Saturday, 24 October 2015

Academic interviews: listening for the subtext

Dr Steve Joy

It’s said that, across the whole world of work, interview panels are only ever asking three questions: 1) Can you do this job? 2) Will you do this job? 3) Do you fit the culture of our organisation? There’s a lot of truth in this saying. What it means is that, in effect, the candidate’s task is to decode the phrasing of the interview questions in order to figure out what’s really being asked – whether you have the skills, the motivation, or the right cultural ‘fit’. It’s a powerful tactic.

You can easily translate these principles to the specific case of academic interviews. Are you a good researcher? Are you a good teacher? Will you do your fair share of the administrative tasks required of academics? Are you au courant with what’s happening more broadly in higher education? It’s logical, and fairly straightforward.

Where, then, do people go wrong? Personally, I see two main ways.

First, you forget to contextualise. Look again at those questions. They aren’t asking you whether you are a top-quality researcher or a skilled pedagogue in a purely abstract sense. Instead, they’re being asked resolutely from the perspective of the employer. Are you a good researcher for us? Are you a good teacher for our students? Will you do your fair share of the administrative tasks required of academics at our institution? Are you au courant with what’s happening more broadly in higher education = are you familiar with the pressures we are currently facing?

In other words, you need to focus your interview preparation on the employer – what’s important to them, why this job exists now, how they measure success, who they perceive their competitors to be, and so on. Don’t assume that you know based on your current experience, because these things are highly particular and institution-specific.

The second way you’re going wrong is that you are only superficially listening – to the words of the question, not the intention behind it. Take a predictable question, rephrase it an unfamiliar way, and it often leads to panic. So, whilst you’re mentally groping for the ‘right’ answer to the ostensible question, you forget to take a deep breath and ask yourself what the subtext is. Why am I being asked that? What does it tell me about what the panel is needing to know?

Interviewing is a gamble. The biggest risk is not that you don’t get the job, it’s that you do get it and you’re wrong for them. I’ve seen what happens when departments appoint the wrong person, and when candidates accept jobs about which they have serious misgivings – it only ends well, if indeed it does end well, after a lot of stress, effort, and time. Empathising with the panel’s concerns helps you to decode what they’re asking.

To demonstrate, here are some questions that have been in asked in real academic interviews in the past few weeks, and what the subtext is.

1. What will your four outputs for the next REF submission be?

They’re asking about this already! Obviously, this question is asking whether you’re a good researcher. Are you productive? Will you continue to be? Will your four outputs be good enough to get a 3* or 4* rating? Are you clued up about the real pressures facing departments in this country?

In other words... can we rely on you, or will you be a headache to us in the run-up to the next REF?

Answer by being specific and practical. What will you publish, when, and why are you confident that these are of the right quality.

2. How would you attract more international postgraduate students to this department?

Did you know that, according to the most recent national data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, more than 60% of postgraduate students are from outside the UK, paying average annual fees in excess of £12,000? Many departments rely on this income, and you can’t afford to ignore it. Where does your prospective employer tend to recruit their international students? What does your current institution do to market their postgraduate programme overseas?

In other words... do you understand how HEIs are financed in the 21st century?

Answer by proposing one or two tangible ideas that the department isn't currently doing.

3. How would you expect teaching to evolve in the future?

Distance learning, broadening access initiatives, VLEs, tuition fees, reasonable adjustments, MOOCs, social media, employability skills, the National Student Satisfaction Survey – have you thought about how these are affecting your discipline, and your potential employer?

In other words... are you up to date with the latest developments in higher education?

Answer by describing what you perceive the most important trend to be, and how you intend to adapt your own teaching to take account of that trend. Don't talk in big pictures: what will I see when I walk into your classroom?

4. Are you ready to supervise PhD students?

The phrasing of the question makes clear that we’re looking forward, so the subtext is, in effect, whether you have a plan. Have you thought about what postgraduate supervision will be like? If so, have you identified any areas for professional development and worked out how you can address them? Departments’ submission rates affect their ability to secure funding.

In other words... are you going to help our doctoral students to do good work and complete their dissertations on time?

Answer by saying more than just yes. Talk through what you think is important when supervising PhD students, whether you have any transferable experience already, and what you plan to do. Make it concrete: if I can't visualise you doing what you're saying, then you're waffling. 

5. Please use a sentence to encourage students to apply to [subject].

Departments close down if they can’t attract students, and it's often the academics who have to represent their subject at open days and the like. So, when you’re at the open day, what will you say to prospective students? Intellectual passion for a subject is important, but you can’t just sell your subject on the basis of its intrinsic scholarly appeal. Many students (and, even more so, their parents) will also want to know about employability: if they study X, will they get a job at the end of it? If so, what sort of job? No guesswork is needed: UK universities have to publish their employability data.

In other words... do you understand what today’s students expect?

Answer in a single sentence, as instructed, and show you appreciate that different students have different motivations for going to university. Unlike you, the majority won't want to stay on and become academics.

Remember: contextualise by making your preparation about your prospective employer, not about your current context. Then, use that knowledge to listen for the subtext.

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