/ 22 October 2021

How to apply for a job in academia — especially if it’s your first

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Teaching students critical literacy, greater collaboration among institutions and datafication are crucial. (Photo by Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Over the past few years, I have applied for about 30 (permanent) academic jobs, and been shortlisted and interviewed for about 10 of them. Some of these have been at South African universities, and others have been in Europe, the US and elsewhere in Southern Africa. So far, none of them have been successful. 

Although my postgraduate education was excellent, one thing we did not get much of was advice or coaching on how to confront the academic job market.   

What it meant for me was that I went to my first job interviews embarrassingly unprepared — not only for the kinds of questions that are asked by the panels, but also for dealing with the inevitable rejections. 

I flailed around and eventually found help in The Professor Is In, a website and blog run by Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor of anthropology in the US. The Professor Is In is geared towards US higher education, but it gave suggestions on how to do practical things like write an academic job cover letter, format a CV, and prepare for the standard interview questions. (Ironically, however, Kelsky is also a scathing critic of US higher education, so there is also a lot of material about leaving academia and the injuries it inflicts on people).  

I have also accumulated some insights from my own experience of being interviewed for academic jobs. The main point of this article is to lay out some of the most common interview questions I have encountered in these applications, to help demystify the process for other hopeful academics. A second point is to open a broader conversation about the many structural mismatches in the transition — or rather the rupture — from postgraduate student to working academic. 

There are four kinds of interview questions you should be prepared to answer briefly but comprehensively in an academic job interview, plus the questions you should prepare to ask the panel at the end. The take-home message is that it takes a lot of work to do this preparation, and you have to do it partly anew for each application. For basic instructions on how to formulate answers to these, I highly recommend reading The Professor Is In. 

1. The first question is something along the lines of “why do you want to work at our university or department specifically?”.  If you haven’t prepared an answer to this, you will look silly and not-serious from the panel’s perspective – even though the reality is that most of us don’t really have the luxury of choice about which university would be our ideal workplace. We just want a damn job. Nevertheless, you will need to do a lot of homework by scouring the university and department’s websites, seeing what courses they offer, and reading at least a few of their academics’ publications to get a feel for what kinds of research their department does, what they teach and why you could make a contribution that compliments and augments what they already do there.  Some variations on this question are: 

Why do you want to work in our department [or university? How do you think you would be a good fit with our work here in the department? How do you see your work fitting in with what we do here? What attracted you about the job advert for this position?

2. A second type of question you’ll need to answer is “tell us about your research”. This can include your past or current research (for example your PhD) but also something about your future project and publication plans. This can be daunting for someone who is only just finishing their PhD and doesn’t know if they have any future research plans.  In some interviews, they also ask questions about sources of funding you have applied for or intend to apply for. Some panels even ask you to name journals that you will submit work to. Some specific variations on the “tell us about your research question are: 

Tell us about your research. Tell us about your future research plans. Tell us about your five-year publication plan (LOL). How does your research fit with our areas of focus in this department? Tell us about one paper you have published that you are especially proud of and why. What grants have you successfully applied for, and/or what do you consider to be the important elements of a successful grant application? (At a UK university) How does your work meet the criteria to score highly in the Research Excellence Framework — in other words, how is it excellent or world-leading in its significance, originality and rigour? (I know, right). (At a university in Botswana) How does your research speak to our concerns and issues here in Botswana?

3. A third type of question to expect is something about your teaching approach and experience, including undergrad lecturing and postgrad supervision. They may want to know what courses you have taught in the past and/or how you have taught them (for example, what topics and readings you cover). They may ask about your approach to postgraduate supervision. They may also ask you for your “teaching philosophy”. Personally, I have never understood what this means or where one is supposed to have learnt how to articulate one (though The Professor Is In has some guidelines). In all the contract teaching work I have done, no permanent academics have ever required me to state a teaching philosophy before asking if I could help take their heavy undergrad teaching or supervision load off their shoulders. 

Some variations on the teaching question are:
Tell us about what teaching you have done in the past. Tell us about your teaching philosophy. Tell us about your approach to supervision. When you teach this course on X, how do you normally teach it? How do you ensure excellence in teaching? Tell us about a difficulty you have encountered in teaching and how you dealt with that. How do you support diverse students? If you could introduce three new courses in our department, what would they be? How do you encourage class participation when doing online teaching with big classes? (At a UK university) Which areas of the British Psychological Society curriculum could you teach in? 

Now that I think about it, I haven’t been asked a question directly about decolonisation in teaching, but you should probably be prepared to briefly articulate a position on decolonisation debates in your field (at least in the social sciences and humanities). 

