This blog series was produced through a collaboration between the Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW) and US Studies Online. The six posts showcase the diversity of research and differing experiences of scholars who are based in the UK but work on women in the US. The contributors also highlight the challenges facing academics (both those researching transnationally and more generally) as well as the valuable insights that continues to emerge from this cross-disciplinary field. Moving from postgraduate research to an early career perspective, the third SHAW post is an honest account about the search for employment. David Doddington writes about his experiences and provides useful advice for other scholars in this transitional phase.
Having completed my doctorate in 2013, this post is a way to offer a personal insight into some of the issues early career researchers may face, focusing on job applications and dealing with interviews. While completing and defending my thesis was extremely fulfilling, it is fair to say that the stress of attempting to find a job at the end of the process left me less than thrilled and with substantially less hair. On the surface my career progression seems quite smooth, but in reality this was a time of uncertainty and, at times, real panic over whether I would keep a roof over my head.
I began my PhD in 2009, passed my viva in November 2012 with minor corrections, and was awarded my doctorate in February of 2013. I had been awarded an Early Career Fellowship from September 2012 to June 2013, which was supplemented by seminar teaching at my home institution and a part time lectureship elsewhere. In 2013 I took a 12 month lectureship at a new institution. I then moved into a permanent position in September 2014. While I was very fortunate, this should not be taken to mean this was an easy process; I spent more time waiting for trains in Nuneaton than any sane person would hope for and the seemingly never-ending process of searching for a job while having just started another left me physically, emotionally, and mentally drained.
When it came to job-hunting, I took the machine-gun approach: between 2011 and 2014, I applied for 28 lecturer jobs spanning 3 continents, not including my annual rejection from those most coveted postdocs. The jobs included permanent posts to 0.5 positions that would have barely covered the transport costs; positions that I was desperate to get (including my current post) to those that seemed a last resort; opportunities that I was clearly under-qualified for to some that I felt really good about. 75 per cent were related to American history in some form, with the remainder seeing me grabbing at generic “History” straws.
While objectively I knew the odds were not good, rejection hurt every single time and my hit rate was pretty low. I was invited to 10 interviews in that time and offered 5 jobs, including the permanent position I now gratefully hold. Rejection is an almost inevitable process in this game and it is worth considering how your application strategy might influence your outlook. Rejections can be nicely personalised, utterly impersonal HR mass-mailings, or simply non-existent in the “hope you’ll go away” approach. Regardless of how it happens, rejection does not inevitably mean you are not good enough to have an academic job; however difficult in practice, try not to take “no” personally. If you haven’t already, develop a thick skin, dust yourself off, and get ready to work on the next application.
As for how I found opportunities to apply for, jobs.ac.uk was my first port of call morning, noon, and night. I would check this religiously to see what was available and found it the most reliable and informative site for finding jobs. As Americanists, however, it’s worth looking further afield. Subscribing to H-Net Job Listings will give you weekly or monthly opportunities from across the Atlantic. While American applications are more gruelling, they’re certainly worth checking out. Perhaps less obvious, I’d also recommend looking to continental Europe. Many institutions abroad offer English-language degrees and seem to be hiring scholars who teach and publish in English. A friend of mine introduced me to the Dutch website – academictransfer.com – and I was, to my surprise, invited to interview at a Dutch university in 2013 after applying for a position I found there. While I felt utterly unqualified for the job, interviewing and presenting outside of my comfort zone offered invaluable experience and it’s worth expanding your horizons for the job search.
Before submitting applications, I highly recommend sharing your work with (willing) colleagues and friends. Writing a cover letter is a skill and one that takes time to develop; sharing your efforts with people who have gone through this before or, even better, have experience of the hiring process, can only help you improve your applications. Peer-review can sting, and even more so from friends and colleagues, but it is worth having other eyes on your work. If you’re willing to send it to a hiring panel you should be willing to send it to review first.
It sounds simple, but you must ensure your cover letter matches the job description. If you’re applying for a short-term teaching fellowship, you need to show your competence and experience as a teacher as well as your outstanding research credentials. If they say stick to a page, stick to a page, etc. etc., ad nauseum. Do not give the undoubtedly overworked person reading these applications any reason to throw yours out. Connect your letter to the department by finding out about research centres or individuals you could work with; make it seem as though you are a fit with the department and genuinely want to work there.
