Answers not to give at an academic interview

I’ve recently spent a lot of time in our HR suite conducting job interviews and here are the answers to questions at interview that I suggest avoiding or at least thinking about a bit more.

My upfront disclaimer: – a) this is just my view, b) there is no academia, if you are an an ECR, talk with a trusted mentor who understands your field better than I do – there are lots of difference between fields and this means a sensible answer in one area is a dumb one in another.

So here are some random thoughts in no particular order.

I’m going to publish all of the things!

Now this varies depending on if you are an ECR or a bit further on in your career but the key rule is that it’s got to be credible in light of your CV. In a tough job market it’s very easy to over-promise but for various reasons (partly to do with changes to the REF that is a different blog entirely) it is better to have a clear research strategy that shows you are selective. I’m more interested in a candidate who can articulate a pipeline of strong outputs (which could be papers, book chapters) that are fewer in number than some promises that indicate that you are an alien who doesn’t need to sleep or that you are completely unrealistic about what can be done in a specific time-frame.

Dr. Kieran Fenby-Hulse makes a good point (and he makes many excellent points about research you should follow him) that your covering letter is where you should outline your research narrative. It’s good advice because covering it there forces you to articulate it clearly to yourself before anyone else.

Now if you feel that you have under-performed because of factors such as working in an institution that has given you a heavy teaching load I think it’s perfectly OK to mention that but I’d always link it to a discussion of material that you can output with more support/time.

If you are coming from a professional background and this is your entry into the academy you might be a bit stumped by this question of research anyway. I’d suggest having a chat with a friend who is an academic before the interview and have a thinking about what in your current practice might be developed into a research area. I’ve seen professional candidates (and Business Schools get a lot as do media schools and so on) come unstuck because they confuse Academic with Teacher. Academics teach but we do more than that and you need to make sure you understand that before going in. I have never once seen a professional who if they cannot answer this question where I do not think “You fool! That work you did with organisation X would be an amazing study”.

I use all the journals!

You are doing super-well and then one of the panel asks ‘So what do you consider your go-to journals to inform your teaching’. Now this isn’t a question that I actually ask myself but it’s one I’ve seen asked in interview and its one that has completely thrown people and I’ve seen strong candidates crumble. Fundamentally if you claim to be an expert in area X, we’d expect you to be able to at least *name* some journals in your area. You might even give a ‘depends’ answer but if you cannot name one…

I use YouTube all the time in my teaching!

This one is a bit of a baffler – at some point, you might get asked, ‘what do you consider to be innovative in your teaching?’ and quite a few candidates them go on about how they make use of YouTube. Now I use Youtube myself but it raises more questions than it answers. Most UK Universities spend a lot of money on various services (BOB, Lynda.com) and candidates who talk about making use of the existing T&L infrastructure in their University indicate to me that they are engaged with what is going on in their University and what it provides. It also suggests to me they are engaging with their Learning Technologists or at least reading the updates they sent out.

I can totally explain that thing you asked me about, I’m an expert in whatever it is

A usual way for a panel to conduct an interview is to divide up the questions and ask the same ones to all of the candidates. Now as a rule of thumb, people get questions based on their own specialism or job role… or they totally go off and ask whatever question they like. The bottom line is disregarding questions about your own research, the person asking it is likely to know the boundaries of any response.

The question might be about subject-level TEF, it might be about REF Impact case studies, it might be about anything. The bottom line is that bullshitting your way to an answer is the worse possible thing to do. The long you ramble on with your made-up answer, the worse it gets. The person asking the question is nodding and smiling not because they think your answer makes sense but because they feel sorry for you.

Ihavegivenmyanswerbutithinkiwillkeepgoing

Think about this – the interview panel are likely at this all day and depending on how many posts they have to offer, doing this tomorrow as well. When asked, take a moment to consider your answer – even saying “let me think about that question for a second”. Then provide the answer in the least possible words you can manage. We thank you for this.

Good question, my current University is crap

This is a tricky one – are there a lot of bad practices in HE – yes, is there bullying – yes,  Do Straight White Guys have a much easier time – absolutely. However your interview is really not the time to hash out your problems with your line manager, your department, your dean or anyone else. The real problem with raising this in an interview is that the interviewer has no way of assessing the validity of your complaints and therefore has to consider your complaints in a vacuum. Reveal all *AFTER* you get the job.

Did I mention my PhD is from X

Yes repeatedly – The TEF and REF assess your University, we don’t. It’s really not a significant factor once you are in the interview room.

Hey Charles let’s take about our kids, I’m a male candidate and we can bond over this.

This is an answer to a question I never asked and I don’t have any – stop it.

Thanks I don’t need the feedback

You didn’t get the job, so why don’t you want the feedback to find out why? A surprising number of candidates decide that it’s not worth having. Baffling.

Some quick thoughts on being an academic manager

So on the 1st of January I became an academic manager – my rather grand sounding title at Edge Hill University Business School is Associate Director – Student Experience. Now the interesting thing is that while academics will discuss pretty much anything openly the only conversations I can find online are reflections about academic managers not reflections from academic managers. That is a shame because there are excellent peer networks on places like twitter for ECRs and others but absolutely nothing for academic managers. 

