‘Mr Bond, the Doctor will see you now …’ Applying for academic posts in film and media

James Chapman, University of Leicester

30August 2017


We all know it’s a competitive environment for academic posts at the moment – especially for early career scholars. It’s not unusual to have over a hundred applications for a new lectureship. This might lead people to think that the odds are stacked against them. But there’s a lot you can do to reduce those odds very significantly in your favour.

This blog offers a few tips from the ‘other side’, so to speak, in preparing your job applications for university posts. My aim is to explain how university appointment panels go about assessing applicants.  It’s particularly focused towards early career scholars in film and media applying for academic positions in the United Kingdom. There’ll be later blogs with similar advice focusing on the European and North American contexts.

Developing your CV

Your CV – curriculum vitae (or in American parlance your resumé) – is a document that lists your academic qualifications, employment history, teaching experience, skills and competences, research and publications, and other relevant information. It should be a purely factual document: the discursive stuff comes in your letter of application or personal statement.

Your CV should include the following information:

  • Your personal details: full name, contact details, and nationality (for the UK you do not need to include your age/date of birth as this is not relevant under UK employment law).
  • Your academic qualifications in an unambiguous manner: i.e. title of qualification, level where appropriate, awarding institution, date of award in reverse chronological order.
  • Your previous employment history listing positions, institutions and dates of employment in reverse chronological order.
  • Your teaching experience: a list of modules/subjects you’ve taught and the nature of the teaching (lectures, seminars, tutorials, workshops, dissertation supervision, etc).
  • Any administrative experience: e.g. programme leader, year tutor, exams officer, accessibility tutor, etc.
  • Any publications and/or conference papers.

Obviously your CV needs to be accurate and up to date: for that reason it’s a good idea to develop it as you go along rather than writing it from scratch the day before the application deadline.

It’s important to understand that appointment panels do not expect applicants for lectureships to be the ‘complete article’: we are more interested in what you do have to offer rather than what you don’t. One person will have more teaching experience, another may have more publications. We won’t expect anyone who has not yet held a full-time academic post to have any experience of administration, for example.

Sometimes early career scholars are concerned that their CV doesn’t have much on it, and so they flesh it out with extra stuff that’s either discursive or not so relevant. Believe me, though, from the appointment panel’s point of view, when you have 150 of these to read, a concise two-page document is very welcome!

When it comes to your teaching experience, differentiate between modules that you have designed and convened, and those where you have been a lecturer and/or seminar tutor on an existing module convened by someone else. Experience of curriculum design is a particularly helpful asset – as is experience of supervising undergraduate or postgraduate dissertations – though appointment panels understand that early career scholars might not have such experience. Generally speaking, breadth of teaching experience – whether convening modules or teaching on existing modules – is an advantage.

When it comes to publications, I’m going to be more interested in quality than quantity. One or two articles in highly-respected peer-reviewed journals are worth as much or more than half a dozen chapters in edited collections. And an authored monograph (or a co-authored monograph) – or a contract for a monograph – generally carries more weight than an edited collection.

Some common mistakes on CVs

Your CV will be the first thing I look at in your application, so it’s worth while taking some trouble to present it clearly and accurately. And by ‘accurately’, I mean ACCURATELY.

If I encounter any of the following I’m probably not going to proceed much further with your application:

  • Weird and wonderful fonts: Times New Roman 12-point is the default standard unless there is a specific reason (e.g. dyslexia) for using another font. If you use a tiny font to squeeze more into a proscribed length, don’t expect me to bother reading it.
  • Any font colour other than black: ditto.
  • Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors: these do not impress in a job where written communication is a key skill. (I’ve seen CVs where the candidate has misspelled the name of an awarding institution or a publisher, for example: I’ve even seen CVs where the candidate has spelled their name differently from the application form.)
  • Ambiguity: e.g. ‘I have an article with the Journal of ABC’ – but what does this mean? Does it mean that you have submitted an article to the journal, that the editor has confirmed it has been sent for review, that it’s been accepted subject to amendments, that you’re awaiting proofs, or that it’s in production? BE SPECIFIC! Otherwise – schlock! (that’s the sound your CV makes as it hits the inside of the waste paper basket).
  • Writing about yourself in the third person (e.g. ‘Michael Vaughan is a former England captain and Test batsman who once attracted ridicule for referring to himself in the third person in a newspaper interview …’)
  • A list of ‘publications’ that turns out to be a list of the 27 book reviews you’ve written. Include the names of journals for which you’ve written book reviews by all means: please don’t list all the books you’ve reviewed.
  • Listing the same conference paper six times from different conferences: once will suffice.
  • Photographs: do not include a photograph on an academic CV. Even if you are fortunate enough to look like Cary Grant or Grace Kelly, we’re not appointing you for your stunning good looks but for your all-round excellence in teaching and research. (And if you don’t look like Cary Grant or Grace Kelly, I don’t want nightmares!)

Surveying the field

OK, so you’ve got your CV ready, now you need posts for which to apply. Most academic jobs in the UK are now advertised on www.jobs.ac.uk rather than in traditional print sources such as the Times Higher Education Supplement. Check it regularly or sign up for new post alerts. You can set the filters according to subject area, level and teaching and/or research posts. It’s also worthwhile subscribing to mailing lists such as BAFTSS and MeCCSA.

Given the time needed to prepare a good application, you need to be selective – but not too selective so that you limit your opportunities. Obviously there is no point in applying for senior academic positions such as Chairs or even Senior Lectureships if you’ve only recently been awarded your PhD.

Read job specifications carefully – especially what’s designated as ‘essential’ and what’s ‘desirable’. Usually a PhD is essential – particularly if the post involves research – though often the specification might say ‘PhD or equivalent’ which means relevant professional experience (e.g. if you’re a film-maker) or publications (a research monograph). It’s generally okay to apply if you’ve submitted your PhD or are very close to submitting it, but ensure that your CV is specific: e.g. ‘PhD thesis due to be submitted at the end of September 2017’ or ‘PhD thesis submitted – awaiting viva’ or ‘PhD examined and passed subject to major/minor amendments’.

