University Teaching: Instant Wins

One of the most enjoyable things I did in this last week of term was my department’s teaching induction session for graduate students. I was leading a session on undergraduate essay feedback, and we had a great chat about all sorts of different approaches and mechanisms, the difference between formative and summative commentary, between coaching and judging, and so on. One of the big principles that we always come back to in sessions like this is that there’s rarely a single right way to do things, and that a lot of the fun in teaching is in learning what suits you and your students. And I’m sure that this is right, but I know from my own experience that knowing that there are lots of different ways to get teaching right doesn’t take away the anxiety of simply getting it wrong, especially right at the beginning. What if I look stupid? What if I get something wrong? And, above all: What if they just won’t talk? This is where some basic rules can come in handy, some reliable foundations and simple fixes on which to build over time all our different, personal, creative, and idiosyncratic teaching strategies.

No one is born a good teacher, but there are a few things that (almost) always work, and a few things that (almost) never do. Every jobbing teacher will have their own favourite tricks – less often, I suspect, worked out explicitly from first principles or even experience, than picked up from conversations with other teachers. So the ones I’ve collected below include a few of my own, but also incorporate suggestions coming out of a quick facebook seminar on the topic with friends and colleagues, with particular thanks to Chris Pelling, Patrick Tomlin, Arietta Papaconstantinou, Matthew Nicholls, Peter Olive, Lucia Nixon, Amy Russell, Neville Morley, Jennifer Trimble, and Christopher and Caroline Brooke.

I’ve kept the in-class list to ten here, and then added a few more on prep and marking; comments and further suggestions very welcome, here or @josephinequinn.


1. Get everyone to say something right at the start – it will make it easier for them to speak up later.

2. Better still, get them to write something. Put a question on the board, or an image on the screen, and ask the students to spend a couple of minutes writing down their thoughts before going round the room for quick individual comments as a way into a more free-ranging discussion. This increases their confidence, and it also creates a useful, formal break for everyone between their busy day and class time.

3. If you want students to talk, and ideally to each other, say as little as possible yourself.

4. If loud people are dominating the conversation, acknowledge it in a friendly way that invites other voices: “X, I see you, but let’s hear from some people we haven’t yet heard from yet.”

5. My own golden rule: If you ask a question and no one answers straight away, wait. And then wait some more. And then carry on waiting. Enjoy the peaceful silence. They will crack.


1. Don’t ask two questions at once. (You think you are rephrasing for greater clarity; they hear two different questions and don’t know which one to answer.)

2. Don’t say “anything else?” unless you want to close the discussion down. “What else?” opens the conversation up. (This works for eliciting more questions after lectures too.)

3. Don’t ask “Do you understand this concept (or argument, or word)?”. Ask them to explain it (back) to you.

4. Don’t talk to the board, or screen, and don’t read out slides full of text – PPP: Power Points are for Pictures.

5. Don’t be afraid of admitting that you don’t know something – no one knows everything, and there’s no harm in them seeing you as an active learner and researcher rather than an all knowing sage: instead, use an unexpected question as an opportunity to talk about how or where one could find such information out.

Before and After

1. Give prompt questions along with reading lists, things you expect to come up, so that students can prepare better in advance.

2. If you are creating additional materials such as handouts, or downloadable powerpoints, make them a starting point for annotation, not a substitute for the session itself.

3. When it comes to feedback on written work, start with the one most important point that you want them to remember and do something about.

4. Say what’s good as well as what’s bad; what’s wrong, but also how to fix it; what should have been added, but also what could have been subtracted (especially if there’s a word limit).

5. And don’t use a red pen.


How to get a(n academic) job: Career Development

Back in 2014, I wrote a couple of posts on this site with suggestions about how to approach academic job applications and interviews, especially in the Humanities. This is a sequel on the broader topic of career development for post-graduate and post-doctoral researchers: what sort of strategies can you adopt now to maximise the chances of making a competitive academic job application in the future? As usual, there’s a lot of good advice already out there on this, and what follows is full of opinion and prejudice, and should not be taken as representing anything other than my personal views. I’ll be grateful for all comments, links, additions, and disagreements, here or on twitter (@josephinequinn), and I’ll turn them into a Storify (as here and here).

Just say no

I’ll come straight out with my central piece of advice: what matters most at this stage is what you don’t do. What publishing opportunities you avoid, what conference announcements you ignore, what teaching requests you turn down. It’s too easy to get involved in time-consuming projects which might further your career, but get in the way of what you actually need to do to land an academic job. Which is: finish your thesis, and publish excellent books and peer-reviewed articlesEverything else is, at best, a bonus.

It isn’t always easy for people in insecure academic positions (including ‘being a graduate student’) to say no to their more senior colleagues – colleagues who might interview them for a job one day, and who might already have helped them in one way or another, or even supervised them. But few established academics will resent someone explaining that they need to focus on other commitments or priorities at the moment, and many are simply unaware that such requests can be intimidating: they are not necessarily expecting the answer ‘yes’. If you do suspect that they might take a polite no badly, then blame someone else who won’t let you write that review, give that talk, or sit that cat. Your supervisor or PI, the director of graduate studies or head of department, your editor, mentor, or Impact Co-ordinator. Or feel free to tell them it was me.


Giving conference papers can be a great way to meet other scholars in your field, to impress them with your work, and to get useful feedback from them on your research. But only if they happen to be in the room, and paying attention, and if you happen to be on form, having had the time and inspiration to prepare something that distracts them from the email on their iPad. And if the price of giving that paper is publication in a conference volume, that is going to take up a lot more of your time on something that probably won’t strike risk-averse potential employers as a good bet for submission to government research exercises (sadly no longer solely a British problem). So, give yourself a limit on the number of conference papers you do a year (1 as a graduate student, 2 as a post-doc?), and use them as a way to clarify and test out your current research, not to cheat on it. Focus on the two ends of the conference spectrum: small, specialist conferences on your own author, or region, or problem, which are likely to give you the most in terms of specialist feedback and quality time with your colleagues, and the big conventions, where large numbers gather, papers are short, and publication is not expected. Remember that you don’t have to give a paper to go to a conference – and that asking a good, friendly, articulate question gets you noticed too.

All this goes with far more force for organising conferences and, god forbid, publishing them. Publishing an edited volume of any kind involves a huge amount of work and diplomacy and can take years from start to finish (7, 6 and 5 in the case of the three I’ve done myself). It is very unlikely to be worth it for people at the beginning of their careers, especially if you actually value your relationship with anyone else involved. Think about the classic edited volumes in your field – the ones that caused a stir, that people keep coming back to. Were many of them edited by people at the beginning of their careers? Any of them by graduate students? If there is any doubt left in your mind on this point, please read this post by the brilliant Dr Karen of The Professor is In.

If you are keen to develop or demonstrate your administrative skills by organising an event, consider a work-in-progress workshop in your field, getting people together to share their latest thoughts and findings, with a view to all involved improving their own theses and/or submissions to peer-reviewed journals as a result. If you feel a burning desire to permanently record the event, look for an instant online solution: from simply videoing the event, to a website with blog-posts by the contributors, to a forum where people can read and comment on the draft papers before (not after!) the event.


On the subject of publications, here again it is very easy to be side-tracked by invitations that provide a welcome demonstration of the high regard in which your work is held. Unfortunately, the kind of work you are most likely to be invited to publish is unlikely to be the most useful when it comes to writing a job application – not least since, by definition, it won’t be (seriously) peer-reviewed.

Writing for edited volumes will help you get your name and work better known, especially if some of the other contributors, and ideally editors, are more senior. But it is likely to take a considerable amount of time, and won’t improve your job prospects nearly as much a peer-reviewed article in one of the top journals in your discipline. Writing a review can be an excellent discipline if you really want or, better, need to read the book anyway. Still, write for the sites and journals people actually read (and so will see your name even in passing), don’t underestimate the time it will take to do it well, and never agree to review a book in a language you don’t easily read. I cannot see any advantage at all for an early career scholar in writing for a ‘Companion’ volume.

When it comes to submissions to peer-reviewed journals, remember that you will be judged by the quality of your best piece – which is to say, at least at the shortlisting stage, where it is published. Quantity matters a lot less, save for fulfilling the minimum requirements of any upcoming government research exercise. So put the work required into writing one or two excellent articles, and when you submit them, start at the top, where even if you get rejected you are likely – never certain, of course – to get good quality advice on revision for resubmission elsewhere. This is not a game in which ‘working your way up’ makes any sense.

