‘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.



Meeting Muffin & Friends – An afternoon with Will McNally

Gabrielle Smith, Northumbria University

24 May 2017

I should preface this blog post by saying that the story of Muffin the Mule has become something of a pet project of mine, not to mention, a wider part of my Ph.D research. Back in October 2016, the seventieth anniversary of Muffin’s first broadcast was not only a cause for celebration, but a cultural landmark in British children’s television. In commemorating the very first appearance of the small, stringed, ‘kicking mule’ on the BBC, the history of this marionette is but the beginning of a long and ongoing relationship of puppets and presenters on TV. In tracing Muffin, as a wooden progenitor to a growing and somewhat illustrious family of marionettes, puppets (and even Muppets) made for children’s television, the presenter and the puppet as a sidekick has been a mainstay attraction for British children’s television for over half a century. It is this perennial fascination with puppetry that requires further exploration, and how it has been traditionally used as a device for presentation as well as an integral part of storytelling for kids’ TV.

Delving deeper into the ways in which the popular and well-loved figure of Muffin the Mule captured an audience both then and now, the original programme can be regarded as pioneering, on several levels. First shown on For The Children (the original run 1937-1939, with a return in 1946-1951), the inaugural appearance of Muffin the Mule took place in a twelve minute live performance, broadcast from Alexandra Palace in 1946. Moving into the 1950s, puppets played a hugely important role for children’s television, and Muffin was to be joined by several of his puppet friends. These included other characters such as Poppy the Parrot, Sally the Seal and Crumpet the Clown. Although, as Anna Home remarks Muffin the Mule was to be hailed as the first real television star (1993:50). Not alone in his stardom, Muffin was accompanied by actress Annette Mills at the piano, and puppeteer and performer Ann Hogarth of the Hogarth Puppet Theatre –  the programme’s producer, Jan Bussell was also married to Hogarth and shared her love of puppeteering for all ages.

The story of how Mills and the Hogarth Puppet Circus came to work together to produce the programme is at the heart of Muffin’s tale/tail. Indeed, the passion and enthusiasm shared by the married couple’s interest in the art of puppetry more broadly, is highlighted in Hogarth’s obituary.  Penny Francis comments that, ‘The Hogarth Puppets were Britain’s leading exponents of the art of puppetry for many years. Their work bridged the transition between the naturalistic, imitative style of puppets still common in the early days and the highly stylised work to be seen from the Sixties and Seventies.’ (The Independent: 1993)

Last summer, I was lucky enough to meet Will McNally who, as the grandson of Hogarth and Bussell, was well placed to talk me through the Muffin phenomenon. In spending some time with him and looking through his archive, I saw first-hand some of the amazing Muffin artefacts. These included a range of diverse merchandise, toys, books and programme material, as well as the impeccably preserved marionettes themselves. In explaining to me how his grandparents, ‘were touring puppeteers and had a little caravan they converted to a puppet theatre,’ Will told me how the couple would ‘travel all around the country, going to different parks, particularly the Royal Parks in London.’ As the story goes – in 1934 Fred Tickner was commissioned to make a new wooden puppet, a kicking mule, which Will iterated ‘wasn’t created or designed to be Muffin then.’ It was only when Annette Mills and Jan Bussell, (who at the time was working as a television producer) met that the Muffin as we know him came into being. Mills had the desire to create a programme suitable for children, wherein she could sing her songs.

She [Mills] knew my grandfather was into puppetry, and asked if he would make a puppet to illustrate her songs, and he rather haughtily said, ‘no, come to my house and select one of my puppets’. She obviously thought it was a good idea and selected the kicking mule. It was Annette who named him ‘Muffin the Mule’. (McNally: 2016)

Mills and co-creator Ann Hogarth were credited in their roles as helping Muffin, by ‘writing the songs’ and ‘pulling the strings’. In a decision made by Bussell and the BBC, the choice to place their own approved version of a mother figure in the programme was in that of Annette Mills. This reflected some of the wider anxieties surrounding children’s television at the time. In his work, David Oswell observes that most felt that in an ideal world children would be watching the wonderful new medium with an adult. Naturally, this would not always be the case and in effort to try and counter this concern, the presence of Mills ensured that there would always be a proper, appropriate and perhaps even maternal voice to guide them. In addition to this, McGown notes that, ‘Mills and Hogarth felt non-speaking animal characters better stimulated young imaginations’ – a quality that is reflected in the way Muffin is seen to trot up and down the surface of Mill’s grand piano. The puppet would occasionally pause, perhaps to whisper something into Mill’s ear, which only she would understand and translate for the benefit of the audience.

Being with Will it was clear that he held the memories of both his grandparents and of Muffin dear. He explained to me that, ‘Muffin was loved by everyone…adored the world over, all ages, and seemed to have this knack of bringing people together.’ Whilst the figure of Muffin the Mule has grown into something of icon, he has also become a piece of British television history, both materially and on the screen. The ongoing legacy and the traditional role of puppet on children’s television, has undoubtedly cast Muffin as something of a forefather for the puppet’s place on TV, creating a space for those that followed suit. Glove puppets like Gordon the Gopher, Edd the Duck, and even the contemporary CBBC sidekicks – two cheeky dogs called Hacker and Dodge, now seem to have replaced the stringed marionette. But what remains is the self-same ‘naughtiness’ and foolishness that Muffin instilled. Even this was indicated in the programme’s original theme song:

Here comes Muffin/

Muffin the Mule.

Dear old Muffin/

Playing the fool.

Before I left that afternoon, Will said to me: You asked me earlier about my grandparents and what they thought about Muffin their aim was to push the boundaries.

Muffin indeed changed the landscape of children’s television in Britain from the off. Puppets have set the tone, being more than just a mere prop, but as Lury puts it an ‘anthropomorphic pal’ for the presenter for years to come. (35:2001)

Gabrielle Smith is a Ph.D research candidate at Northumbria University, Newcastle and is a Film and Television graduate from the universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow. Her current research identifies the development of the role of the British children’s TV presenter from the 1940s through to the present day, whilst reflecting on gender and performance on screen. She is also a blog-writer for the Children’s Media Conference, Sheffield.


Email: gabrielle.smith@northumbria.ac.uk




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