Keep cool if a hot job's at stake

November 12, 2004

It might be unwise to betray nervousness or to be a smart alec in an interview, but annoying a panel member could turn out to be a clever move, says Harriet Swain.

There are two good things about being interviewed for an academic job, apart from the possibility that you might get it. One is that the evidence of what you've actually achieved is so important that the interview may carry relatively little weight. The other is that you are likely to be much more qualified for the job you are applying for than your interviewer is for interviewing candidates.

Of course, it's not a good idea to point this out. Instead, you should empathise with your interviewer. Tony Butler, president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, suggests putting yourself in the position of the person recruiting for that job and thinking about what you would want to know. He says seeing yourself in the job from the outside is invaluable.

He also advises reading the interviewer's body language to gauge whether you are saying enough or too much. "It's a good idea to aim for a discussion rather than sweeping questions to the boundary," he says. "Give answers that provide opportunities for further lines of discussion with them. Be conscious that they will be interested in engaging with you."

John Arnold, an occupational psychologist at Loughborough University, says you should sound clear and confident and be succinct in your answers, without being monosyllabic. "Make reasonable eye contact, but not in an obsessive manner," he says.

He stresses that the purpose of an interview isn't to show the enormous amount of detail you know about your subject but to summarise your interests in a way that impresses people who may not share your expertise.

"You have to sound sophisticated but also be clear," he says.

Academia differs from other forms of employment, Arnold says, because the cv reveals so much in terms of publications and teaching experience about what the candidate has achieved. As a result, it is still possible to get away with "less than exciting interpersonal skills" and a degree of idiosyncrasy - particularly overenthusiasm.

Nevertheless, he says, university personnel departments are becoming much more interested in personal specifications now. Greater emphasis on teaching also means that academics have to show some ability to relate to others.

Janet Metcalfe, director of the UK GRAD Programme, says that it is rare for universities to give a specification for the type of person - rather than the knowledge and experience - they are looking for, which makes it hard to know from job advertisements whether or not you would fit in. She advises finding out as much about the department and general environment as possible, as well as finding out who will be on the panel and what their interests and personalities are.

"Generally in academia, networking is by far the most important aspect of finding a job," she says. "People feel much safer making a decision about someone who comes with a good reference from people they know and respect."

Meanwhile, it is important to take a careful note of the technical specifications listed. "For every aspect of the job specification, have a piece of evidence that shows you can meet that specification," she says.

Brenda Smith is a former head of the Learning and Teaching Support Network's generic centre and is now working in the programmes directorate of the Higher Education Academy. She advises finding out about the key research topics in the faculty, its learning and teaching strategy, what sort of funded projects it has, where funding comes from and whether it has a national teaching fellow or centre of excellence.

Many jobs now require candidates to give a presentation. You should check whether this is the case and whether you need, for example, to bring your own computer or to prepare copies of your presentation to give the panel.

If you have to give a presentation, you should think about how to deliver it in a lively way, rather than simply reading it out.

One advantage of finding out about the faculty is that it could help you decide what to wear. "Different faculties appear to have different dress codes," Smith says. On the other hand, it is important to feel comfortable.

Indeed, if you don't seem to fit in with the culture of the department it is likely that you wouldn't feel comfortable working there should you get the job.

On the other hand, your discomfort may simply be nerves. Smith advises being conscious of how you manifest nervousness and trying to lessen its impact. For example, if you turn red, don't wear something that accentuates it.

Nathan Abrams, who was interviewed for four jobs last year and is now on a two-year contract as a lecturer in American history at Aberdeen University, says he has worked out that whenever he has felt the necessity to wear his smart brown jacket and trousers combination to an interview he hasn't got the job - perhaps because anywhere that he thinks requires that degree of formality is unlikely to suit him.

His other tip is not to worry about annoying one member of the panel because there will be at least one other member who will be pleased you have done so. "I have found that there is always someone who is by far the most irritating," he says.

At the end of an interview, candidates are usually asked if they have any questions. This has to be treated with care as it is the last impression the board will have of you. "Don't try to be clever and trip them up," Smith warns. Instead, she suggests trying to get underneath what the role is all about. And - whatever you and your bank manager may think - this does not mean the salary and benefits. Only once they've offered you the job should you be discussing holidays.

Further information
Lynda Ali and Barbara Graham, M oving on in Your Career: A Guide for Academics and Postgraduates , RoutledgeFarmer, 2000  (UK GRAD website)
Your university's careers service.


  • Find out as much as possible about the job, the department and the university
  • Find out who will be on the panel
  • Try to offer everything in the job specification and then something extra
  • Think about what to wear - but not too hard
  • Don't try to be too clever

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