Wednesday, 27 March 2013

For North Americans: the peculiar British interview process

REPOSTED at The Professor Is In ... (02 April 2013)

I wanted to write a post for North Americans seeking jobs in the UK academic labour market. First, because there seem to be far more jobs over there at the minute and turnover is definitely higher; both result from institutional pressures like the RAE/REF – and if you don’t know what those are and want a job in the UK then best get reading! But I also wanted to forewarn and forearm applicants about the peculiarities of the UK interview process. Having been through the wringer a few times already – see this post – I thought I might be able to say something helpful.

Much of this is taken from my experiences with several interviews in the UK, including with members of the Russell Group. If you’re North American (or from elsewhere) then you’ll need to find out what that means – see here – as Britain has a finely honed hierarchy of universities, as with everything else in its class-obsessed culture. To start with, it’s worth pointing out that in several cases, the jobs I’ve applied for were not always a step-up so I was sometimes rather ambivalent about them. This likely affected my 'performance' on the day and my view of process, detrimentally in some cases. It is also worth pointing out that now I have had experience with the North American interview process, I tend to unfavourable compare the British process to the North American one.


First things first then. Be prepared to have only 60-minutes (or less) to make your case and make an impression. I imagine this can be quite a shock for many North Americans who are used to full-day or even two-day interviews. It means you have to be incredibly succinct in whatever you do.

Second, this 60-minutes consists of a presentation and a formal interview.
  • The presentation usually lasts for 20 minutes (plus 10 minutes Q&A) and is delivered to the full department, or whoever decides to turn up on the day – don’t expect full attendance however. Generally it covers your (past, current and future) research agenda and teaching agenda. Yes, it covers both! In 20 minutes! So, be prepared to pare down any interview material you have prepared for a North American audience – a lot! 
  • The formal interview usually lasts 30 minutes and will be carried out by 4-5 senior academics (or HR types) from the university, most of whom will not be your future departmental colleagues. Usually it will consist of: a dean or head of school/college/faculty; a head of research and/or teaching in the school/college/faculty; the head of department; and maybe another senior figure from another department altogether or from an administrative department (e.g HR). This means that you may have only ONE interviewer who knows anything at all about your field; the others can be (and frequently are) totally clueless about what you do.

Third, the formal interview is a peculiar and strange event in itself.
  • It’s way too short:  the interviewers will frequently want to hurry you up, so they don’t want long, convoluted answers to questions and they might actually ask you to answer more quickly - don't get thrown by this, I did. This is because they probably have another 4-5 people to interview that day, and they’re busy people for no-god’s sake! This comes across as really strange since you could be there for 10-20 years as a colleague; that is until you realise that the interviewers are not the ones who have to live with their decisions (i.e. they will not be your immediate colleagues and you may never see them again). 
  • It’s not really about your field: you will be asked a series of management-speak questions (see below) rather than probing questions about your research and teaching or your discipline. This is because the interviewers don’t know your subject and because they are largely performing a box-ticking exercise in which they measure you against a series of HR-imposed criteria (i.e. job specifications drawn up by HR people and not future departmental colleagues). 
  • The questions you’ll probably get asked (in some form or another) include the following: (1) why do you want the job; (2) what can you bring to the department; (3) what are your future research plans; (4) how would you teach so-and-so course; (5) how do you show research leadership or go about collaborating; and (6) something about the impact of your research. The last of these relates to the UK’s new Impact Agenda; whatever you do, don’t do what I did and criticise this agenda even though it is pernicious, damaging and short-sighted – see Professor Stefan Collini’s wonderful take on this nonsense, especially if you are in a humanities or social science discipline. Even the European Research Council has rejected it as damaging to independent and scholarly research. There are other possible questions, of course, so see this webpage for some questions that get frequently asked (and some possible ways to answer them). 
  • Management-speak: be prepared for this, especially from those interviewers who are not in your field. I was thrown off in one interview with a question about how I might show future research leadership or something similarly opaque – well, to me at least! Now, I had no idea what the interviewer actually meant or was getting at – is it managing research assistants, or pushing forward current debates in your field, or a mixture of these two, or something else entirely? What I should have done was simply ask them to define exactly what they mean, but I didn’t … that doesn’t stop you not making my mistake though. 
  • Preparation, preparation, preparation: what this all means is that preparation is key to getting through the interview; you have to know what the interview questions will be in order to develop adequate responses to them that can be delivered in a short-space of time, yet reveal how innovative and forward-looking you are as a researcher, teacher, disseminator, etc., etc. It is hardly necessary to say that this can be difficult; hence why it is important to be forewarned. You need pithy, short answers that reflect back the management-speak emphasis in the questions, informed by your scholarly experience and record but not dependent on them. Not an easy task, by any means!  

Fourth, if you have flown over for the interview in person then be prepared to mingle with your fellow applicants on the day – you might even share lunch or nibbles with them. This can be disconcerting for some people, but it is also good in other ways as it means you can check out your ‘competition’ and get a good sense of how the interviewers rate you as a scholar (i.e. who they consider as your peers).

Fifth, if the university wants to offer you the job then they will usually do so on the day itself (which can be quite shocking from a North American perspective where it takes weeks to hear anything). Someone will call you that evening to make a verbal offer. Obviously, your best response is “That’s wonderful news, I look forward to receiving the formal contract” … or something similarly enthusiastic. There is a downside to this; if you don’t hear anything on the evening of the interview then you are likely not going to be offered the job – not always, but 90% of the time.

A very personal take on this whole process …

Since I moved to North America I have begun to think about these peculiarities since they really don’t make much sense when you deconstruct them. Why aren’t your future departmental colleagues interviewing you? Why does it all boil down to 30 minutes? What is all the management-speak about? Why is there such a lack of interest in your record and experience on the day? Etc. I’ve come to the conclusion that the British interview process is largely about finding people with the right attitude – it is about making sure that the university only hires academics who are adaptable to management priorities (e.g. shifting administration down to faculty), to wider institutional pressures (e.g. RAE/REF), to fitting in with the direction British academia is going more generally (e.g. the emergence of student consumers), and not rocking any boats along the way. It is, at heart, about disciplining future colleagues; more importantly, it is about ensuring that future colleagues discipline themselves rather than require constant oversight so that they are willing to adapt their lives to the constant and nagging administrative burden that will be placed on them as soon as they start. It is, in short, about breeding in compliance.

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