Thursday, 26 September 2013

The interview game

After having sat on twelve academic appointments panels at all levels in just over a year – the deluge is now slowing, following our most recent and particularly pleasing appointment – I have seen lots of very talented people looking for jobs, and I have also seen some of them needlessly and spectacularly self-destruct during the process. Here follow a few hints on how to blow an academic job interview.
1. Fail to recognise the question with only one right answer. If you are asked, for example, if your approach to teaching is basically a passive one, do not say ‘yes’. Questions like that are not tricks: they are offered to candidates as a way out of a hole. If you have been describing an approach to teaching which sounds passive, that question is your chance to correct the impression. You need to take it.

2. Overdo self-deprecation and modesty. A little humility is becoming and charming. But do not give the impression that your language skills, or IT skills, or knowledge of the wider research field, is patchy. This is particularly unfair, since it rewards bravado and blarney, and penalises the conscientious. It can also be gender-skewed. But it’s true. You are there to sell yourself: don’t sell yourself short.
3. Pick risky referees. A good reference rarely makes much difference in an interview. A bad reference can sink you. And of course a ‘bad reference’ is a reference which contains one sentence expressing some reservations. If you suspect your referee may do this, either straighten him/her out or choose another referee.
4. Think small. Even with a junior post, we are looking for ambition, academic leadership, someone who will grow up to be a giant in the field and who will always remember this institution fondly for having given them that crucial first step. You need concrete plans for your research, of course, but have a big vision too. If you can convince a panel that your ideas are more exciting and more important than the competition, you’re three-quarters of the way there.

5. Use the phrase ‘fill a gap in the scholarship’. See under ‘Think small’. We don’t want a bricklayer, we want an architect.
6. Choose examples which don’t reflect the status you’re aspiring to. Often in interview you will be asked to cite specific examples of something you’ve done that demonstrates the qualities required for the post. Now if it’s your first job, or first senior job, you’ve not necessarily had the chance to do that, so you scrabble around for something else. Better to be tangential and impressive than on-point and underwhelming. If you are asked about your experience in academic administration, don’t talk about how you made sure all the speakers at a conference had fresh water glasses. I know you did it, I know it’s important and does show some skill. But again, see under ‘Think small’.

7. Don’t read the job description and further particulars. That way, when you are asked something about a particular facet of this job, you will not understand what’s being got at, you won’t have any ideas ready, and you will demonstrate to the panel both (a) that you are short of ideas and (b) that you are not someone who prepares carefully for an important event.
8. Don’t do any research on the institution or the panel. Panels like the sense that an outsider has made an effort to find out about their institution. More to the point, you can spot the agendas underlying certain questions. And it is always legitimate to ask in advance who will be on the panel. If they won’t tell you, they won’t tell you, but they won’t take offence at your having asked. A candidate who shows a keen interest in the process in advance shows him/herself to be an organised and capable person.

9. Blag something you clearly know nothing about. Yes, I know this is a core academic skill. But the panellists themselves have all been doing it for years and can spot the signs.
10. Ask too many questions. You will be given a chance to ask questions at the end, but in practice most of your substantive questions should have been resolved by that point. Some people use questions to try to show off (‘do you care as much about the welfare of undergraduates as I do?’), which is harmless if done subtly. But really, panels don’t pay much attention to questions unless (a) you ask something manifestly stupid or (b) you have too many. No questions is fine. One or two is fine. More than two and you begin to seem tedious.

All this aside from the numerous ways to self-destruct during the formal presentation … but that’s for another time.

UPDATE: If you found this useful, see also my notes on how to get shortlisted and how to survive the job presentation.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Flodden a dead horse-lasagne

In a lovely acted political metaphor, a cross-border group is celebrating the impending referendum on Scottish independence (and, incidentally, the battle's quincentenary next week) by unearthing the dead of the Battle of Flodden. It remains the eeriest and best-preserved battlefield in Britain that I know: the landscape is sufficiently unchanged that it is all too easy to visualise where and how James IV and his men were cut to pieces.

Whether recalling this particular slaughter now is helpful or not is hardly the point. I do wince at some of the BBC coverage: it was a nasty battle, but 'every bit as awful as the Somme' seems a bit steep, and while I know I should expect comments like 'the outcome of the battle led to the union of England and Scotland 90 years later', I still can't get used to them. For the record: it didn't. Indeed, apart from the deaths themselves, the award of a dukedom to the English commander, and giving the Scots nobility a settled aversion to invading England, the battle had remarkably few direct consequences. If Henry VIII had been a sharper political strategist and had been less obsessed with trying to restart the Hundred Years' War, he might have exploited it.

Still, the battle's context - a sideshow in a French war - is a reminder that Anglo-Scottish relations have always had a European dimension. As they do now. The two forthcoming big political battles - the Scottish independence referendum and the UK European referendum - are also intertwined. If (as seems unlikely) Scotland votes to leave the UK, the balance may well be tipped decisively against the rump UK staying the EU. If (as seems more plausible) a UK which still includes Scotland votes to leave, then I can see a second Scottish referendum being demanded very fast, and securing a different outcome. England may well want to leave Europe: Scotland, I think, doesn't.

The complexity of how these issues may interact is almost enough to make you wish for the days when these issues could be resolved with billhooks in a couple of hours. But if, like me, you want to preserve the UK whole and in the EU, the sequencing of the two referenda is a mercy. My hope is that the Scots will resist the siren lure of independence for long enough to thwart those in England who are enchanted by the same impossible vision.