Should graduate students publish, or should they concentrate on getting their theses finished? The thesis has to be the main focus, but writing often comes in waves, and working in a different form can refocus the larger project. It’s also the case these days that the viable candidates for the most desirable teaching jobs and research fellowships often have at least one publication under their belts before submission. The trick, then, is to choose that thing. A peer-reviewed article is best, but can – should – be pretty time-consuming, and university regulations sometimes forbid publishing sections of dissertation before submission. One answer is to submit a short, technical piece emerging directly from your doctoral work, but that (if necessary) does not need to be included in detail in the doctorate itself. The biggest generalist journals in your field probably won’t be interested in your correction of a minor manuscript error, nor even your demonstration that the manuscript in question was written in May and not June of 1547, but publication in more technical venues is fine as long as they are well known and respected.


Probably the most important thing any of us do, often the most rewarding, and usually a welcome source of cash – but it’s easy to let teaching the balance of time tilt too far away from research, and unsurprising: teaching offers much faster and more tangible rewards. It also has a tendency to expand to fill the time available. Accept good enough: how long does it really take to mark a paper or an essay? Half an hour? Then if you have four papers to mark, start marking two hours before the deadline. How long does it take to write a pretty good lecture? A day? Then don’t start until the day before you give the lecture. If you aren’t in a full time teaching position, ask people who are how long they spend on the various associated tasks, and start practising.


Skills training is an increasingly important part of graduate work in particular, and is now a national research council priority in the UK; the courses and events on offer have multiplied enormously, even if they are not always well-advertised. They don’t usually take up a huge amount of time: there are plenty of opportunities to increase your skills, your employability, and your enjoyment of your work without derailing it. Find out what’s on offer at your institution. There will be teaching training, offering associate or full membership of the Higher Education Academy; there will be training in academic and transferable skills; there will be courses on IT, languages, and effective leadership at all levels. Figure out the gaps in your own skill-set, and fill them efficiently.

Public Engagement

It’s easy to find opportunities to talk about your research, and your wider field, to non-academic audiences (including work with schools).This is a good in itself, a chance to communicate the value of our work and of the Humanities, and it is a duty for those of us in secure and permanent jobs funded by public money. It is not a requirement for early career academics, though they are often the first people asked to do it, as they tend to be particularly enthusiastic and articulate champions of their disciplines – and because they find it harder to say no. Take advantage of opportunities that interest you, but make sure that you are getting something tangible out of the experience yourself.

Discussing your work with non-academics is a good way to develop your skills in such things as public speaking, writing for different audiences, and podcasting, as well as helping you articulate your own ideas to yourself. Opportunities to appear on radio, television or in the press are a great opportunity to get your research or (more usually) your wider discipline known to a broader audience, but make sure that you get paid when it’s appropriate, especially when you work for profit-making companies. Look out for ‘knowledge exchange’ activities, where you work with an external organisation, say a charity, company or cultural venue, to complete a project of benefit to you both, as well as to the wider world: here are some examples of the way this works here at Oxford.

Don’t assume that public engagement activity will necessarily propel you up the academic career ladder; they don’t hurt, for sure, but for more research-focussed academic positions the CV points are marginal. It is worth noting in passing that that younger female academics tend to get more involved in public engagement and other forms of academic ‘citizenship’ than their male counterparts, but that this has not as yet resulted in a disproportionate number of female appointments to secure, well-paid academic jobs . On the other hand, and unlike publishing in conference volumes, this kind of work and experience can be extremely helpful if you decide to apply for non-academic jobs – but that’s another topic worth a blogpost of its own.



Final Tips

  1. Google yourself, and make sure that the right things come up, and that they are up to date.
  2.  Make an page, and keep it updated: it’s the first place a lot of people now look once they hear someone’s name.
  3. Keep up with developments in teaching, research, and the higher education sector in general – own your chosen profession, and educate yourself on the problems we all face. The UK Times Higher and the US Chronicle of Higher Education are obvious places to start.
  4. Ask senior colleagues for advice – and if possible ask in person: sending an email might seem more polite, but it actually demands a more time-consuming response.
  5. Remember that while it might be worth doing something for a CV point, it’s very rarely worth doing it twice.


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”.