Don’t be too concerned if you don’t tick all the boxes on the person specification: no applicant ever will. The person specification is a fairly general guideline.

Generally speaking there are several different kinds of posts:

  • Lectureships: usually involving both teaching and research. You will be expected to do both – but don’t be too surprised if teaching is more of a priority.
  • Teaching fellowships: usually focused on delivering lectures and seminars, including existing core modules, options or special subjects and dissertation supervision.
  • Postdoctoral research fellowships: often attached to grant-funded projects and usually for a fixed term (three years) which privilege research and publication.

Bear in mind that if you only want to do research, you will significantly limit your opportunities.

There might be an email contact for preliminary enquiries: don’t be afraid to use if you have a sensible question (e.g. something that isn’t covered in the job description or an ambiguity) as that will stick in my mind when it comes to shortlisting.

Finally, it’s a fact of academic life today that many posts are fixed-term contracts, often as teaching cover for maternity leave or to take over someone’s modules when they have secured a research grant. The peripatetic lifestyle can be frustrating and the situation is far from ideal. But bear in mind that once you are in post, the experience of teaching and administration that you gain makes it much easier to get onto shortlists for permanent posts when they come available.

Making an application

The first thing to understand is the purpose of the application. It is not to get you the job – that comes at the interview stage. The purpose of the application is to get you to the interview stage.

Let’s say that I have 150 applications for a lectureship: from those I need a shortlist of four or five to call for interview. My first job is to narrow those 150 applications down to a ‘long list’ of around a dozen. This means that in effect I am looking for reasons to reject most applications.

Here are a few examples of a fast-track to the reject pile:

  • Spelling or grammatical errors: if you can’t be bothered to take the trouble to proof read your application, I will assume that your approach to teaching will be similarly sloppy. And therefore I have no interest in interviewing you. Goodbye.
  • Generic applications: a good application will always be tailored specifically to the post and institution. I’m not interested in an application that more or less amounts to ‘here is a list of reasons why I’m so brilliant’. No: I want to know what you can offer to my school or department. I expect you to have to have done your homework by looking at our curriculum, noting where your teaching and research complement ours, and identifying what you offer that we don’t do. Specify which of our existing programmes and modules you could contribute to, and what new modules and options you could offer.
  • The same applies to applications that are mostly generic, topped and tailed with a couple of specific paragraphs. I wasn’t born yesterday!
  • Ditto cut-and-paste applications: if your application to the University of Peladon says that you would appreciate the opportunity of working at the University of Skaro, don’t be too surprised if the University of Peladon throws your application straight into Aggedor’s pit!

  • Discussing your research in an application for a teaching post: if we’re appointing a teaching fellow then research is not part of the job description. (However, you can cleverly slip this in by talking about how your teaching is informed by research: e.g. how you would design an optional module or special subject.)
  • Lack of familiarity with our curriculum: you should be able to look up degree programmes and module titles online. There’s not much point in offering an option or special subject that duplicates one we already have.
  • Repetition: your CV should list all the modules you’ve taught, so there’s no need to repeat this information in your personal statement or letter of application. Instead use this space to talk about your approach to teaching, how you seek to engage students, what type of assessment methods you use, etc.
  • Broken rubric: if the application form says ‘attach a separate curriculum vitae’ then a candidate who does not attach a separate curriculum vitae will be binned. If you can’t follow the rubric on an application form, what chance do you have of securing a research grant?
  • Bullshit: ‘I am a world-renowned scholar with a reputation for the highest levels of excellence in teaching and an unparalleled research profile that includes a visiting professorship at the University of Gallifrey …’ No: you’re a recently qualified PhD student. (Remember that I’m an academic too: I can smell bullshit from three miles downwind. After all, I’ve spouted plenty of it in my time …)
  • Sycophancy: ‘I humbly beseech you to consider my application for your most esteemed institution as I know that I will benefit from the intellectual guidance of your scholarly excellence Professor Dr Jones …’ Oh puh-lease. Goodbye-ee!

At this point I have probably whittled down my 150 applications to around a quarter …

So what am I looking for in a good application?

  • A candidate who has done their homework and whose application reads as if they’ve read the job description (you’d be surprised how many don’t!) and has done some basic research into the nature of the department and our degree programmes.
  • An applicant who explains what they can offer to us (rather than just talking about themselves with little or no reference to the post).
  • Someone who has ideas: e.g. about additions to our curriculum, innovations in teaching and assessment strategy, potential research collaborations, etc. (Note that they don’t necessarily have to be original ideas – in all likelihood we’ve already thought of these things ourselves – but we want to see evidence of independent critical thinking.)

An unsuccessful applicant once complained to me that it was not possible to tailor an application to a particular institution because it took too much time to do the research and write a covering letter: I pointed out in response that he was competing against people who were willing to take the time and effort to do so – and they were the people who were going to get shortlisted.

When writing a letter of application or a personal statement, you should take your lead from the job description. For example, if it mentions ‘teaching and research’ then you should discuss your teaching first; vice versa if it mentions ‘research and teaching’. (As a rule of thumb most lectureships in the UK – unless they are specifically designated as ‘teaching-only’ or ‘teaching-dominant’ posts – are teaching and research. But bear in mind that unless you are fortunate enough to be holding a research grant, then your salary will be funded from tuition fee income: for this reason it tends to be that teaching is often prioritised in short listing applicants. Another way of thinking about it is thus: we’re going to take it for granted that all applicants are excellent research scholars who will be publishing and making grant applications: what I’m often looking for in a lecturer is someone who can do all the first-year teaching that I don’t want to do …)

The more effort you take in your application, the better chance you have of getting onto the long list. And once you’re on the long list, you’re only one ‘sorry I can’t attend for interview on that day’ away from being on the shortlist.

At the interview itself

There are a few obvious things that are de rigeur, such as turning up on time for the interview and bringing any documents (e.g. passport) that you’ve been asked to provide.

