Applying for academic jobs: Seven choices to make

by Sophie Coulombeau, Lecturer in English Literature, Cardiff University

This post first appeared in on Sophie Coulombeau’s blog on September 24, 2014.

Yesterday I had a chat with postgraduate students in my new department at Cardiff University, about the process of applying for academic jobs after the PhD. It was felt by organisers of the Thesis Group (the forum in which I was speaking, along with one of the professors who recently hired me!) that as I was hired only a few weeks ago it would be useful for us both to share our observations on the recent recruitment process with PG students who will soon be venturing out into the academic job market themselves. In the spirit of academic collegiality, this post is my attempt to share the skeleton outline of my talk more widely.

Lots of these observations are not new or original, and many can be found in other academics’ blog posts (see in particular Josephine Crawley Quinn’s blog, here and here, which were recommended to me on Twitter yesterday, and which comprehensively cover the paper application and interview stages.) As ever, these insights are only meant to represent my own personal experiences and thoughts: they are aimed at humanities students completing a PhD (or hoping to do so in the next year or two) within the UK higher education system and, for the most part, they focus on applying for jobs in UK universities too. Like my previous post on writing up the PhD thesis, I found it useful to frame my insights as a series of choices that have to be made, rather than a series of prescriptive tips.

Feedback welcome as ever!


Applying for academic jobs: Seven choices to make

1) Whether to apply for jobs in the last year of your PhD, or to leave it until you’ve handed in?

This is something I touched on briefly in my ‘Writing up the thesis’ post. There are pros and cons to both choices here. The main pro is that you might actually get one of the jobs you’re apply for (!) and be able to segue into employment straight after the PhD. But even if this doesn’t happen, the application process will help you to refine your ideas, both about your thesis and your next project/future career. The cons are that the job application process is incredibly time-consuming (thus taking precious time away from thesis work), and that it can be disheartening. It is universally agreed (in my admittedly anecdotal experience) that a candidate who doesn’t have a doctorate in hand, or at the very least a viva date, is less likely to get called for interview than one of equivalent merit who does. So, in a way, you’re stacking the odds against yourself from the start.

I chose to apply for jobs from the beginning of my fourth year. I applied for fourteen jobs in between October 2013 and May 2014. Of those, I received eleven rejections, one request for written work (followed by a rejection), one invitation to interview (followed by rejection) and one invitation to interview followed by an offer of employment. I always asked for feedback to my application, but my request was only responded to after the unsuccessful interview. I also always asked how many people had applied for the post. The numbers given ranged from thirty-five (for one post) to six hundred (for four posts).

I’m not sorry I decided to apply before I had my doctorate in hand. The first reason why I don’t regret it, unsurprisingly, is that the gamble paid off (though it is worth noting that my two invites to interview were issued late in my final year, when I was able to include my submission date in my application.) The second reason is that, while the job app process was often a royal pain, it really helped me to get my ideas in order for my thesis. By  the time I was called for interview, I knew my stuff off by heart.

I can’t personally speak for the benefits and disadvantages of waiting until you’re properly doctored up to apply for jobs. But I imagine that the main disadvantage is that it’s hard to juggle paying the bills with keeping a foot in the door of academia and getting those job apps in. On the bright side, you’d be more likely to make it through to the interview stage once your PhD is in hand, which might mean success in a shorter space of time. Do feel free to share experiences below!


2) Who should be your referees?

Once you have decided you want to apply for jobs, you should identify prospective referees and ask them if they are happy to write for you. Most jobs I applied for required two references, which was fairly unproblematic – my doctoral supervisor provided one, and my secondary doctoral advisor provided the second. They had both seen good chunks of my work and knew me personally, which are (in my opinion) the main requirements in a referee. But some jobs specified that there must be a third referee, from an external institution. This can be rather tricky, especially if you haven’t done your viva yet (if you have, your external examiner is the obvious port of call.) I ended up emailing the Director of a research centre where I had done a one-month fellowship, and asking if he’d mind reading some of my work and writing the third reference when it was required. He was willing to do so, luckily, and has my eternal gratitude. I think this is well worth flagging up early to PhD students. If I hadn’t done that fellowship, I honestly don’t know who I would have asked, because I hadn’t been moving through my PhD trying to identify and ingratiate myself with external mentors. The lesson is this: to do so, if you want to apply for jobs in the final year of your doctorate, is really not a bad idea.


