My First UK Job Interview

Compared to the Swedish system, academic recruitment is extremely swift in the UK. In Scandyland, it’s typically 7 months from the application deadline to the rejection letter, mainly because of slow external referees. The worst I’ve seen was 14 months. But in the UK, it’s all done in a matter of weeks.

I recently had the pleasure of receiving my first invitation to an interview for a UK academic job. Though in the end I didn’t actually get the job, it was overall a very friendly and pleasant experience. Before I describe my trip, I’ll relate a story told to me by one of the other applicants about a horrific job interview he once did in Ireland.

This guy was informed that he had made the short list, and was asked to show up at a certain door on campus at a certain time. He travelled to Ireland, found the door, and realised that it opened on an anonymous conference room in the campus computer lab building. This was nowhere near the archaeology department. He gave a test lecture and an interview, and then the Head of Department said goodbye. Back to the airport without even seeing the department, fly home, receive rejection letter.

My English experience was very different. On the first evening, a minibus taxi picked me and the other four short-listed scholars up at the centrally located hotel where the department had put us up. We went to the home of the Head of Department, where we were joined by a considerable number of departmental staff members. The HoD and his wife proceeded to wine and dine us all in royal style, and after an evening of laughter and camaraderie the taxi took us applicants back to the hotel.

The following morning I took a 45-minute sunlit walk to campus, found the department, was offered coffee, and then gave my test lecture to staff and students. To keep me from booing and hissing at my competitors (I suppose), I was then sent out of the lecture room and given a tour of the department by the friendly secretary. Afterwards I took a walk on my own around campus, looking at gardens and buildings and students, and had something to eat while the other four gave their lectures. At an appointed time, staff, applicants, MA students and PhD students all gathered among the display cases in the departmental museum and had sandwiches and pastries for lunch on the departmental buck, while we all mingled about and chatted.

I was then shown by the secretary to another building, where I was interviewed by four men in suits. Two of them were the HoD and an associate professor, with both of whom I was at this point on a friendly first-name basis. The third was a professor from another faculty, and the fourth was the Head of School (an organisational level between the department and the faculty). As far as I can tell the interview went reasonably well, though I forgot to brag about my new-media prowess and my collaboration with amateur archaeologists, and I got some bad-cop questions from the Head of School. To the latter, I of course came up with excellent ésprit d’escalier replies afterwards. And as my friend Tor had warned me, it was a little confusing to be asked about things that I had already given full info on in my written application, a copy of which each suit-clad man was holding.

But all in all, I don’t think it was poor performance either at the lecture or at the interview that lost me the job. The HoD explained to me that all five on the short list were more than employable. He even quipped that if he were to apply for jobs today with the qualifications that secured him his first academic job back in the 70s, he wouldn’t even make the short list. Though few of my age can beat my publication record, I do have very little formal experience of life as a university lecturer. When I explained to the Head of School that co-editing eleven years’ worth of Swedish archaeology’s main research journal teaches a man one or two things about admin, he just smiled thinly and said, “You know, that sounds more like fun to me”.

All in all, though I didn’t get the job, my trip to England was made quite a heartening experience by the friendliness and consideration of everyone involved. I came away feeling not rejected, but as if I have actually climbed a rung on my rickety career ladder just by being considered for a UK job. I don’t reveal the name of the place here because I have a vague feeling that this would be a transgressive act. But if anybody involved is reading this, please accept my heartfelt thanks for the great way you all took care of us applicants! And to the person who did get the job, my best wishes.

Update same evening: A student just wrote me and said they were disappointed that I didn’t get the job! YES! Now I am a proud man!

Update next day: And another one! “I am very disappointed that you did not get the position within our department. Unfortunately, so are a number of other students. We all wanted you to know that you were great and we very much enjoyed your presentation and your approachability.”

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Comments

  1. #1 Richard D
    October 29, 2010

    Well bad luck on not getting the job but I am glad you had such a good experience of the UK academic climate.

    I’m not sure myself if, after I am done, I am going down that route (or will even have a chance tbh) but I know what you mean, just to come close to such jobs gives one a shot of confidence.

  2. #2 ArchAsa
    October 29, 2010

    Thank you for helping to lift the veil on the process. It sounds very familiar to what another of my colleagues experienced being interviewed for a job at a University in northern UK. I like how the British make use of the process to highlight their own department and hopefully creating a good relationship with all applicants. As well as speeding up the process in general.

    My friend didn’t get the job either, but they department embraced him in their netmork and included him into several future potential projects. This made the time and energy spent on it rewarding for all concerned.

    As for the horrible Swedish system – don’t get me started. Mainly the problem is based in funding. We don’t have the money to fly in applicants from abroad or wine and dine them. Though maybe with some creative reshuffling of funds…?
    Also, the hiring boards could really use a few professionals overseing the proceedings.

  3. #3 Jette L.
    October 29, 2010

    Martin, you are a great person. I am sorry that you didnt get the job, but the way you describe this as a good experience calls for admiration- in the best sense. At least, you gave the impressioon, that the process was fair and dignified: lets be honest: the opposite is sadly common, so thumbs up on your experience. To be fair, i normally find british researchers etc. to be both fair and full of largesse, and this lives up to my expectations.

  4. #4 TheBrummell
    October 29, 2010

    Glad to hear that the process doesn’t have to be painful or frustrating. I’m hoping when the time comes for me to go through that process (presumably in a Geography or Biology department, rather than Archaeology or Anthropology), it will be similar. I’ve heard too many nasty stories like the Irish one you relate, happier stories like yours are always enjoyeable to read.

  5. #5 Sigmund
    October 29, 2010

    I am more shocked that someone actually flew to Ireland thinking they had a chance of a job!

  6. #6 Martin R
    October 29, 2010

    Thanks guys!

    Åsa, in my experience, the referees for Swedish jobs tend to be unabashedly partisan on issues of academic taste. Heads of department have a lot of say in who gets to referee. And so the supposedly impartial system is largely a charade. In the UK, the HoD openly chairs the committee that makes the choice.

  7. #7 Mu
    October 29, 2010

    A friend of mine came back from an interview for a CS tenure track position. He said he lost to affirmative action in regards to increasing gender diversity in the CS faculty. When I asked for a more detailed explanation he said that sounded better than saying he lost to the first CS PhD with size D cups he’d seen in his 10 years at the University.
    As such, the Irish experience doesn’t sound too bad.

  8. #8 Nick Williams
    October 29, 2010

    Hi Martin

    Sorry to hear you didn’t get the job. I was hoping that you would get it and then being neighbours, I’d have the chance to speak Swedish again. Glad to hear the experience was a positive one.

    As someone who has experience of applying for university jobs in both Sweden and the UK I can shed some light on the funnier things about UK job interviews at publically funded organisations. Asking the applicants questions to which they have already given the answers on their application forms and that all the interviewers wear suits may seem odd.

    Asking you questions which you’ve already answered is partly to find out if you are telling the truth and partly because the interview panel have to ask the same set of scripted questions to all applicants. The aim is that all applicants should be treated equally. The panel, either during the interview, or shortly afterwards, score the applicants, so that the highest scorer gets the job. This limits any possibility of bias.

    The reason for the suits is formality. The interviewers only carry out a set of procedures which have been drawn up and directed in consultation with the HR Department. Informality should not influence proceedings as that again could lead to bias.

    I was recently in the weird situation of interviewing an internal applicant who I work with. I asked her a question that I knew she could answer, but which because of the pressure of the situation she fumbled. After having showed her how to use a piece of software a whole morning the previous week, I asked her in the interview if she had experience of using that kind of IT and to give me the name of some software. The other interview panel members afterwards told me not to let my prior knowledge colour my scoring of the applicants. We had to come to a common decision based only on the replies the applicants had given to our questions.

    The reason that the Head of Department joked on this occasion with you about how they would be unqualified in today’s employment market is as follows. They were admitting they had the essential but not the desirable criteria for the job they were interviewing you for.

    Job applicants at UK universities are selected and interviewed on the basis of how well they meet essential and desirable criteria. The essential criteria make up the lowest knowledge/skill/experience level needed to do the job, while the desirable criteria make up the highest knowledge/skill/experience level which would allow an applicant to excel in the role.

    Anyway, best of luck.

    Nick

  9. #9 Martin R
    October 29, 2010

    Scripted uniform questions? Formal scoring? Wow, that is very interesting information! Thank you! It makes the men in suits that much less intimidating, to know that they are essentially forced to act like puppets.

    The HoD did praise me afterwards for giving straightforward answers. It never occurred to me that they might have to watch out for people who lie in the paperwork and/or the interview.

    One thing I’m going to do in my next job appplication is append a list of all the grants I’ve ever received. They’re not very big, but they are extremely many. That’s how I make ends meet as a scholar.

  10. #10 LykeX
    October 29, 2010

    “he said that sounded better than saying he lost to the first CS PhD with size D cups he’d seen in his 10 years at the University”

    Pardon me if I’m being sensitive here, but I hope there’s no implication that just because the woman had big boobs, she couldn’t also be better qualified than your friend.

  11. #11 Nick Williams
    October 29, 2010

    The reason the applicants all get asked the same questions is that if one of them (a woman, foreigner, disabled person) who has been unsuccessful later tries to sue the university for being unfairly treated, the HR department is be obliged to produce evidence of how it has given all the applicants the same opportunity to show that they are suitable for the role. The questions and the marking scheme are then used to protect the university in any possible legal action against it.

    I’d definitely include evidence of grants received. All researchers these days have to submit funding applications on behalf of their departments.

  12. #12 Charlotte
    October 30, 2010

    Thank you for casting light on the application process in the UK: at least it gives the impression of a fair process. I have experienced that one of the referees of a position i applied for told afterwards, that the chosen candidate was below the essential level (which i wasnt) but got the job anyway by pressure from the HoD. A system failure and complete sell-out to ignore academic qualifications and grants recieved. The main problem is of course the damaging effect of this praxis on the reseach level and on the education of future academics. -And in my experience, cup-size has nothing to do with it :-)

  13. #13 Jonathan Jarrett
    October 31, 2010

    Martin, I’m very sorry you didn’t get it, but I think that you’re right that being interviewed is a step inside the structure, and it sounds as if you have various ideas already about how to make the next application and interview hit even harder, so who knows… The grants list is definitely worth doing, too, that will be a real selling point I’d guess. Better luck next time, and may the next time not be far off!

  14. #14 Rikard
    November 1, 2010

    Sorry you didn’t get the job.

    Did you wear a suit? I once went for a postdoc interview in the UK at the research council in my field. All the British interviewees wore suits. All of us (there were a few) Europeans did not. It felt a bit awkward…

  15. #15 Martin R
    November 1, 2010

    Haha, Rikard, I wore neither suit nor tie, but the two English applicants and the entire committee did! I began my interview by apologising for this and explaining that I was wearing a native costume.

  16. #16 Rikard
    November 2, 2010

    Yes, yes, the native Swedish costumes are very dear to us.

  17. #17 Roman
    November 7, 2010

    @#7

    Given how women were discriminated against in science for decades, I am all for giving them some preference in hiring, as long as the gender imbalance is so drastic.

    My SO says that the only thing worse (from the discrimination POV) from being a woman in science is being a pretty woman in science. It just encourages the bigots even more to think that you’re stupid.