Practical basics:

  • Dress appropriately. Generally there is no dress code in academia – we’re (mostly) a quite liberal and tolerant bunch. But leave behind the fancy dress, and no plunging necklines or microskirts please. You’re looking to impress as a scholar: your ‘I dig the Pope, he smokes dope’ tee-shirt doesn’t necessarily create the right impression.
  • Nod politely and make eye contact as each member of the interview panel is introduced: we don’t expect you to remember who we all are while your heart is pumping at 130 beats a minute.
  • As a rule of thumb, wait to see if the interviewer/s offer their hands to shake: whatever you do, don’t walk around the table to offer to shake hands with someone.
  • Each member of the panel will ask you questions: focus your reply to the individual while occasionally turning your head to include the other panel members.
  • If you’re stumped by a question, it’s okay to say ‘Do you mind if I collect my thoughts on that for a moment?’ before answering. (Obviously keep the moment as brief as possible – 20 seconds is about the maximum before it becomes uncomfortable. And don’t use that line for any ‘predictable’ questions you should have thought about in advance.)
  • You need to find a balance between monosyllabic yes/no answers and verbal diarrhoea: interview panels don’t want applicants who clam up but nor do we want to sit listening to the same point being made three times in a slightly different way. As a rule of thumb: if you’re still talking after two minutes, it’s probably a good idea to conclude.
  • Avoid ‘funny’ jokes. You think they’re funny. The interview panel do not.
  • Sometimes candidates want to leave a copy of something (their seminar plan or lecture slides or something) with the panel at the end of the interview. We will nod politely and let you leave it – but we’re not going to look at it. Save your printer ink.
  • DO NOT PLACE RESTRICTIONS ON YOUR AVAILABILITY: The candidate who says they don’t teach on Fridays or can’t make meetings on Wednesday afternoons or who has to leave campus by three o’clock in the afternoon is not going to be appointed.

Sometimes there might be a separate presentation and interview – on other occasions you might be asked to prepare a presentation as part of the interview. The presentation might ask you to talk about your research, it might want you to discuss your approach to teaching, or it might ask both. The real purpose of the presentation is to assess your skills of oral communication: i.e. how good a lecturer will you be? This is the case even if you are asked to talk about your research: bear in mind that you will probably be speaking to a ‘lay’ audience including students and staff from other disciplines than your own. Your ability to communicate clearly and to explain complex ideas and concepts in an accessible way is what is being tested.

DO NOT READ OUT POWERPOINT SLIDES. THE PEOPLE ON THE INTERVIEW PANEL CAN ALL READ. WE DO NOT NEED AN INTERLOCUTOR. (If you do this in an interview, we will assume that your lectures will be the same …)

Whether or not the presentation is separate from the interview, you will be given a time limit, which you should observe. If you overrun your time – don’t expect to get the job. (Why is this? Remember that the real purpose of the presentation is to assess your lecturing ability. You will be expected to plan and structure your lectures so that you can deliver them in a specific time slot. You might think that your discussion of the aesthetics of American horror cinema of the 1980s is the most fascinating subject in the world – but your colleague waiting outside the door to deliver their lecture on the constitutional law of seventeenth-century England does not …)

It’s often said that interviewers make up their minds about candidates within the first 30 seconds/two minutes of the interview. This is not strictly true. But first impressions do matter. You might not necessarily know after two minutes if you do want to employ someone – but you sure know if you don’t.

The sort of questions you might expect

No two interviews are ever the same – different institutions and different departments will have different priorities at different times. Do your research in advance by reading the job description and familiarising yourself with the department. You’re unlikely to know in advance who will be on the interview panel but – in the UK at any rate – you can reasonably predict that there will be a mixture of academics in the field (in this case film and media studies) and others from related subjects in the Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences.

That said there are some general areas where you can reasonably predict the sort of questions you’ll be asked: these are likely to focus on your skills and competences, your teaching experience and your research.

Avoid having what seem like ‘pat’ answers by the way: always seem as if you are thinking through the issues as you speak even if you are reciting them from your memory card.

The following list assumes a teaching and research post (and with apologies in advance to specialists in the field of contemporary Argentinian women film directors …).

Q. Tell me about your research.

This is what in cricketing parlance is known as a gentle long hop: it’s an easy question to put the candidate at their ease and get them talking. Any decent candidate ought to be able to speak with authority, clarity and enthusiasm about their own research. You should be able to summarise the topic, research questions, methodology and conclusions of your PhD in around two minutes.

That said bear in mind that sometimes batsmen do get out to long hops: if your answer is unfocused or rambling or doesn’t demonstrate intellectual engagement with the subject, then I’m already wondering whether you are the right person to engage students in your teaching. (In other words – a question ostensibly your research might also be assessing your teaching skills.)

The real purpose of this question is not for me to learn about your research but rather to test your ability to answer clearly and concisely for a lay audience (the panel member who asks a general research-related question might not be a subject specialist).

Q. Why have you applied for this post?

In contrast this is a fast bouncer on leg stump directed at your head – in other words it’s the killer question. It’s the academic equivalent of the ‘Kobayashi Maru’ test in Star Trek (the ‘Kobayashi Maru’ is a no-win situation that’s used to test the character and mettle of potential starship captains). The panel can’t answer the question either. But we want to see how you respond to it.

That said there are good and bad answers to the question. Obviously ‘Because I need the job’ or ‘I need the money’ are bad answers (believe it or not, that hasn’t prevented candidates from using them in interviews – DON’T!!!) So too – for those who are already holding academic posts – is ‘I want to get out of my current department because I’ve been overlooked for promotion/my colleagues don’t appreciate me’. The interview panel wants to know the reasons that are pulling you to us – not the reasons that are pushing you out of your current employment.

Good answers will take it as an opportunity to explain what you offer to us: how your teaching and research fit the department’s strategic objectives (these will be outlined in the blurb that accompanies the job description). It’s an opportunity for you to show that you’ve done your homework about the university and the school/department. Demonstrate that you know something about the institution and its objectives. It’s good if there’s a particular thing we do that corresponds with your interests – it might be our schools outreach programme or our film and media history research group – then explain how you can contribute to it.

In other words this is not a question about you: it’s about what you can do for us.