3) What kind of jobs to apply for?

So, your referees have agreed to write for you. Next thing:  Sign up to Get a tailored email service letting you know when jobs in your field come up, or else make sure you check the website every day. was the only jobs website I ever needed, but I also found Twitter very useful: the odd opportunity would appear there but not on jobs websites, especially postdocs based in the USA and Canada.

Broadly speaking, I found that there were four types of opportunity on offer in the UK academic job market for English Literature, at the time that I applied. There were research-based postdocs, attached to a project, which usually lasted 1-5 years, were very specific about responsibilities and outputs, and generally paid about £17-25k p.a. There were research-based postdocs not attached to a project, usually fellowships at Oxbridge colleges: these allowed a far greater degree of freedom around research, were usually for a two or three year period, and paid about £15-21k p.a. There were temporary teaching posts for 1-3 years, paying £13-30k p.a. (the upper end of the scale is much more typical, but some Oxbridge colleges seem to think a ten-hour teaching load exclusive of marking, prep and admin is worth less than minimum wage.) And then there were permanent posts or  lectureships, that require both teaching and research and that are, well, permanent (subject to a probation period) and generally pay £25-33k p.a. All in all, I’d say that on average a job I was eligible for came up about once every two weeks, with October and May particularly busy months.

On the one hand: I’d recommend thinking very hard about what you want to do. Would you prefer teaching or research? Is it more important to you to get your first monograph out or to develop your teaching portfolio?

On the other: I’d recommend applying for all the jobs you’re eligible for anyway. Unless the thought of doing it makes you completely miserable, you need to be very flexible and receptive at this point. And every application is good practice. So, cast the net wide. When you see a good opportunity, note the deadline in your diary or calendar and set yourself frequent reminders to avoid a last-minute panic. Email your referees and send them the link to the job ad, stressing the deadline. Then get to work on the application itself.


4) How to present yourself on paper?

The first stage of every single one of these jobs will be to send a certain selection of documents to an administrator. Unfortunately, that is where the certainty ends. Each job you apply for will require a different permutation of the following: cv, research proposal, teaching statement or portfolio, cover letter, sample work, references. They will all want different word counts. And they will all want to see slightly different things. This is where the UK academic job market differs fundamentally from the North American one. As I understand it, in the USA and Canada references are standardised and job application materials are far more similar between different jobs. Not so here, I’m afraid. You can’t get away with anything other than rewriting your job application for every single post. If you cut and paste chunks, be very careful. I nearly sent an application to a Cambridge college once enthusing about how much I needed to use the incomparable archives in Oxford.

The person specification is your bible: this is usually a list of eight to fifteen bullet points listing the things you will have or be able to do in order to be qualified for the job. The things that person specifications wanted to see most, in my experience, were: a strong publication record in a particular area; teaching experience in a particular area; clear and well-defined plans for future research; evidence of attracting external and internal funding; evidence of working collaboratively; evidence of public engagement and understanding of impact. Often they would also ask for evidence that you could demonstrate leadership, administrative expertise, evidence of valuing diversity, etc: the slightly less specific things that you might (rightly) find in most person specifications outside academia as well as inside.

Your cover letter should say very briefly who you are (stage of career, institution, subject) then summarise your main strengths, in line with the person specification, and (briefly) why you want the job: feel free to add ‘see cv for full details’.  Re-draft your cv to fit the page count and highlight the most important things that you think the panel wants to see. If it’s a research-based postdoc, put your research up front. If it’s a teaching post, major on your training and the courses you’ve taught. If there is information that you are planning on elaborating in your ‘research statement’ or ‘teaching statement’, you can trim duplicated information from your cv. The challenge is to present the fullest picture possible, across several documents, in the smallest number of words.

Save. Re-read. Re-draft. Proof. Repeat. Repeat again. Then send it. It can take anything from a week to forever, to receive a response. Forget it and move on. Get started on the next one. But before you do this: SAVE THE JOB ADVERTISEMENT! It will be taken offline after the deadline passes, meaning that if you are invited to interview you will need to consult it again.


5) How to respond to rejection?

The most likely outcome is, your application will be rejected. It is bruising and disheartening and really rather horrible. But, most of the time, it is not personal. Chalk it up to experience, don’t get bitter, move on. Ask for feedback. They will almost never give it before interview, but ask.