With that in mind, some early thoughts:

  • Your email traffic as an academic is out of control. As an academic manager, I think the volumes of emails I received went up four-fold in the first week. My response to that has to be try and move staff away from round-robin emails to shared online documents. It’s early days but it’s making some difference. 
  • You suddenly get copied into everything. See above.
  • Your peer group shifts around you. The peer I recognised as my peers now don’t see me as their peer and people I didn’t now do. It’s a shift and I’ll write more about this.
  • I only work monday to friday, 9am-5pm. This one has been hard but so far I’ve held the line. You just have to accept there you cannot do it all.
  • Your diary becomes a fiction. No matter what you plan, in a Business School with thousands of students, stuff happens and stuff happens that you have to deal with now
  • Your diary is no longer your diary. Things just appear in it. 
  • People think you have awesome power. Actually you have awesome responsibilities and how to work out how to do it.
  • You have to learn to say “I’ll think about that”. 
  • You never read your emails after 5pm. Just don’t.

Is this a whine? Not at all, I’m enjoying the job greatly (and let’s not lie to each other – the extra money) and it’s been obvious for a while that my career was going this way. However it would be great to see some more networking for us academic manager types. I have already developed a good network in my own University but it would be great to see that extended outside in the online space. 

They walk amongst us: The invisible academic

“Silverfish: “He disappeared a few years ago.”
”Disappeared? How? said Cuddy.
”We think,” said Silverfish, leaning closer, “that he found a way of making himself invisible.”
”Really?”
”Because,” said Silverfish, nodding conspiratorially, “no-one has seen him.”

— Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

Although I don’t write in the area, I’ve been interested from the start of my career in academic labour and although I’m a so-so academic, I’m an excellent observer and the more literature I read about academic labour, the more I think there is a hidden class of academic, I’m not sure what to call this hidden class, I’m also not sure if they are simply a product of my imagination but the more I observe the more I am convinced they exist and walk amongst us. 

My issue with a lot of the academic labour material is that it depends to concentrate heavily on traditional academics and a rather narrow cast of stock characters – the exploited adjunct, the selfish research superstar and the burnout who wanted to change the world but couldn’t. Increasingly (and positively) there is more intersection with gender, race, sexuality but still broadly tied to our stock characters.  Now given that the exploitation of adjuncts underpins and props up the University system, it seems right to me there is a heavy concentration on that group (similarly for attempt to move us away from thinking of the academic in relation to white straight middle aged men).  However it equally occurs to me that a lot of debate is about how to get the selfish research superstar to help the exploited but this conceptualisation misses out another group who I think in many respects holds more power to enable change. 

I’ll be perfectly upfront and say there is no rigorous research – this is pure deductive reasoning based on observation, interaction with others and interaction with others as a trade unionist representing members. With that caveat,  you are well to rubbish or ignore this. This seems feels right to me. 

So who is this invisible academic who I think is missing from the literature? I think they have (most of – but not always all) of the following characteristics:

  • They never are people who went ‘straight through’ – they always are people who have come back to academia after doing something else as a career;
  • They tend to cluster around ‘professional’ areas (management, health, COMPSCI);
  • They did a PhD because it was offered and someone else was paying or it was very cheap;
  • They have no intrinsic motivation in research so either do very little or do enough to be ‘respectful’;
  • They however know that it’s important to *sound* interested in research so have a good understanding of the process and wider context;
  • They have no little or no interest in who the names in their field and the concept doesn’t mean much to them;
  • They have little or no experience of being an adjunct because they were a) recruited for their professional experience and b) if there was no full-time job, they would just carry on in previous profession;
  • They don’t tend to suffer from burnout (in the sense of the gap between expectation and reality) because they had no particular expectations from academia and their unit of analysis isn’t other academics, it’s their previous career;
  • They tend to position themselves as the person or people in the department who keep everything running because they see that as way to off-set relatively weak research profile;
  • They tend to put more stock in an individual concept of professionalism that any sense of duty to a wider nebulous field;
  • They are very political at local level because they see that as the most natural way to ensure their employment continues. The Dean always knows their name even if he doesn’t know yours; 
  • The dean knows that they can be trusted to make things go away (within limits) and are discreet. 

Maybe this invisible academic is in my head… maybe. 

 

Taking action.

Actionable provides tips to academics on how to use technology for teaching and research

So from a teaching perspective, last year was an interesting year – I won another Student Led Teaching award and I am currently short-listed for ‘Most Innovative Teacher in Higher Education’ by the THE …which is nice. 

However it has been pointed out to me that I’m not great at sharing practice so I’ve set up actionable simply to share tips on using technology to save time and enhance teaching (and I’ve been asked to do some tips for research so will do). A new tip will appear every week and every single tip can be put into action immediately. The first four weeks are already up and available. Actionable isn’t intended for navel-gazing or long diatribes about practice – its presented on a take or all leave it basis. It’s also partly to do with my frustrating with a lot of #Edtech conversations at the moment which are so high-level as to worthless to someone wanting to try out something new. There is a place for that, it’s just not at Actionable. 

Enjoy.

Charles