Q. Why do you think you are qualified for this post?

This is a more benign version of the previous question though it invites you to focus more on your skills, competences, knowledge and interests. What it’s really testing is whether you have familiarised yourself with the job description and have thought how your skills match it.

Q. Why do you want to become an academic?

This is one of my favourites because it gives interview panels an insight into what sort of person you are beyond your CV. What is it about this profession that attracts you? What do you want to contribute to your field? A commitment to intellectual endeavour and the dissemination of knowledge is a good answer. Long summer holidays and expenses-paid foreign travel are not. (The long summer holidays are a myth, by the way, and any travel you are lucky enough to get reimbursed, if at all, will be in cattle class by the ‘most economical route’ …)

Q. How do you go about engaging students in your teaching?

This is more or less a carte blanche to talk about your teaching – and you should certainly use it as an opportunity to discuss your approach to the classroom and all the exciting new innovations that you will bring. I’m going to expect you to wax lyrical about how enthusiastic you are about the world’s most exciting subject of contemporary Argentinian women film directors. But realistically I want you to acknowledge that not all your students will necessarily think the same. You need to strike a balance between an idealistic and a cynical view of students.

Q. How does your research inform your teaching?

This is your opportunity to pitch your option module on contemporary Argentinian women film directors.

Q. What other subjects can you offer?

Basically I want to know that you can teach an ‘Introduction to Film History’ or an ‘Approaches to Textual Analysis’ module without making every week about contemporary Argentinian women film directors.

Q. Can you do a first-year lecture on Citizen Kane?

If you can’t, then you’re not employable. Never mind if your PhD is on contemporary Argentinian women film directors – or for that matter on new media or online fandom or digital special effects – and has no connection to Citizen Kane whatsoever: if you can’t put together a first-year lecture on Citizen Kane, then you have no business applying for a lectureship in film.

We’re probably looking for someone who can teach the core topics of film history. Whatever the subject of your own research, you need to be able to teach the core stuff.

Q. How do you think can we address the learning needs of different types of students?

You can interpret ‘different types of students’ however you want – International students for whom English is not their first language, for example, or students from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds – but what we’re looking for is an understanding that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching generally does not work well in the classroom. It’s also an opportunity for you to show that you are aware of issues around access and equal opportunities in HE.

Q. How would you differentiate between undergraduate and postgraduate teaching?

Bear in mind that appointment panels probably don’t expect you to have any experience of postgraduate teaching if you haven’t held a full-time academic post. But you’ve almost certainly taken a taught postgraduate degree yourself, so think about the differences in teaching strategy from your undergraduate degree. Good answers tend to include points such as a greater emphasis on independent learning, the ability to plan and write a research-based dissertation, etc.

Q. How do you want to develop your research beyond your PhD?

This is not actually a question about your research – it’s testing your ability to think strategically. I want to know that you are able to move beyond the very narrow focus of your PhD in order to develop your research career. So, if your PhD was on three contemporary Argentinian women film directors, I’m not going to be very impressed if your next project is looking at another three contemporary Argentinian women film directors – this suggests no intellectual imagination. But I would be interested in, say, a historical study of women film directors in South America, or a comparative study between contemporary women film directors in Argentina and other countries and/or continents, as this is the sort of project that has potential for collaborative work with other scholars, other institutions, and might lead to research network grants, for example.

In other words show that you are looking to develop your research beyond your PhD, rather than setting out on a topic that sounds like just another PhD.

Q. What are your plans for publication over the next five years?

In the UK this sort of question will probably be related to planning for the REF (Research Excellence Framework). It’s reasonable to expect applicants to have realistic publication plans that have some basis in actuality. Don’t be vague: e.g. ‘I’m looking to publish my PhD as a monograph and a couple of journal articles.’ Be specific: e.g. ‘I’m developing a monograph proposal based on my PhD which I intend to submit in the first instance to this publisher for their series on women film-makers. I am also writing an article to submit to this particular journal.’

Q. Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

This is about your career aspirations: I want to know that you are ambitious and that your ambitions will fit the strategic plan of the department/school. I don’t really want to appoint anyone who will be content to stand still. Most people will answer in relation to their research: it’s a good idea to show that you are thinking of the other projects you will move onto once you’ve exhausted the possibilities of South American women film-makers. But don’t forget your teaching: interview panels generally like to hear candidates saying there are looking to improve as scholars and to expand the range and nature of their teaching. It’s also a good opportunity for you to talk about any ‘special pidgeons’ (Brief Encounter reference!) of yours: e.g. are you interested in developing distance learning initiatives or in outreach activities with schools, are you interested in leading ‘improvement projects’ or ‘task and finish groups’ relating to recruitment, teaching and assessment strategies, curriculum development, etc?

Do NOT say ‘I want to be a Senior Lecturer in five years and hold a Chair in ten’. You might – if you’re very, very good – achieve this: but if you do, it will as a result of doing the sort of things described above.

Q. Why does film/media studies or film/media history matter?

This is asking whether you can be an advocate for your subject. Or even better an evangelist.

We all understand that the social and economic benefits of Arts and Humanities subjects are less tangible than the hard sciences (we’re never going to discover a cure for cancer or solve the problem of climate change) but you do need to show that you can speak for your subject – which will come in useful in applying for research grants (remember the current emphasis on research ‘impact’) or persuading students (and moreover their parents) that this is a subject that can lead to a satisfying career.

Q. How would you pitch film studies or film/media history to potential students at an Open Day?

The same question but specifically geared to recruitment (and bear in mind that as a new member of staff you are likely to be expected to participate in recruitment activities). A good point here is to bear in mind that Open Days that your audience is not just potential students but also their parents. Expect questions (from the parents) on how studying a ‘soft’ subject will help get a job.

Q. How do you see the future of your discipline?

I’m interested in whether you can spot wider subject trends and developments: i.e. that you have a broad-based knowledge of the field beyond your own narrow bubble. And that you can identify potential opportunities and challenges in the future: e.g. relating to student recruitment or securing research funding. There are no ‘right or wrong’ answers here – I want to know how you see the subject developing over the coming years, and how you might help to shape it.

Q. If you were offered the post, do you think you would accept it?

There is only one answer you should give here: YES! (with an audible exclamation mark). If you show any equivocation, the panel will assume that you are applying for the post as leverage in your current position – and that means our interest in you as a candidate diminishes severely.

You can possibly get away with bartering once in an academic career, but bear in mind that word gets around … and once you’ve done it, you’ll probably never get shortlisted again.

Sometimes people say ‘Well, I’ll need to discuss it with my partner/family.’ Still the wrong answer. If you’ve been shortlisted, you should have had that conversation before the interview.

It’s perfectly acceptable to say that you are currently contracted until such-and-such a date, or that your current contract requires you to give so many months notice. If you’re the right person for the job, we’re not going to worry about a couple of months on the start date.

Q. Finally, are there any questions you would like to ask us?

This is the best-disguised googlie (or maybe it’s a doosra?) in the history of cricket. It seems so benign. But many a candidate has come unstuck at this stage. Do not ask me basic questions that you could have answered by looking at our website. (There’s a story – possibly apocryphal – that an applicant to the University of Oxford asked which bus he should catch for the rail station.)

AND UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES ASK: ‘How many days a week would I need to be on campus?’ This question translates as: ‘I have no intention of moving to your crummy town or city and I think I can commute from Timbuktu and be there for just half the week.’

So what are good questions to ask? Anything that’s about the ambitions of the university or school/department that isn’t very specific in the general blurb.

And finally …

Believe it or not, there are instances of candidates who have managed to talk themselves out of a post AFTER being offered the job.

I’m writing here from the interviewer’s perspective. The first thing we do after the interview is decide whether any candidates are not appointable. That will take individuals out of the equation if they’ve had a real car crash of an interview. But it might be that we have three or four perfectly appointable candidates. So we rank the remaining candidates in order of preference. It’s quite unusual that an interview panel of five or six people all have the same ranking – and quite often the differences between individual candidates will be marginal. So we will discuss all the appointable candidates and agree on a first choice; but in all likelihood we’ll have a second and maybe a third choice as well.

So you get the phone call to offer you the job. This is not the moment to be equivocal about accepting it: your conversations with your family about relocating should have taken place before the interview. Nor is it the time to say that you can’t teach Citizen Kane after all or you don’t work Fridays or your care responsibilities mean that you can’t attend meetings after 3 p.m. The time to tell us this was during the interview (indeed preferably on the application).

You WERE our first choice. But we have a second choice and the decision might have been very marginal. If you start laying down conditions after the interview, then we might just decide to take the chance that our second choice won’t be such a royal pain in the arse.

 


James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. He reckons he has applied for around a dozen academic posts in his lifetime, has been interviewed five times and got the job twice. He regularly sits on interview panels across a range of subjects and has seen some excellent candidates, many good ones, and a few who were so diabolically awful that he thought he was taking part in a Candid Camera experiment.

 


 

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18 Comments

  1. This blog post is unprofessional and patronizing in its tone. No colleague in Film and Media Studies in the UK that I know would speak to ECRs like this. This post sends out a terrible message about how ECRs, especially those who aren’t able-bodied, white, men, are treated in the UK when they apply for jobs. It should be taken down immediately, and an apology to all ECRS should be sent out on the listserve that promoted it.

  2. Shelley: I will beg to differ that my comments are unprofessional or patronising to early career researchers – unless cautioning people against elementary mistakes (all of which I have seen in job applications), advising them to tailor their applications to fit the job descriptions, and offering them a few pointers as to the sort of questions they might be asked in an interview are deemed patronising. By the same token it would, presumably, be patronising to advise our students to research their essays thoroughly, to answer the question and to proof read their work? Nor do I see where the blog discriminates against women, disabled or non-white applicants. If you would care to point out the offending passages, however, I will gladly take another look at them.

    Other feedback that I have received on the blog has been very positive, including from early career researchers who do not seem to have felt patronised.

    If you would like to discuss this further, please email me at jrc28@le.ac.uk

    James

  3. Rebecca Harrison

    As an ECR with a permanent post who has the luxury and privilege of speaking out when I see sexism and ableism in academia, I wholeheartedly agree with Shelley. This post is incredibly patronising and the advice it offers is contrary to everything we are striving to achieve regarding equality and diversity, and flexible working, within Higher Education (I also speak as the leader of my school’s Athena Swan team). It is disingenuous to suggest you have only had praise from ECRs – I sent my letter of complaint at around 1.30pm this afternoon. Moreover, while I’m sure many of us would appreciate you taking the time to revisit the blog and identify the ‘offending passages’ it is up to you to do that work. Asking us to perform that labour for you only exacerbates the imbalance of power in the situation, and I’m sure there must be people at IAMHIST that have the analytical and critical skills to solve the problem.

  4. I found this blog informative and useful. However, I confess there were twinges that might have resonated more strongly with Dr Cobb, and wonder if I shouldn’t share them.

    1. The default of a Doctor Jones as addressee certainly speaks to a British university context, but I thought, as I read it, that if I were writing, I might consider the range of surnames that reflects the global and ethnic diversity of Britain. Particularly in the current political context of the UK, but also beyond.

    2. The clothing recommendations, while amusing, were flippant, and strangely focussed on academic women’s wear and seemed to suggest we dress for clubbing by default. It also may sting because it is not beyond the norm for people to spend an inordinate amount of time assessing women’s clothing choices. The T-shirt was a gesture to more gender neutral impropriety, but I guess I wonder about how to treat this topic. Clothing is really a fraught issue, and perhaps guidance that doesn’t presume a tacit acceptability that doesn’t even need to be described would be helpful. In other words: Why not provide recommendations, rather than assume that everyone has this ideal in their head (especially depending upon where they come from and given that I have seen many white male academics get away with some seriously ratty clothing choices).