6) What written work to send?

If you receive an email asking for for written work: congratulations, you have made it through the first round. Ask for guidance if it’s not clear exactly what they want to see. Most often, they will ask for a published article. This is worth flagging up because it demonstrates the importance of publishing at least one article during your doctorate. They will also specify a word count that may well be different from your published article. Don’t quibble. Edit it up or down, and make sure to specify ‘This is an edited version of an article published/forthcoming in x.” If you don’t have a published article, that can’t be helped. But make sure to ask what they want from you: a self-contained essay, or a section of your thesis.

Whatever the piece of work is, make sure it is meticulously proofed, and send it in PDF form. Then, sit back and wait again. If rejection follows, the same advice applies as above. Chalk it up to experience, don’t get bitter, move on. Ask for feedback. They will almost never give it before interview, but ask.


7) How to prepare for interview? and What to expect at interview?

You’ve got invited to interview: hooray! Give yourself a big pat on the back, and have a celebration (just not the night before the interview itself.) My own experience gets a lot more sparse here, because I only had two interviews – at Cambridge for 1-year teaching post, and Cardiff for a permanent job. They were about as different as could be, though, so I can give a decent overview of the various scenarios that might take place. Hopefully from reading these stories you will get a good idea, too, of what I think is the best way to prepare. I’m not going to cover things like “Dress smartly,” “Make eye contact” and “Get a good night’s sleep” – you can take those as read!

The first of my interviews was for a one-year teaching post at a Cambridge college. I was told there would be a half-hour interview with a panel of several members of staff, and that I should prepare a five-minute presentation about my research. I was pretty worried about being able to summarise my research in five minutes, and came to the conclusion that all I could do was give a broad outline of the argument of my thesis. I researched the interests of the Fellows in English at the college (though none of them worked in my area) and tried to anticipate a few questions. Come the day, I toddled down to Cambridge and turned up at the (very pleasant) college. After waiting for fifteen minutes, I was called into the interview room where there was a panel of six people. There were all the College Fellows in English, the College Principal, and an expert in my period of research brought in from a neighbouring college. So far, so fair enough. They asked me to give my presentation, and nodded sagely while I did so. Then they asked me a couple of questions each. Could I talk a little bit more about this or that aspect of my research? How would I convey the exciting aspects of eighteenth-century literature to students through my teaching? Which two long-eighteenth-century texts would I put down for compulsory reading? (That one threw me a bit: I went for Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Burney’s Cecilia.) What could I contribute to college life? It was a very pleasant chat, and I left the College buzzing. Less than two hours later, I received an email saying that unfortunately they could not offer me the post but they wished me all the best in my career. I asked for feedback and was told that, compared to the successful candidate, my five-minute presentation was not as imaginative as it could have been and I did not answer questions as directly as I could have done. I was a bit crushed, to say the least. Rejection felt worse when I had gone a long way (without being reimbursed for my travelling expenses) and put in substantial preparation. I wondered who the other candidates had been, why one of them had beaten me. I asked myself the dread ‘Was it an internal candidate?’ question. I concluded that no, it was probably me. My confidence crashed through the floor. But as time passed, I resolved to learn from the experience, to think of a more imaginative way to present my research next time. I got on with the thesis. And just as I was hurtling towards my submission deadline, I got another invitation to interview.

This time, it was for a permanent early career lectureship in Romantic Literature at Cardiff University. Frankly, I didn’t have my hopes up very high when I applied, because I knew that permanent posts generally went to people with postdocs and rafts of teaching experience, who had already published at least one monograph. I did, however, spot that the person specification indicated that a supplementary specialism in creative writing (which I had)  would be an advantage, so I thought it was worth a shot. I received the invitation to interview just before I handed in my thesis, so I could hardly even think about it until I was all handed in and caught up on sleep. Then I replied to say I’d be delighted to attend, and got preparing.

The Cardiff interview was far more formalised than the Cambridge one, and far more similar to the standard interview procedure (as I understand it) in North American universities. It took place over two days, and consisted of two informal interviews, one formal interview, and the fabled ‘job talk’, a twenty-minute presentation about ‘My next research project’, delivered to staff and students from the Department, followed by ten minutes of questions. Perhaps this more formal structure motivated me to prepare more thoroughly; or perhaps my rejection at Cambridge had shaken me up a bit and made me wonder if I prepared adequately. In either case, I prepared obsessively for the Cardiff interview. I researched the interests of every member of staff in the Department with areas of study related even tangentially to my own, and read all of their publications I could get my hands on. I read the University’s and the Department’s strategy documents, and the handbooks and module guides for all years of the undergraduate degree and the taught Masters. I trawled the library holdings at Cardiff to see which collections might be of use in my future research. I emailed friends who had studied at Cardiff to ask what it was like, and emailed fairly new lecturers among my friends and acquaintances to ask about their own ‘job talks’ and how they prepared. I re-drafted my ‘job talk’ probably about ten times, and practised it with a stopwatch. Bearing in mind the feedback from my Cambridge interview, I tried to think of ways to make my presentation engaging: talking the audience through a brief extract of primary text, for example, to show my teaching in action while also pulling out the main ideas that characterised my research.  I got used to pitching myself in brief, succinct paragraphs. My past work. The argument of my thesis. My future plans. My experience of public engagement. My teaching strategy. I devised a sample module that I could talk about with ease, to convince them that I could hit the ground running. Then I flew halfway across the world to attend interview (I was based in California on the interview date – it is to Cardiff’s immense credit that they were willing to cover my travel expenses).

Again, it was a very pleasant experience in the end. The two informal interviews on the first day, with the Heads of Department and the Director of Studies respectively, provided me with a huge amount of helpful information about the School, much of which I managed to work into my presentation that evening. It also gave me a greater desire to work there: I could think in a more informed way about the challenges and opportunities that this particular position presented, and about how I might be able to put up a decent case for myself as the best candidate to address them. That evening, I had a rotten night’s sleep thanks to my jetlag, but fuelled up on a Welsh fry-up the next day and got myself along to my ‘job talk’. I had practised enough that it came reasonably naturally, and my three questions (asking me to clarify an aspect of my project; to talk about the project I’d pursue after my next project; and about my creative work) were addressed in a friendly and interested way. My formal interview (with three members of the School faculty and one external member from the Music department) was a little more nerve-wracking as I was really starting to feel the jetlag by that point. But, like my Cambridge interview, everybody was very pleasant and the questions didn’t seem designed to catch me out. Why did I want the job? Why should they hire me? What new directions lay ahead for Romanticism? What was the place of literary form in my work? Could I talk about my understanding of impact and my experience of public engagement? And finally, would I take the job if they offered it to me? (Apparently some people answer this question with a hesitation or “Hmmmm.” Baffling.) I left feeling pretty good, but chastened by my Cambridge experience. “I have no idea whether I got it,” I said to my partner when we met for a beer afterwards. “But I think I acquitted myself okay.”

Again, I heard very quickly: probably not two hours later, I received an email asking me to call the Head of School around seven o’clock. He told me that they wanted to offer me the position – or rather, a position, since they had decided, in light of a very strong field of candidates, to make two appointments. The job offer was, however, conditional upon me passing my viva. I attempted to stay very calm and cool on the phone, assured him I would pass the viva, confirmed my provisional acceptance of the job, and told the HoS I was really looking forward to working with him. Then I put the phone down, screamed, drank some bubbly, and fell asleep. It wouldn’t be until the next day that it occurred to me that the viva now lay ahead. Which will be the subject of my next post…




I think the key points I’d like to finish up with, aimed at current PhD students, are these. First, I am acutely aware that I was very, very lucky. A job came up at the right time; moreover, it was a job that was right for me. Many people, far more talented than me, do not have that luck, and I would never wish to dismiss or undermine their experiences and entirely valid critiques of the system within which we are forced to work.

But second, the prospect is not necessarily as dreary out there as you imagine. Certainly it may well not be as dreary as that twenty-fifth despondent blog post you read last week, about why the dispirited author left academia, seems to suggest. I know several other recent humanities PhDs who went straight into jobs after submission, and numerous ones who were employed within a year. It is harder to talk about successes than failures online, though. Nobody wants to be that smug git. I know I don’t. But I also get sad when I see friends convinced they shouldn’t even try for academic jobs because it’s such a tough market; when I see them literally losing sleep and making themselves ill because they’re convinced they’ve committed to a dead-end career. I guess the note I’d like to leave it on is: give it a go. Give it lots of goes. You never know. You might be surprised.

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