How to get a(n academic) job: Interviews

UPDATE: I’ve now (October 2014) posted a Storify with comments and further thoughts on this topic – please continue to share your thoughts in the comments section here or on twitter, and I’ll continue to update it. (Updated again October 2015.)

This is a sequel to my post a couple of months ago about making job applications: what happens if it works and you get an interview? As I said there, these suggestions are simply my own opinions, and I welcome comments, additions, amendments, and more  links, here or on twitter, and as I did then I’ll try to incorporate them into a subsequent storify update.

Interviews are always frightening and almost always annoying. That said, there are things you can do to make the experience better, and even improve your chances of getting the job.


Here there’s good advice, as ever, from the Guardian: in particular, talk to others about their experiences, and do your research on the university, department or research project – in the latter case, I’d add, look carefully and even critically at the approaches and methodologies the project uses and read its publications.

Think about possible gaps in your application (breadth of teaching, rate of publication, too specialised or not specialised enough), and if you feel you score poorly on any of the published criteria prepare for enquiries on those points in particular.

And then there are the predictable questions: some version of ‘why do you want this job?’ is a very frequent opener, and I’ve enjoyed ‘how did you prepare for this interview?’ Be ready with the elevator pitch description of your thesis and/or current research project: 1-2 minutes on what it is, what it does and why it matters. Have a few ideas ready of specific courses you’d like to teach (ideally at different levels: a first-year lecture course, a senior-level undergraduate class, a graduate seminar) – but make sure you know how teaching works at this institution, and how much input into the syllabus faculty have. In the US (and perhaps elsewhere?) be ready for questions about what textbook you’d use, especially for language teaching.

One thing that makes a huge difference is practice – preferably with someone who is familiar with the process from one side of the table or the other. In an ideal world departments would organise practice interview sessions for all their graduate students and post-docs; in reality you may have to call in some favours from friendly faculty, but it never hurts to ask.

Don’t worry too much about what to wear: committees only notice if it is very noticeable, which you want to avoid – so no bright colours, no jeans, no comedy ties, no eye-catching jewellery, nothing too high or low or transparent. (I know transparent sounds unlikely, but I’ve been there.) A good rule of thumb is to wear something you’d imagine wearing on a smart day on the job – and if you aren’t sure then no one minds people wearing a suit to an interview.

One last thing: if you have to do a skype interview – and if you possibly can avoid it, do – make sure that there is nothing of any interest behind you. Plants are okay, for some reason, pictures aren’t. Avoid in particular, as I once saw, a half-open door…

In the Room

Act like a colleague not a student. Even if you feel a bit awed by the people interviewing you (or some of them at least), if you get the job then in a few months time you’ll be sitting beside them. Convey your competence, friendliness and your enthusiasm about the job without coming across as presumptuous or a lunatic. It’s good to demonstrate knowledge of the department; refrain from expressing unsolicited opinions about it.

Answer the question asked. Finish your sentences. Look out for signs that people are trying to get in: don’t rely on them to interrupt, or the chair to stop you on their behalf. Don’t get defensive. Don’t cross your arms. Don’t rock back and forth. Talk to everyone around the table, and remember that some of them probably aren’t specialists – so, for instance, give dates as well as ‘Song Dynasty’ or ‘Second Kingdom’ – and always remember the ‘e allora?’ question: why does what you do matter beyond the small group of people who do it too?

Don’t be surprised if the questioning seems a bit impersonal: panels often agree (or are told) to ask all the candidates the same questions. And even though everyone in the room has no doubt read every application with great care, it may have been a few weeks ago when the shortlisting meeting was looming. So if a question you are asked was in fact answered on p17 of your CV, resist the temptation to point this out.

If they ask you if you’ll teach a certain course, say yes. If they ask you if you’ll accept the job if you are offered it, say yes. If they ask if you have questions, the only question you have is ‘when will I hear?’ Real questions about the job can wait until they offer it to you.