    3. Although there was the advance apology to Argentinian women directors and/or the people who study them, it was interesting how that was selected as the notion of ‘niche’ and outwith the standard for teaching cinema studies. I mean, on a pedagogical level, I am delighted by the idea of teaching introductions to film studies (and film analysis) using solely films outwith the Hollywood white male canon which is treated as default here (Citizen Kane). To be sure, we all need to be ready to teach anything, but to me, that would mean someone should be just as ready to teach on women filmmakers (inevitably less known given the masculinist tendencies of our field– being disrupted by scholars like Dr Cobb) or Latin American filmmakers. I certainly understand and appreciate the advice behind your suggestion (don’t appear so niche as to be ineffective in teaching and researching in the field, or in having a larger picture), but the choice of example is alienating. I’d advise my standby example (Deleuze) but as that has often turned friends against me, perhaps not.

    These are a few of the tacit ways the post started to alienate me as a reader, or to make me wonder about the default understanding of our field. I see no malice here, and again, the advice as given is valuable and appreciated, but I do wonder about some of the other ways this information could be presented.

    I likely wouldn’t have commented directly to you although as I would have opened this question with other students, I suppose I’ll take the risk of being open.

  5. The blog is public, so any conversation we have about it must be public. I’m not surprised you’ve received some positive feedback, but I am also aware that you have received some negative and critical feedback from a range of academics, some posted as responses that have not made it past the blog’s moderator. If your blog had stuck to the pieces of advice you mention above and used a professional tone, it might have been fine and probably unremarkable. However, it is your tone and some specific extra comments that I take issue with. At minimum the post is patronizing because you tell ECRs not to tell jokes in an interview and then this entire blog proceeds in a joking tone, full of silly memes and irony. I understand they are two different contexts, but this is a practice what you preach / model what you want situation. And you have undermined your own position. It is also patronizing to be specific in telling people what to and what not to wear. And it is sexist because the t-shirt you mention could be worn by a woman or man, but pointing specifically to plunging necklines and microskirts singles out women. It is also unreasonable to tell candidates that they must accept straight away on the phone. Academic posts are professional jobs and we must treat applicants as professionals, which includes expecting that they might negotiate a job offer. And I find your comments regarding when is the appropriate time for candidates to mention caring responsibilities and other needs for flexible schedules problematic. I can’t imagine any recruitment or careers advisor would recommend stating those things before one is offered the job. The moment when the candidate has the most (or any) power is when they have been offered the job. Your blog ‘finally’ comments imply that by asking for these things after being offered the job would put the candidate at risk for having the offer rescinded. If I were an ECR I would read that as suggesting that at no point should I ask for such things, and especially not on the application where it might keep me from getting an interview in the first place. It is, as you say, a very competitive job market, but in the midst of that, those of us in senior positions have a responsibility to engage with ECRs as the future peers that they will become.

  6. Dear Shelley,

    In response to your comment: ‘but I am also aware that you have received some negative and critical feedback from a range of academics, some posted as responses that have not made it past the blog’s moderator’, all of the comments made directly to James’s blog by non-anonymous sources, i.e. yours, Leshu Torchin’s and Rebecca Harrison’s, have been made public. If you could please let me know if you are aware of anyone’s comment which has not yet been published, then please do contact me directly so that I can rectify the situation.

    Best wishes,

    Llewella

  7. Dear Leshu,

    Thank you for your comments: I’m glad you found the blog helpful in some respects, even if you dislike some of the more flippant comments. I think the tone of a blog, which tend to be quite informal, is different from a piece in, say, a print journal.

    In response to a couple of your points, I used the example of the apocryphal “Dr Jones” for no reason other than I had Raiders of the Lost Ark on my mind at the time, while my “three Argentinian women film makers” is, I hope, an example of the kind of subject that colleagues will recognise as a focused and original PhD-type subject of a sort that is familiar in film studies today, while at the same time offering the sort of scope for imaginative expansion into wider but related fields that would demonstrate the sort of research trajectory one would expect from an early career scholar.

    As a man, I know I have it easy when it comes to dressing for interviews: my only real decision is whether to depart from the standard uniform of suit and tie by going tieless (signifying louche semi non-conformist) or going all retro with a sports jacket. For women it’s much more problematic. The actual experience that I was thinking of at the time of making my comment on dressing for interviews illustrates this.

    Some years ago I was sitting as the ‘lay’ person on an appointment panel for a lectureship in another department. One of the candidates was a woman who was certainly not wearing my apocryphal microskirt but rather a perfectly normal skirt that came to just above the knee. Unfortunately, when she sat down, the skirt rode up to about halfway up her thighs. It was a warm day in the summer and the candidate was not wearing tights. She was evidently uncomfortable throughout the interview as she sat trying all the time to pull the skirt down – and therefore did not interview as well as she might have done. It was also uncomfortable for the people on the interview panel – especially the men. I found myself so concerned to make it very obvious that I was not looking at her legs that I found myself looking past and over her head and not making proper eye contact with the candidate. I’m not sure what as an interview panel we could or should have done: this situation was not covered in fair selection training. We couldn’t obviously invite her to withdraw and change. I wondered for a while whether I should offer her my jacket to cover her knees, but decided against it as I felt it would draw attention to and acknowledge a situation that everyone in the room, in a very British sort of way, was trying to pretend wasn’t happening.

    Fortunately there was a happy outcome on this occasion, as, despite the wardrobe malfunction, the candidate was offered the post.

    Best wishes,
    James

  8. Shelley:

    If you wish the conversation to be in public, then I am happy to oblige. The response to my blog has indeed been most illuminating. Most of the feedback I have received, judging from the comments on Twitter and the number of likes and retweets, has been very positive, notably from early career researchers, including both women and men, the constituency for whom it was primarily intended, who seem to have accepted the blog for what it is, i.e. some practical advice leavened with some humour and levity (6000 words of do this and don’t do that would have been pretty dull). The three or four negative comments I have received have mostly been from more established scholars in permanent posts who seem to have taken it upon themselves to be offended on the part of ECRs.

