular university and department.
  • Some typical questions could be:

- briefly and simply explain your area of research and why it’s important

- what might be potential sources of funding?

- what courses would you like to teach?

- what would you bring to the department?

- explain the link between your research and your teaching

Informal meetings – for senior posts, you may be at the university for more than a day and this could include dinners and lunches with university staff. More likely for lecturing posts, there will be the opportunity to meet with current staff and most likely with other candidates too. Some things to bear in mind:

  • what you say or ask, however informal the setting, will very likely be reported back
  • have questions prepared: this is a very good opportunity for questions you might not necessarily want to ask the formal panel
  • get more than one view on what it’s like to work there
  • don’t spend time assessing other candidates; focus on your agenda

There are many ingredients to an academic role. Check out all of them carefully to ensure the post,  department, university and indeed the country are the right fit for you.

Related articles: etc etc

 (1) “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there", L.P. Hartley in ‘The Go-Between’

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