The requirements for presentations differ so much that it is impossible to give blanket advice – an American ‘job talk’ is basically a research presentation of the sort you’d give if you were invited to a departmental seminar at another university (although people will also use it to judge you as a communicator in a teaching context); a British ‘teaching presentation’ is usually supposed to be demonstrating your ability to engage second year undergraduates on a fairly central topic, ideally one unrelated to your research (but expect research-level questions from committee members, especially if they haven’t managed to round up many, or any, real live undergraduates). In both cases, though, you’ll be talking to some people who don’t know much about what you are talking about: keep it clear, straightforward and accessible, with a bit of glitter from time to time to please the specialists.

Campus Visits

It’s getting less common at my own university to demand that candidates for a job come to dinner (together) as well, but in the US if you get through the longlist/convention interview stage to a campus visit, you’ll end up facing a lot of people over lunch, dinner and coffee. Enjoy yourself, find out as much as you gently can about the institution and the programme, especially from the graduate students, and don’t drink more than two glasses of wine at a time.

How to Get a(n academic) Job: Applications

UPDATE: I’ve posted a Storify with comments and further thoughts on this topic – please continue to share your thoughts in the comments section here or on twitter, and I’ll continue to update it. (Updated again October 2015.)

This is a post for graduate students and early career academics in the process of applying for jobs. What I want to do here is pass on useful things people have told me along the way, focussing particularly on areas of potential cultural misunderstanding when making early career applications to unfamiliar institutions or countries, and link to some good recent advice I’ve seen elsewhere. I’m writing in the first instance for my own students and friends, for the most part people with or close to doctorates in classics and/or archaeology, but much of what follows is fairly generic with regard to jobs in the humanities in Anglophone countries. These suggestions are of course my own very personal opinions, and I welcome comments, additions, amendments, and especially more links, in the comments here or on twitter: I’ll try to incorporate as many of them as possible in an updated version.

Cover Letter

Whether or not the application instructions mention this – and for reasons that have always been beyond me they often don’t – you should always include a cover letter. For many search committee members, this will be the most important part of your application, the thing they read first and most seriously. It should also be the least generic part of the application: this is your main chance to convince those committee members that you are the right person for this job. And it must be concise: 2 pages is normal in my experience, unless you have been asked to provide separate statements about teaching and/or research, in which case it can be considerably shorter. There’s excellent general advice on writing cover letters at all career stages from the Guardian here; what I’ve got to offer here is one possible strategy for early career academics.

1. After an appropriate salutation (e.g. ‘Dear Committee Members’ if you haven’t got more specific information), your introductory paragraph should briefly summarise who you are and why your abilities and experience match the job description. Be confident about this rather than arrogant. By all means discuss here or elsewhere why you would like the job – enthusiasm is attractive – but remember that your readers’ principal task is to decide whether they would like you for it.

2. Write two or three paragraphs each on your teaching and research – much less, of course, if you have been asked to provide separate statements.

For teaching you’ll want to tell the committee what subjects you’ve taught and in what format(s); what you’d like to teach at their institution (including a couple of examples of specific courses they offer that you’d like to teach and – if postholders are expected to design their own courses – a couple of examples of new topics you’d propose); and something about the way you personally approach teaching: what pedagogical training have you had? how much of it did you volunteer for and why? how will your teaching style and experience suit this job and their institution? Demonstrate that you have researched their syllabus and teaching system.

For research, talk about what you’ve done, what you are going to do next, and, crucially, why it is all both interesting and important. Keep the ‘so what?’ question absolutely central: why does your research matter? How is it going to change the way that other people think about, research and teach Italian agriculture? the Roman economy? the ancient world? Don’t focus solely on your doctorate if you have (almost) finished it: that was your last project, what’s next? On the other hand, don’t risk looking like a dilettante: there should be some visible coherence between your various projects past and present, whether of topic, period, discipline or approach. Ask yourself ‘what do I do?’ and then tell them. And have you applied for or been given any research grants? Which ones might you apply for? What opportunities do you see for collaborative work both within and beyond their institution? If you are applying for tenure-track jobs in the US or elsewhere, what are you planning to publish in order to get tenure? A monograph of your dissertation, usually, but will that be enough at this institution? If you don’t know, find out. And if you are applying for jobs in the UK involving research where you would in theory still be in post in 2020 it’s not too early to think about the next REF (Research Excellent Framework) cycle: were you entered in REF 2014? What do you think your REF 2020 submission might look like? (Not an easy thing to discuss, given that no one will know the REF 2020 rules for several years, but worth a try!)