    In my experience candidates who have requested flexible working hours either at the application stage or during the interview have not been disadvantaged when it comes to shortlisting or making offers. There have, however, been instances of candidates who have ‘blown it’ by confirming during an interview that they are able to teach such-and-such a course, and then after the event saying theyre unwilling to do so. This is not negotiating; it is not accepting the conditions of the post. And these cases hadnothing to do with people with childcare or other care responsibilities. A more senior and established scholar has some power to negotiate: but the competition for new lectureships these days is so intense that it would seem highly inadvisable to me that anyone should equivocate. They can at least accept verbally and then wait for the offer letter while having conversations with their families. When I was offered my first (and for that matter my second) academic post, on both occasions I’d said yes before I’d even heard the salary offer.

    I will disagree that my comments are sexist: the examples I use of silly t-shirts and plunging necklines and microskirts are so extremely parodic that I’m surprised anyone has taken them literally. On a strictly technical note, I don’t know that microskirts are necessarily a gender specific example, as presumably a male or transgender person could choose to wear one?

    In any event, it’s an advice blog: like all advice, people can take it or leave it.

    James

  9. Rebecca:

    I think most of the issues you raise have been covered in my replies to Shelley and Leshu, so I won’t bother repeating them again here. For the record, however, I did not say, as you suggest, that I “have only had praise from ECRs”. In fact what I said was “Other feedback that I have received on the blog has been very positive, including from early career researchers who do not seem to have felt patronised”. My first reply to Shelley was made yesterday evening, at which time I had not read your response to the blog which I saw shortly after it was posted here this morning.

    James

  10. If criticism of this blog has come primarily from those in established posts, I wonder if the author has considered why this might be the case. If I were an ECR who might apply at some point to the author’s institution or whose work might be sent to him as an editor or peer reviewer, or who might need a reference from him, I might well think twice about publicly criticising him in a forum such as this, presumably read by many in the field. All the more so if I had formed the impression he is the kind of person who is unable to recognise his own sexist assumptions and is in the habit of discarding job applications on a whim (e.g. because he doesn’t like the font etc or doesn’t want to engage with the norms of other academic cultures).
    Perhaps the author would contend that these power dynamics don’t exist – in that case one might wonder why he stages himself in the blog as the all-powerful professor who holds the ECR’s fate in his hands. (It may reassure some readers to know that in my experience this is indeed a fantasy – but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to come across someone who’s caught up in that fantasy when you apply for a job. Indeed, if one were going to write a blog that Illustrates that phenomenon, it might read very much like this one.)

  11. Jackie:

    Thank you for your comments. The general line of criticism seems to echo previous comments, including those by your colleague, to which I have already replied.

    Readers are of course able to make up their own minds, but I really don’t think there’s anything in the blog that suggests I am positioning myself as an “all-powerful professor who holds the fate of ECRs in his hands”. As a point of information, there are usually five people on an appointment panel which safeguards against one individual’s preferences prevailing in the decision-making process.

    I have, nevertheless, seen some diabolically awful applications in which the applicant clearly needed advice from someone. My blog – as it states – is intended to help applicants maximise their chances of being shortlisted (tiny or non-standard fonts, frankly, do not help the cause)and to point out some pitfalls to avoid. Most of my correspondents have accepted it in that spirit, though if you disagree, then fine: it is an advice blog – nothing more and nothing less – and ECRs can decide for themselves whether to take some of the advice on board or whether to disregard it.

    James

  12. ‘Argentinian women directors’? Please – using ‘women directors’ as an example of a limited research area which needs to expand…There are film directors, who may be women or men, and may or may not direct films which deal with topics of gender and sexuality. Some of this advice is simply wrong. On an open teaching and research contract, applicants should not major in their applications on their teaching experience. Most Universities I know, including Russell Group which the last time I looked Leicester was a member of look to hire primarily by looking at research focus to these lectureship posts. Teaching competence is important but God help the candidate who does not understand that REF and potential for research grant capture, and public engagement and impact of that research is the primary focus of shortlisting and appointing panels.

  13. Dear Emma,
    Thank you for your comments, which raise some important points.
    My advice (which I think is clear in the blog)is that for T&R posts, candidates should tailor their application to the job description and person specification. The job description will provide an indication of the institution’s/department’s priorities for this particular post. So, if the job description focuses first on teaching, then I would advise an applicant to do the same, and vice versa if the description focuses first on research. I agree with you, entirely, that a candidate who does not understand the REF and have realistic ideas for grants, impact and public engagement has no chance. The large majority of the early career scholars I meet tend to be very clued up about these matters.
    But the same point (as in God help them if they don’t) also applies to the candidate who has not thought about pedagogy, who does not want to engage with improving the student experience, or who expects to teach only in the area of their research specialism. And with the TEF now upon us, teaching qualifications and HEA accreditation are becoming more and more important. All the job advertisements I see specify excellence in teaching AND research: we’re certainly not going to be satisfied with mere competence in either area. (I think that across the sector – though this is my own impressionistic view – the emphasis has shifted more towards teaching since the introduction of full fees: teaching is our bread-and-butter in the sense that for most institutions it brings in more income than research grants. University of Leicester is not a member of the Russell Group, by the way.)
    As for my example of Argentinian women directors, I think I addressed this point in my reply to Leshu: I’m not suggesting that this subject is niche – indeed Spanish and Spanish language cinemas are one of the particular specialisms in my own institution – but rather that it’s representative of the sort of well-defined but narrowly-focused PhD thesis undertaken in film studies today and which offers scope to be expanded either historically or by geographical area into what could be a larger research project with (potentially) significant impact potential. I could have chosen, for the sake of example, British Asian film-makers or German political documentarists, or many others, but I just happened to use Argentinian women directors. (The actual experience I was thinking of – which you’ll understand I can’t be very specific about – was a candidate whose research was on women poets, and whose idea of expanding it was to look at other women poets from the same area and period, in other words something that sounded like another PhD rather than suggesting broadening and developing their research.)
    I hope this provides some clarification and context.
    Best wishes,
    James

  14. Thank you, James for such a useful and informative blog. I’ll certainly take this advice on board when applying for jobs. I particularly enjoyed the film references and cricket metaphors!

  15. Leen Engelen and Katharina Niemeyer

    We should like to react on the advice blog of our colleague James Chapman, and also on some of the comments made on the blog post. We are both members of the IAMHIST council, but we are writing this response in our own name.

