Career advice: how to write a university job description

Top university administrators explain how to get the right person when hiring

March 2, 2017

“Over-demanding”, “clichéd” and “pointless”: university job descriptions have faced criticism in recent times for including overly detailed specifications that can deter many promising applicants.

Two Australian researchers claimed last year that early career academics now need a “superhero-like” ability to multitask if they are to fulfil the requirements of most roles posted. Other job adverts have been criticised for being so specific that only one or two people could ever think about applying.

So how do universities strike the right balance between targeting the skills essential for the job and avoiding the bland and non-specific waffle that would encourage almost anyone to apply? Here, our panel of university administration experts give their advice on writing the perfect job descriptions and person specifications.

Alex Killick, director of people, Glasgow Caledonian University

There is sometimes a tendency to exaggerate the requirements, which can have the effect of putting off some applicants who might be suitable and have the right range of experience.

With this in mind, it is important that a job specification sets out which skills and behaviours are needed. You should also set out how you intend to measure or assess this. The clearer the requirements, the better the chance of attracting the right fit.

Avoid stereotyping language – “dynamic” (ie, young), “strong” (male), “experienced” (old), for example – because you could put off many eligible applicants. In particular, avoid requirements that might be directly or indirectly discriminatory, such as having 20 years’ experience. Also avoid requirements that are difficult to measure.

Peter Brook, director of human resources, University of Portsmouth

Being forced to consider a role, how it has changed and which key attributes you are looking for is a very good thing. The clarity it brings also means that shortlisting is quicker.

My main advice would be to avoid the temptation of making every quality or attribute “essential”. Make a fair few “desirable”, too, as it will mean that you are not narrowing the field and unnecessarily excluding some good people.

Kim Frost, director of human resources, University of London

Avoid jargon and acronyms. Be clear and stick to a maximum of two pages. Have an opening summary that gives a good flavour of the job. Put some thought into the person specification, and do not fall into the common trap of describing the current post holder.

Universities sometimes go overboard on the qualifications. Does the role really need someone with a degree, or would someone with equivalent competence and experience be just as good?

Yusra Mouzughi, deputy vice-chancellor (academic affairs), Muscat University, Oman

Job specifications are much overrated in the overall recruitment process. While they serve an important purpose in identifying the expectations from the job, they have become a little bland and always seem to include the dreaded catch-all phrase “other duties as deemed necessary by the line manager”.

However, some tips to bear in mind when writing a job specification include making sure that the person writing the specification actually understands the requirements of the role, or at least speaks to someone who understands the requirements.

If the job is being advertised through a recruitment agency, make sure that the specification is tailored to your organisation; otherwise, you run the risk of getting a rehashed job specification for another organisation.

You also really need to think about what you want the job to evolve into rather than what it is at present. If you want to change the way things are done, this must be reflected in the job specification.

And keep an open mind – avoid job specifications that are obviously aimed at a particular person.

Amanda Shilton Godwin, head of professional development, Association of University Administrators

Think very hard before identifying any attribute as “essential” – do candidates really need that quality? If in doubt, describe it as “desirable”. Bear in mind that in most institutions, what you establish here as the qualities you need will have an impact on the salary grade.

The format for most person specifications is likely to be set by the institution that you work for, and is likely to be [broken into key categories such as] experience, knowledge and personal qualities (behaviours).

There are real benefits to recruiting for people’s behaviour, which is much more entrenched, than recruiting for their knowledge or skill. It is much easier to train people in skills than it is to change inappropriate behaviour. And on the downside, it is much more likely in the future that you will be disciplining on the basis of inappropriate behaviour than because of poor skills.


Print headline: For a smart fit, draft smart specifications

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles