Some reflections from an academic job interview non-dialogue

I was surprised when I was invited to an academic job interview to a university in the North of the UK. Although the department appeared to be focussing on International Relations and Security Studies they were looking for a lecturer on conflict and development. A good friend of mine was also invited so I knew from the beginning that I was not the only potentially fig-leaf anthropologist or qualitative researcher; we were five candidates in total from a range of well-known UK development studies departments. However, there was no preliminary phone interview and in the end the experience turned out to be quite frustrating, though shedding at least a few insights into recruitment practices at highly ranked British universities. The 20-minute presentation of my research in front of a group of about 15 staff members went well, but there were literally two short questions afterwards because of time constraints (friends in the US told me about 30 minute presentations and a thesis viva-like grilling afterwards that can take up an additional hour).
Until this point I had not been communicating with anybody from the department let alone learn more about my prospective colleagues or their research. Luckily, most of the candidates got along well and discussed the situation openly and we also managed to grab one undergraduate and a postgraduate student from the department and asked them questions about their student experience.
But the real disappointment was the interview in the afternoon. Driven by what seems to be professional HR practice rather than academic recruitment, the commission was chaired by a very senior administrator who, being the very senior administrator at a large university that he was, had to leave early (so the interviews needed to be rescheduled on that day) and did not seem to have a clear idea about either the process or the background of the candidates. The panel members with more insights limited their questions to 5 or 6 issues in total that were mostly covered by my CV and, no, I did not forget to include this outstanding publication of high impact in my 7-page CV. Half-way through the 20 minute interview it had become clear that a simple 15-20 minute environmentally friendly and time saving phone conversation could have explored most of the issues; the standardized questions of the panel members immediately created a one-way stream of communication except for the obligatory question at the end ‘whether I had a question for the panel’, so it added very little value to the experience. I am still waiting for feedback from the panel chair, because I was travelling when he got in contact two days after the interview and he has not managed to touch base since then.

So besides the fact that bad interview experiences happen and that the academic job market is tough and so on, what are some of the lessons I will take away from the process?

1. Ask for a proper preliminary interview. If travelling is involved (including European short-distance flights that created my 600 Euros bill), ask for an interview to make sure that both parties are on the same page. The seriousness of the opening is not simply shown by HR practices, but by the willingness to engage in an open and honest dialogue with potential candidates.

2. Be realistic about academic discourses. If a department appears to be IR-focussed do not assume to change or challenge the discourse; if a department features trainings for the army on its website take this as a serious indicator about their mindset and priorities (I am not saying ‘never engage with the military’, but be clear about the nature of training). Be realistic about the expectations of important stakeholders and the target student audience the department likes to invite.

3. Realise the power of higher education policy and evaluation discourses. This is not just something that is discussed in Times Higher Education. The first interview question was about the impact factor of my publications and how my publications strategy aligns with the RAE process (
Research Assessment Exercise), but then again, if it is about the metrics you could actually send me an email and we sort it out. One of the main reasons why my friend was disappointed was that he had started as a practitioner and had used his self-funded PhD as a way to bring together relevant challenges of theory and practice that address some of the topics the department seemed to be interested in. But it did not seem to fit into the assessment boxes.  

4. Do not (I repeat: do NOT) mention alternative ways of engaging with the world outside of academia. I did emphasise the importance of peer-reviewed publications in high-impact journals, but I also mentioned that discussions about conflict and development should be accessible to outsiders/practitioners so
alternative ways of writing should be considered (blogging, open-access publications); This comment almost had jaws dropping as if I had mentioned ‘drowning puppies’ as my favourite hobby; my friend had a similar experience when he mentioned engaging with practitioners differently. The message seemed clear: Please hide your research in an expensive hardcover book publication or journal only the selected happy few have access to.

5. Remain critical about UK universities
HR practices. That the University has not called me yet is not the end of the world and in the end the department and I probably did not share the same values and approaches. Fair enough. But I am still puzzled by how the university handled the whole process, giving very little room for actual communication and interaction, but still inviting 5-6 candidates from three different countries to participate in the interview process. Based on previous experiences, I really felt that HR in universities in their drive to be(come) ‘professional’ and modern have forgotten about essential qualities of academic recruitment. Is not that every second dean in North America gets sued after an interview process that ended with a dinner at his house and may not have been deemed to be ‘objective’.

In the end, thousands of Euros and quite a bit of time have been wasted and expectations may have been raised; plus a group of at least five aspiring academics has an unpleasant story to tell about that university in the North of the UK.

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