If you are fortunate enough to get called to an interview, you should continue to make use of your peers. While not to everyone’s taste, mock interviews and practice presentations that mirrored the standard academic hiring process were hugely useful for me. An influential mentor of mine liked to repeat the phrase “muscle memory” when it came to interviews, with the idea that repeated practice will help you even in moments when you’re nervous or uncertain, and it rubbed off on me!
Get some of your friends and colleagues together, promise them goodies, and give them your presentation. You should encourage them to offer sceptical, challenging, and even hostile questions. You will not necessarily have a supportive audience on the day; this is not a conference full of people who follow a similar research agenda or share your methodological approach, and you may need to deal with this. The way in which you respond to difficult questions can show the department what type of colleague you will be and your abilities under pressure.
On the presentation, you absolutely must stick to the brief and stick to time. It may be obvious, but people who go over or go off on a tangent can lose the room. With departments typically viewing 3-5 candidates in the space of a morning, it is important to keep the audience on your side. Simple things like doing what was asked of you can help here. If they ask for 10 minutes on how your research has informed your teaching, they are not simply asking for a blow-by-blow of your PhD and your next publication. Finally, if your department allows PhD/ECR students to attend job talks, take this opportunity to get some experience of the process, admittedly from the other side of the desk. If they don’t, ask them to let you. You’ll get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly presentations, as well as the scrutiny that applicants face on the day.
A common structure on an interview day is that you’ll have a 10-20 minute presentation to as many members of the department as are willing or able to turn up, followed by a lunch, followed by the interview. You’ll likely spend time with the other candidates throughout the day, so try not to get too aggressively competitive: this may sour the atmosphere somewhat.
It is, of course, true that no two interviews are the same, but many will share a similar routine that you can get yourself prepared for. There will probably be 3-5 people in a room, mixed with subject specialists/members of the department, a senior managerial figure from in-house, and possibly a senior external figure. In all of my interviews, the 3 prongs of research, teaching, and administration provided the structure. Without knowing the specifics of these questions, you can certainly consider some key elements to focus on in these thematic areas. For example:
- Why does your research matter; what is innovative about your work; what are your specific publishing plans for the REF; what scope for impact is there; is your research interdisciplinary?
- What makes a good teacher; how do you deal with diversity in HE; have you encountered any specific problems in teaching; give me an example of innovative teaching; what modules would you teach and how do they fit with existing models; how do you deal with shifting student expectations?
- What administrative experience do you have; what makes a good administrator; what challenges do universities face currently/in the future; what administrative role would you hope to take here?
When you’re preparing for interviews, think carefully about relevant experiences from your career: don’t just offer trite sound bites, but instead prove you have the skills under examination. It’s easy to say you’ll perform on the day, but having a highlight reel or clear examples to fall back on can help you if your nerves fail you.
For your questions to them, which you must prepare for, don’t ask about salary and hours. This is a chance to show you are a confident and ambitious individual and to really hammer home why they want you. However, remember to tailor this to the job. If you’re going for a 9-month teaching fellowship, asking about the potentials for MA and PhD supervision over a 5-year plan doesn’t quite fit. Take the time to research the institution and get a feel for their long-term vision. These are often published online by the institutions themselves and you can understand their research strategies and priorities.
Ultimately, there is no fool-proof plan to getting a job, and, in the end your research and skills are the most important things. It’s a tough, draining, and at times emotional process. However, with the support of your peers and colleagues, there can be light at the end of the tunnel.
5 Top (?) Tips:
- Accept “no” as a natural part of the application process. There are hundreds of PhDs chasing positions and rejection does not mean you are not worthy of an academic job.
- Go hunting. Jobs are not going to fall in your lap and you need to be proactive. Check the relevant websites and be willing to look further afield for opportunities.
- Share your applications with colleagues and friends before submitting.
- Prepare for the interviews and presentations with “dress rehearsals”. No interview is the same, but you can fairly safely assume you will be asked about research, teaching, and administration.
- Prepare examples and evidence to support your statements in interviews and be ready to showcase your skills and experience as opposed to offering bland statements.