Arrange these sections in an order and ratio that fits the job specs: if it is primarily a teaching position or at an institution with a strong undergraduate teaching focus such as a US liberal arts college you’ll probably want to put the teaching section first, and make it the more substantial; if it is a post-doctoral research position or at a research-focussed institution, then lead off with a longer discussion of your own work. But most research positions at least allow you to teach, and most ‘career development’ teaching positions at least in theory carry an expectation that the postholder will develop their research while in post, so it’s almost always a good idea to present yourself as someone enthusiastic about and accomplished in both areas.

3. For many jobs it is also worth mentioning your relevant ‘administrative’ experience (including outreach activities), even if it hasn’t been extensive, and what you’d particularly like to contribute in this area: the point here is to show that you are aware that this will be a part, perhaps even a major part, of the job, and that you will approach it cheerfully and professionally. Don’t go overboard on this kind of thing: I don’t need to know what kinds of recycling you organised in your minor student union post. If there are discipline-specific expectations, make sure you tackle them too: in an application for an archaeology post I’d expect to hear about the excavation or survey project that the candidate would bring to the department. If there are multiple institutions involved (a museum and a university, a university and a college), discuss the separate contributions you could make to each. But unless you know the institution and department very well, don’t at this stage make specific suggestions for wide-ranging change (“I would instigate an overhaul of the entire syllabus…”).

Three additional points to bear in mind.

Firstly, while I’ve emphasised the importance of addressing the job description in each case, what if you don’t really fit it? Some of the job specs may be flexible, and you might be able to get some direct or indirect intelligence on that, but the crucial thing is not to present yourself as someone you are not. Not only will it be obvious to the committee members, but it could do you real damage when they later find themselves on a committee for a job that really does suit your research field or teaching experience or career stage. If you aren’t perfect for the job advertised, demonstrate that you could do it competently while benefitting the institution in other ways as well. If you can’t easily do that, you probably shouldn’t be applying for this one.

Secondly, think about possible weaknesses in your application and address them. I always point out to my graduate students at Oxford, for instance, that our famous ‘tutorial system’ can actually put them at a disadvantage when applying for jobs elsewhere: reasonably enough, other institutions are more interested in experience of the kind of teaching that they do than the kind that we do. Rather than brushing the issue under the carpet, I advise them to demonstrate that they appreciate and have thought about it: even an applicant whose sole teaching experience is of very small tutorial groups can point to the ‘transferable skills’ involved in tutorial teaching (from syllabus design to discussion leading to ‘formative’ grading), as well as to the new skills that they know they would have to learn – indeed, would enjoy investigating and practising. Search committees don’t expect candidates at this stage to be fully formed and seasoned faculty members, but you do need to reassure them that you know how to get there.

Thirdly, be aware that search committees in UK institutions usually depend heavily on the job criteria specified in the further particulars, especially at the shortlisting stage: indeed, shortlisting forms often simply list the criteria against candidate names in a tickbox format. Make it easy for people to tick those boxes in your case as they read through your letter; don’t make them hunt around in your CV to find out whether you do in fact have MySQL experience if that’s been specifically listed as ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’.


More great advice from the Guardian; I’ll only add that it isn’t usually a good idea to go over 4 pages at most at this career stage, to include details of non-academic jobs or hobbies, or to supply a photograph.


You may also be asked to supply separate statements about your research and/or teaching; think about how to split these topics between the cover letter and the statement. For instance, you could talk (briefly) in your cover letter about how your research relates to this particular job, leaving your research statement more generic. Unless otherwise specified, aim for a 2 page research statement and assume a non-specialist audience. (And possibly even a sceptical one: note for instance that Classics committees for jobs in literature will often contain a historian or archaeologist who may not be as convinced of the value of narratological analysis of minor Hellenistic poetry as yourself – and vice versa with regard to your osteobotanical survey of the medium-sized farmsteads of North Western Boeotia.)