4. A fourth category of questions they might ask is about management and administration experience and professional ethics. Here, above all, resist the temptation to complain about previous workplaces and colleagues. Questions along these lines I have received are:
Do you have teaching administration experience (by which I think they mean, have you been a course co-ordinator before)? Do you have leadership and management experience? (Have you served as head of department or in some other leadership role in your department or faculty?) Can you demonstrate that you have undertaken professional development? (This probably means, do you have a postgraduate certificate in higher education, or have you attended workshops and courses on improving your teaching, supervision). Can you recall a time when you were in a difficult ethical position professionally and how you dealt with that? Can you recall difficulties you have experienced in teaching and how you dealt with those? How do you do time management? How do you balance the multiple responsibilities of research, teaching and administration?

5. The last set of questions is the questions you should prepare to ask them at the end of the interview. The main rule is not to ask things that orient towards how you will benefit from the job. Definitely don’t ask anything about salary and benefits. Rather use this as an opportunity to show that you are interested in their department on their terms. For example, you could ask for further information about any interesting initiatives you have seen their department runs, or about the interests of their students. 

Don’t ask things that you could easily have found the answer to on their website or in their publications. During Covid I have sometimes asked about how they are doing online teaching; I am not really sure if this was a good question. Definitely don’t ask anything that might make them defensive or that implies an insult to their department. But if you don’t prepare good questions and just wing it, sometimes the default is to revert to the “how will I benefit from this job” kind of question. 

So that’s basically it. There have been some miscellaneous questions: What do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing our discipline? What do you think is the most important recent research finding in our field? 

While you prepare for these questions, also keep in mind one of the funniest, most eye-opening and also most sobering lessons I’ve found on The Professor Is In. It’s a short video Karen Kelsky made of herself explaining why your own needs — professional or personal — are not important when you apply for an academic job. They have a job that they need doing, or a gap that they need filled or a problem that they need solving, and they are looking to employ a person who can help them do this. This means that you need to be able to articulate your value to them, in their terms. It is a department-centric process, not an applicant-centric one. 

When I first realised this (only after my first academic job interviews), I was shocked. I had gone to my first interviews believing that the onus lay on the department to find and appreciate good candidates — not on the applicants to “sell” ourselves. I thought that my CV and academic track record would speak for themselves, and that the department would do its homework on me. Well, LOL! I never got offered that job. 

Later, I realised why I thought this way: because this is exactly the individual- or even self-centric emphasis that is drummed into you during the PhD and when publishing your work as an academic. When you write a PhD, you are encouraged to be original, to establish a unique position for yourself in your field, to show you know what others have done and then show how you are doing something different, and to show that your insights are not derivative. In other words, even if you work collaboratively, academic work is still a highly individualistic and self-centred activity. 

Indeed, this is how you will need to continue to work if you want to advance in the academic profession once you have a real job. 

If you are a new academic or PhD student who has only recently started applying for jobs, you may feel alarmed and even despairing at how much work looks like it goes into the academic job application process. Yes, it is a lot of work. But it’s not so much the amount of work involved that, to me, is the problem: it’s the lack of preparedness, or even the way postgraduate education mis-prepares you for the academic job market.  

If you think this paints a bleak and depressing picture of the state of universities and the academic profession, I wouldn’t argue too much with you. I think I have a mild form of PTSD from academic job interviews. 

It’s also worth noting that not to be successful in getting a permanent academic job is not necessarily an indication that you are not a competent academic. Universities have devised many ways to get their teaching and research work done with the minimal financial outlay, which means they like to recruit people on low-paid, fixed-term contracts, and fancy-sounding but really shitty “postdoctoral fellowships”. I have been in postdoctoral purgatory for four years now, with some years of short contract work before that, so I am growing a reasonably substantial academic track record but without any concomitant professional advancement.  

There is a lot more that can be said about the fairness or otherwise of the academic job market. One of the problems with the South African system (and those of many other countries) is that the process is not transparent. You never know who the competition is, and you never get any feedback on why you did or didn’t get shortlisted, or why you eventually were or were not offered the job. By contrast, in some of the Scandinavian countries, all the applicants are named, evaluated and ranked in a document which is circulated openly to all candidates. This means that even if you don’t get shortlisted, you can still get a sense of what the competition looks like and how, or whether, you can realistically aim to improve your chances in future. 

Of course, the process is not necessarily as bad as I have described for all job applicants. Some people get permanent job offers after fewer interviews than I’ve endured. In some disciplines, PhDs are rarer and more in demand than others. If you are reading this while preparing for one of your first academic job applications, I recommend seeking out senior academics in your department who have served on job selection panels in the past, and asking them for specific advice about what types of questions they ask and what they look for among candidates. Otherwise, circulate this article, start a reading group with your peers, read The Professor Is In, and educate yourself. Also, don’t hang too many hopes on your first interviews: treat these as learning curves.