Researching university departments

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Senior managers and academics in universities report that candidates for jobs rarely know enough about the department and organisation they are applying to. ‘We send our applicants plenty of published material', say Professor Rees Rawlings, Pro Rector Educational Quality at Imperial College, ‘but it is quite clear at interview panels that many candidates don't take the trouble to read it'.

When you're applying for a job in a university department your first step should be to do your research. If you are scanning suitable departments for work read all their web sites and compare them. When applying for a specific job read thoroughly and carefully the web site and prospectus of the department and institution you are applying to.

The first things to look out for

Academic departments differ considerably. Some have more undergraduates than postgraduates. Others are the opposite. Some are highly focused on research, others on teaching. Many pre-1991 universities offer access courses and foundation degrees, other universities do not. Discover the culture of the one you're applying to before you even start to make an application. If you do, your knowledge will shine through impressively in all communications with your prospective employer. If you don't, any interviewer will have the opportunity to catch you out.

What is the department like? Does it have an equal number of undergraduates and postgraduates or is there more emphasis on one than the other? Does it offer many masters and diploma courses or does its postgraduate programme focus on research. Perhaps it attempts to do both. How big is it compared to departments in other universities in the same discipline? The smaller it is the more vulnerable it may be to closure or merger with another department. How well is it thought of in terms of its teaching quality? If it did really well this will generally be mentioned on its web site but if no mention appears check it out. 

Which of the subjects taught in the department, and mentioned in its prospectus, would you feel comfortable in making a contribution to the teaching? What new perspectives could you bring? What might you add to their repertoire? Do you feel capable of introducing a new course or of adding to those they already offer?

Find out about their research interests

Next, take a look at the organisation of research. If you are applying for a research position this will inevitably be the most important factor to consider, but don't neglect to gain a broad view of the department. Research is often organised in groups under a professor. If you are already active in one of the areas that is within the scope of their interest you may well know some of the researchers and have read their published work. If you have little idea what they do more research is required to discover what they have been doing, especially their successes.

When participating in conferences or seminars it is sensible to do some networking and get to know who else is active in your own field of work. Make note of their contact details for future use. It is wise to appraise yourself of the most important developments that have occurred in the research of your target department.

It is useful to know how well the department you are applying to has scored in the research assessment exercise. If they did well make it clear that you know, if not don't raise questions on what might be a sensitive subject. 

What could you offer to them?

How do your research interests and experiences fit in with theirs? Can you persuade them at interview that you have something to offer and that you could open up new directions of investigation in the future?

Research groups are often concerned about their international standing. Some liaise with groups undertaking related investigations in other countries. Many send undergraduate and postgraduate students on lengthy exchange visits to universities abroad. Do you have any contacts you can bring? Have you liaised with other researchers in your field active in institutions outside your own? When the research is of commercial significance industrial contacts are also important. Yours, if you have some, may add value to the department you are applying to.

Inevitably in today's competitive climate funding is never far from the minds of academic recruiters. Check on the web sites of the funding bodies, including the research councils, to discover if the department of your choice already receives their support. Browse the department's web site for mention of its funding sources. If you have previously been successful in gaining funding, even if you were not the principal person whose name was on the funding application, it is something they would be interested in. Be ready to mention your role in any application for finance you have been associated with during the application and selection process.


So, when you are applying for an academic job always take the time to get to know as much as you can about your potential employer. If you already have a friend working in the department ask them anything you need to know. The culture inevitably depends on the personal relationships of those working there and how well they get on. None of that will be published. Your progress, once selected, depends no only on your ability but also on your relationship with your manager. You can only discover from internal sources how that person is perceived.

Once you have gleaned all this information you are in a strong position to write a letter of application, complete any forms that are required or write a CV specifically designed to target that department. Your knowledge will increase your confidence and show the selection panel that you have a strong motivation to join them. Time spent on this research is never wasted. Even if you fail you will have a clearer understanding of how a department functions for your next application.

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