    There are several things at play. We certainly do not agree with the overall patronizing tone of the blog and with some of the advice given. There are some useful and helpful ideas for younger scholars, but as demonstrated by others in their comments, the tone is most of the time problematically patronizing and some advice, examples and illustrations are filled with disturbing stereotypes. In addition to this, the probably good intention to make things light and funny just makes it worse and shows how big the problem (in academia) really still is; above and under the surface.
    The blog post simply ignores al lot of the hard work that has been done over the past few years regarding inclusion, diversity and equal opportunities and awareness about these issues, in many fields, including academia. This is (as we can see from the comments) a slap in the face of those who have fought so hard for these changes. We are part of those who try to change the still existing problems within and outside academia by addressing these topics seriously and with respect.

    Still, a blog post is not a scientific paper or an official iamhist publication signed by all council members or members, but a more informal piece of writing by an individual author. Blogs usually express personal ideas, analysis and reflections. Not seldom, blogs provoke debate and discussion. We feel uncomfortable by the suggestion that this should not be the case for the IAMHIST blog.

    The topic will definitely be addressed internally during the next iamhist board meetings. As members of the board, we will continue to strive for equal opportunities and diversity within the association.

  16. I am late to the party and late to comment but I did want to add something about my own feeling of disquiet with some of the advice given in the original blogpost which blended some very sound and sensible guidance for ECRs with other bits of advice which seemed (to me) to be either incorrect or particularly biased, unconsciously perhaps, against female job candidates. For example, the selection of studying a particular group of women directors as the epitome of a niche interest (why not use mid-century British television adventure series as a charmingly self-deprecating alternative?), the singling out of women’s supposedly inappropriate dress in interviews(why not advise the men not to wear clinging drainpipe trousers which an old mum-perv like me might find distracting? or why not just say ‘dress professionally and in whatever you’ll feel most comfortable and confident in’?), and why the suggestion that you must immediately accept whatever you’re being offered with no room for further consultation with family or negotiation around specific ‘reasonable’ adjustments? I could go on but I think others have raised similar concerns more extensively and eloquently. It pains me to say it but I think a blogpost like this has the potential to make women feel like they’re not welcome in the profession, on various different intersecting fronts, and I find this worrying and disappointing. I think it’s crucial that senior colleagues offer robust and candid advice to younger colleagues about getting a job, and I appreciate that this was what this blogpost was trying to do, but we need to be careful what we say, do some serious soul-searching about our own unconscious biases, and try to change our profession for the better rather than replicate and perpetuate its more hidebound prejudices.

  17. Dear Melanie,

    Thank you for your very reasonable and constructive comments made with good humour and without rancour: I thought I would respond, not in order to rehash the previous discussion, but to acknowledge that I am reading all comments and taking them on board. It was certainly was not my intention to suggest or imply that women are not welcome in our profession.

    As for Argentinian women film-makers, I chose this as an example of what I thought was a representative sort of PhD topic that an apocryphal candidate might have undertaken. It’s an example I’ve been using at IAMHIST career workshops for some time without anyone complaining, and, as I mentioned in a previous comment, is an invented example inspired by an actual candidate whose idea of developing their research was to do more of the same rather than expanding it either historically or geographically. I wanted to use an example that demonstrated film studies has moved beyond Hollywood and Western Europe (hence Argentina: I could equally have chosen Iran or China or any number of other national cinemas) and that acknowledged the growing scholarly interest in the agency of women film-makers (as exemplified by the current and recent AHRC projects on women’s film history). In other words it seemed to me to represent the sort of topic that has intellectual currency within the discipline today rather than a niche subject.

    I think most readers have accepted my “no plunging necklines or microskirts please” comment in the spirit in which it was intended: as an obviously extreme and parodic example of how not to dress to an interview. I’m not entirely sure from some of the previous comments whether the objection is that the advice itself is wrong or whether a man has no right to express an opinion on women’s dress. I would maintain that the comment is not actually gendered as it does not specify any gender, and to assume that only women wear skirts excludes others who might choose to do so, such as transgender or transsexual persons, cis gender men who choose to wear skirts, or people who identify with no gender and for whom the whole notion of gendered clothing is therefore, one presumes, entirely redundant. (I notice that in some of the comments that have circulated on social media my comment has been changed to say “ladies, no plunging necklines or microskirts please”, the gendered prefix being added by others.)

    I think your point about what does and does not constitute “reasonable adjustment” and how the candidate should broach this is the most important issue here. On reflection I see how the last paragraph might be read as implying “do not request flexible working if you have childcare responsibilities” (of course both men and women might have care responsibilities, so again this is not a gender-specific issue)even though it does not mention flexible working. I could, and should, have made it clearer that I was referring to candidates who place unreasonable restrictions on their availability (e.g. the candidate without external responsibilities who expects to be able to determine their own timetable, as in “I don’t work Fridays” – as astonishing as it is, I have come across this). That said, I don’t think the blog actually crosses the line of current employment law. We both know that the employer’s legal duty to make reasonable adjustment for candidates who request it does not mean an automatic entitlement to finish at three o’clock – though it’s been my experience that university departments bend over backwards to accommodate their staff wherever possible. In that context I’m not persuaded that the candidate raising the subject at interview would prejudice their chances of being offered the post if they were the best candidate. But perhaps I have a slightly idealistic or rose-tinted view of academia? In any event, my advice to a candidate who is requesting flexible working is still that they should accept the job offer without too much equivocation.

    As a general (and I hope uncontroversial) point, when all other factors have been taken into account, if an appointment panel is faced with a choice between two otherwise equally matched candidates, the one whose answers are “yes I can do that” will usually be preferred over one whose answers are “no I can’t do that” – hence my advice not to place (unreasonable) limitations on your availability and what you are willing to teach.

    I hope you’ll be pleased to hear that my next advice blog, on planning publications and the REF, will include a range of both mainstream and niche subjects to ensure that all areas of our subject are acknowledged. It will studiously avoid any references whatsoever to dress, though I expect there will be a few cricket jokes – at least no-one has complained about those (thus far at least!)

    Best wishes,
    James

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