We are grateful to the Rev. Dr. Stephen R. Holmes for composing this helpful post on UK-based job applications. Dr Holmes serves as the Head of School for St Mary’s College. You will find his research profile here.
I don’t, off-hand, know how many appointments I have been involved in within the UK university system—I do know that I have been doing it for about twenty years, and I have done six in 2017 alone (and I’m about to start another one). I have read, down the years, many hundreds of applications, some from hopeful newcomers who haven’t quite finished their PhD, some from famous names applying for prestigious chairs, and of course many from people in between. I have spent many evenings (it tends to end up an evening task) reading through application after application, and I can say from experience that most (75%?) of the applications are bad—and that this proportion strangely doesn’t change much up and down the seniority ladder.
I’m not saying that the candidates are bad—a few are, but in recent appointments I’ve been very struck by the general quality of people applying: faced with a stack of around a hundred applicants, you actually find yourself hoping quietly that half of them will be obviously poor and easy to reject quickly; for us, presently, it is around 10%. Perhaps 70% are various shades of ‘if he were the only applicant, we’d certainly at least talk to him’—and about 20% are ‘we’d be really lucky to get her!’ The candidates seem very strong—but the applications are depressingly weak.
The worst part of this is that we tell candidates exactly what to do to put in a good application; we work hard to make it very clear; and then three in four or so ignore what we’ve told them to do. Let me explain.
UK universities are not quite public sector bodies, but we are generally held to the same standards. This means, inter alia, that we follow received best practice in appointment processes, which means a ‘competency based’ approach. When we have a vacancy, we are required by our HR department to specify carefully what experience, skills, and knowledge—what competencies—we are looking for in a candidate, and how we will evaluate whether a given candidate has these competencies.
So, when we write a set of ‘further particulars’ for a vacant post—the document you download if you click the link in the advert—it has a list of the things you will need to prove to be considered for the post, and of where we will be looking for proof. In St Andrews, the list comes in the form of a table, with three columns. The first lists ‘essential criteria’, the second ‘desirable criteria’, and the third ‘means of assessment’, under which we typically list ‘application’, ‘presentation’, or ‘interview’.
For an academic post, probably the first essential criterion is ‘PhD in a relevant discipline’, and the ‘means of assessment’ listed is ‘application’. I get your application; I scan it for evidence that you have a relevant PhD. If I can’t find that evidence, your application goes on the reject pile, because this is an ‘essential’ criterion. (Actually I don’t use piles; I have a custom spreadsheet. If I can’t see evidence of an essential criterion, I type ’N’, and the cell automatically turns red. End of story.)
The moral? Make it easy for me to see that you have a PhD. I mean, really easy—I might be reading a hundred of these things, and I am only human; the small print on page 17 might, I confess, pass me by (and I can say from experience that anything after page 50 or so of your cv will very definitely pass me by…)
Of course, something like a PhD is a brute matter of fact—you have one, or you don’t (or, just possibly, you soon will, and we might be able to finesse that). And no-one misses their PhD off their application in my experience.
But: ‘Essential: evidence of excellence in teaching. Means of assessment: application.’ This is where wheels start to fall off. Every candidate will list their teaching experience, often in excruciating detail, but we’re not asking for experience; we’re asking for excellence. How, on your application form, are you going to give me and my fellow panel members credible evidence of excellence? There are lots of ways. A report from an external reviewer is probably the gold standard, but copies of student evaluations are pretty good; any sort of prize for teaching scores loads of points; a history of attending training courses or membership of something like the HEA will certainly get you over the line for a junior post. At worst, give us a teaching philosophy that shows you have thought a bit about what excellent teaching means. Give us something—or don’t bother applying; you’re wasting your time and ours.
Probably 50% or more of our candidates get the point about teaching excellence. I generally end up shouting at my computer screen over another issue. In St Andrews, an inevitable criterion (generally ‘desirable’ not ‘essential’) is called something like ‘credible plans for applying for external research funding’ (‘means of assessment: application’).
Look, at this point we’re placing the ball three yards out, tying up the goalkeeper, and inviting you to have a shot. And 80% or more of our applicants fail to score. ‘Credible plans’—at the lowest level you don’t need to have done anything, to have any experience, to have done anything more than noticed the point. You just need to say ‘Yup, I want to apply for some money for something’. Do ten minutes’ research on available funding sources, name a plausible scheme, and you are several steps up the ladder here. And—even at chair level in my experience—a large majority of our applicants will look at the ball, glance at the open goal, and then disdain to kick the one towards the other.
I confess that the word ‘moron’ has passed my lips on observing this, even when I know that the candidate concerned is far more academically able than I am.
So what should you do? It’s not rocket science (although the same rules would apply if it were): we’ve given you a list of things we either need or want to see in your application materials. Show us them. Re-order your c.v. to highlight what we’re asking for. Write a covering letter that goes through the points one by one and shows us the evidence. Send us a video demonstrating how you fulfil each criterion through the medium of interpretative dance (actually, don’t do that one…). Just somehow make it really easy for me to type ‘Y’ on my spreadsheet and see all my boxes turning green.
This won’t get you a job. It will (100% guarantee) get you on the longlist for a job, though, and it might well get you on the shortlist, and so to an interview. And if you get to an interview, you’ve always got a chance, because seemingly excellent candidates routinely shoot themselves in the foot, or indeed the mouth, on interview days.
But that’s a subject for another time.