US jobs in particular may ask for a ‘teaching portfolio’ and/or ‘statement of teaching philosophy’. Don’t be scared: here’s some sensible advice from my own alma mater. You may be asked for a sample of your teaching evaluations, standard academic currency in the US, but less common elsewhere: if you need to produce some of these and your own institution doesn’t compile them or won’t supply them, you could generate your own for your students to fill in via (e.g.) Survey Monkey. (Other ideas for how to handle this one are particularly welcome.)

Writing Sample

Published articles are good, submitted articles are good (you might even get some useful feedback), polished dissertation extracts are okay. Avoid sending work on especially theoretical approaches or potentially controversial topics unless it represents your central research focus: you don’t know who will be reading it, and with what unreasonable prejudices. Make certain that it’s accurate, including all translations from ancient and modern languages, even if it’s already been through peer review. The writing should be in the language you’d be expected to work and teach in, and most importantly, don’t be tempted to send too much.


Easy enough for those with dissertation committees to get to the magic number (usually 3); trickier for students who have only ever interacted with one eccentric supervisor. You should however always include your supervisor among your referees, unless you have good reason to believe they are writing unsupportive letters. Other obvious bets are your internal and external examiners, and faculty members who have taught you or you have taught for. If you can get at least one letter from someone at another institution who really knows (and likes) your current work, great. If there is any teaching involved in the job, make sure at least one of your referees will talk about your teaching at length. If it is primarily a research post, make sure that your referees are specialists in your research area, at least broadly speaking. Bear in mind that it is much easier to revise reference letters than it is to write them from scratch, so all else being equal ask people who have written for you before before asking people to write for the first time.

One issue for US (or similar) candidates for UK (or similar) jobs to bear in mind: British search committees expect at least superficially individualised reference letters. And if they don’t happen to be aware that US practice is to write a generic one for each student for all possible jobs they may well see such letters as evidence that the referee doesn’t rate the candidate – or the job. The online application systems for most academic jobs now send referees an individual letter asking them to upload a reference; if you can persuade your referees to spend another couple of minutes relating that reference to this job, or at least this institution, it will enormously increase their letter’s impact.

Finally, ask for feedback on your applications, from friends, colleagues, friendly faculty members and of course from search committees who don’t give you jobs. Not just “for feedback”, which invites rather generic and conservative responses, but try a couple of specific questions along the lines of “Was there anything that particularly stood out in my cover letter, for good or bad?”; “Was my CV pretty typical for this stage, or were there things you were surprised not to see?”; “Were you convinced by my research statement?”; and, if you know your interlocutor well, and they’ve seen your letters, “If I had to change one referee, which one should it be?”

Visa Problem

A couple of weeks ago a couple of academics from Birmingham and Liverpool organised a workshop at Oxford on “Strategies of Imperial Control in Arid and Semi-Arid Environments: The Steppe and the Sahara”. They invited as their keynote speaker Sidi-Ahmed Kerbazi, the ex-director of the Bardo Museum in Algiers and an expert on the topic. So far, so inoffensive, you might think — except that Kerbazi, who is 81 years old, had his visa refused on the grounds that there was insufficient proof that he was not planning to stay in Britain:

What all British academics who work with colleagues outside the EU know is that Sidi-Ahmed Kerbazi’s case is only the tip of the iceberg. Many of us have colleagues who have been refused visas to come to academic events and seminars on similar grounds, or whose applications have been delayed so long that they missed the event. I lost several thousand pounds from a research project budget last year on wasted airfares and accommodation costs after all but one of the Tunisian colleagues who work directly with me on an joint British-Tunisian excavation, an official collaboration between Oxford University and the Tunisian Institut National du Patrimoine, were unable to navigate the complexities of obtaining visas to attend a joint seminar on our Tunisian site. The event went ahead, but with almost entirely European participation, which was not conducive to productive discussion of the practicalities of the project such as the conservation of the site.

The more insidious effect of the current policy is the way in which foreign academics are increasingly refusing invitations to British events rather than put themselves through a time-consuming and humiliating application process with a very uncertain outcome.

In order to get a visa to come to Britain, our foreign colleagues have to “show” that they intend to visit the UK for no more than 6 months; that they intend to leave the UK at the end of their visit; that they have enough money to support and accommodate themselves without working or help from public funds; that they receive their salary from abroad; that they will not be replacing someone in the UK; that they can meet the cost of their return or onward journey; and that they do not intend to take employment in the UK, produce goods or provide services, or take a course of study; that they do not intend to marry or register a civil partnership — in addition to paying a fee – for Tunisians 220 dinars (£84) – which naturally is not refunded if the application is refused.

You will note that they are not asked not to “promise” or “swear” to these conditions, but to demonstrate that these things will not happen. Obviously this is a logical impossibility, but in effect it means that potential academic visitors to British universities have to produce in addition to a letter of invitation a great deal of documentation on their finances and employment. The suggested dossier includes: full bank statements for the last six months with explanations of any unusual deposits; a letter from their bank confirming the balance and the date the account was opened; documentation of the origin of any money paid into the account; payslips for the last six months; recent tax returns; and evidence of income from any property or land, including property deeds, mortgage statements, tenancy agreements, land registration documents and crop receipts. They also have to supply information on their visit, including travel tickets, accommodation bookings, and email correspondence about any planned trips or outings. As ‘business visitors’ they have to provide “evidence of previous dealings with the UK company they are visiting” – invoices, evidence of business meetings, email correspondence. (‘General visitors’ are invited to submit documentation of the finances and immigration status of the person they are visiting.) All this, for a visit of perhaps 48 hours.

By contrast, when I am invited to meetings in Tunisia and Morocco, I don’t need a visa at all. In Turkey and Lebanon I can buy a visa in the arrivals hall in 5 minutes. Trips to Algeria and (in the past) Libya have required a visa, but one that I have been able to acquire quickly and with minimal bureaucracy. And when I applied for a Syrian visa three years ago, and sent the wrong fee by mistake, I received the visa very promptly in the post with a handwritten note from the person who had processed it explaining that I had underpaid by £2 but that she had made up the difference herself; I was welcome to send her the money but should in no way feel obliged. It isn’t hard to see why our foreign colleagues feel hard done by.

The Cuckow is in the higher Garden

I’m writing a book about the ancient Phoenicians. Right now, this involves sitting in the Bodleian library reading nineteenth century issues of the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. It was then widely believed – at least in Cornwall – that the Cornish were descended from intrepid Phoenician tin traders who made landfall on this cold Atlantic coast, bringing civilization, industry and the secret of clotted cream. And there are plenty of reports in the J of the RIC from local historians, politicians and businessmen about Phoenician Stuff they’ve found in Cornwall: place names, jewellery and so on. There’s also a lot about local meteorological patterns, especially rainfall, and quite a bit about pilchards.

But the best thing so far is the list of ancient Cornish proverbs in the October 1866 edition, collected by William Copeland Borlase of Castle Horneck, who also provides translations and, often, short explanatory comments.

Nag o ví bróg, na holan. I am neither malt, nor salt. [i.e. I don’t care a pin for you; you can neither eat nor drink me.]

Nyn ges Goon heb lagas, na Kai heb scovorn. There is no Down without eye, nor Hedge without ear. [An excellent caution concerning what we say of our Governours.]

Na reys gasa an forth goth, rag an forth noweth. You must not leave the old way, for the new way. (A footnote explains that there’s a textual issue here; Mr Lhuyd in his Archaeologia printed ‘gasa’, to love, “and the typographical error was followed of course by Pryce, in his ignorance.”)

Ma an Gog an Lûar wartha. The Cuckow is in the higher Garden. [i.e. The brain is but indifferently furnished.]

There is also a collection of Cornish rhymes, including a lengthy one beginning “I will sing of the Pilchard”.