For North Americans: the peculiar British interview process (A Guest Post)

This wonderful post on the British academic interview process is written by Kean Birch, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science at York University in Canada.  It was originally published on his blog.  He received his Ph.D. in Planning at Oxford Brookes University in the UK, and he has a fine sense of the contrasts between the UK and North American interview protocols. I have long heard about these practices from my clients who interviewed for jobs in the UK, but I never had such a clear view of the process, until now.  I urge anyone who is applying for a UK-based job to read this!  Thank you, Kean!


I wanted to write a post for North Americans seeking jobs in the UK academic labour market. First, because there seem to be far more jobs over there at the minute and turnover is definitely higher; both result from institutional pressures like the RAE/REF – and if you don’t know what those are and want a job in the UK then best get reading! But I also wanted to forewarn and forearm applicants about the peculiarities of the UK interview process. Having been through the wringer a few times already – see this post – I thought I might be able to say something helpful.

Much of this is taken from my experiences with several interviews in the UK, including with members of the Russell Group. If you’re North American (or from elsewhere) then you’ll need to find out what that means – see here – as Britain has a finely honed hierarchy of universities, as with everything else in its class-obsessed culture. To start with, it’s worth pointing out that in several cases, the jobs I’ve applied for were not always a step-up so I was sometimes rather ambivalent about them. This likely affected my ‘performance’ on the day and my view of process, detrimentally in some cases. It is also worth pointing out that now I have had experience with the North American interview process, I tend to unfavourably compare the British process to the North American one.

First things first then. Be prepared to have only 60-minutes (or less) to make your case and make an impression. I imagine this can be quite a shock for many North Americans who are used to full-day or even two-day interviews. It means you have to be incredibly succinct in whatever you do.

Second, this 60-minutes consists of a presentation and a formal interview.

  • The presentation usually lasts for 20 minutes (plus 10 minutes Q&A) and is delivered to the full department, or whoever decides to turn up on the day – don’t expect full attendance however. Generally it covers your (past, current and future) research agenda and teaching agenda. Yes, it covers both! In 20 minutes! So, be prepared to pare down any interview material you have prepared for a North American audience – a lot!
  • The formal interview usually lasts 30 minutes and will be carried out by 4-5 senior academics (or HR types) from the university, most of whom will not be your future departmental colleagues. Usually it will consist of: a dean or head of school/college/faculty; a head of research and/or teaching in the school/college/faculty; the head of department; and maybe another senior figure from another department altogether or from an administrative department (e.g HR). This means that you may have only ONE interviewer who knows anything at all about your field; the others can be (and frequently are) totally clueless about what you do.

Third, the formal interview is a peculiar and strange event in itself.

  • It’s way too short:  the interviewers will frequently want to hurry you up, so they don’t want long, convoluted answers to questions and they might actually ask you to answer more quickly – don’t get thrown by this, I did. This is because they probably have another 4-5 people to interview that day, and they’re busy people for no-god’s sake! This comes across as really strange since you could be there for 10-20 years as a colleague; that is until you realise that the interviewers are not the ones who have to live with their decisions (i.e. they will not be your immediate colleagues and you may never see them again).
  • It’s not really about your field: you will be asked a series of management-speak questions (see below) rather than probing questions about your research and teaching or your discipline. This is because the interviewers don’t know your subject and because they are largely performing a box-ticking exercise in which they measure you against a series of HR-imposed criteria (i.e. job specifications drawn up by HR people and not future departmental colleagues).
  • The questions you’ll probably get asked (in some form or another) include the following: (1) why do you want the job; (2) what can you bring to the department; (3) what are your future research plans; (4) how would you teach so-and-so course; (5) how do you show research leadership or go about collaborating; and (6) something about the impact of your research. The last of these relates to the UK’s new Impact Agenda; whatever you do, don’t do what I did and criticise this agenda even though it is pernicious, damaging and short-sighted – see Professor Stefan Collini’s wonderful take on this nonsense, especially if you are in a humanities or social science discipline. Even the European Research Council has rejected it as damaging to independent and scholarly research. There are other possible questions, of course, so see this webpage for some questions that get frequently asked (and some possible ways to answer them).
  • Management-speak: be prepared for this, especially from those interviewers who are not in your field. I was thrown off in one interview with a question about how I might show future research leadership or something similarly opaque – well, to me at least! Now, I had no idea what the interviewer actually meant or was getting at – is it managing research assistants, or pushing forward current debates in your field, or a mixture of these two, or something else entirely? What I should have done was simply ask them to define exactly what they mean, but I didn’t … that doesn’t stop you not making my mistake though.
  • Preparation, preparation, preparation: what this all means is that preparation is key to getting through the interview; you have to know what the interview questions will be in order to develop adequate responses to them that can be delivered in a short-space of time, yet reveal how innovative and forward-looking you are as a researcher, teacher, disseminator, etc., etc. It is hardly necessary to say that this can be difficult; hence why it is important to be forewarned. You need pithy, short answers that reflect back the management-speak emphasis in the questions, informed by your scholarly experience and record but not dependent on them. Not an easy task, by any means!

Fourth, if you have flown over for the interview in person then be prepared to mingle with your fellow applicants on the day – you might even share lunch or nibbles with them. This can be disconcerting for some people, but it is also good in other ways as it means you can check out your ‘competition’ and get a good sense of how the interviewers rate you as a scholar (i.e. who they consider as your peers).

Fifth, if the university wants to offer you the job then they will usually do so on the day itself (which can be quite shocking from a North American perspective where it takes weeks to hear anything). Someone will call you that evening to make a verbal offer. Obviously, your best response is “That’s wonderful news, I look forward to receiving the formal contract” … or something similarly enthusiastic. There is a downside to this; if you don’t hear anything on the evening of the interview then you are likely not going to be offered the job – not always, but 90% of the time.

A very personal take on this whole process …

Since I moved to North America I have begun to think about these peculiarities since they really don’t make much sense when you deconstruct them. Why aren’t your future departmental colleagues interviewing you? Why does it all boil down to 30 minutes? What is all the management-speak about? Why is there such a lack of interest in your record and experience on the day? Etc. I’ve come to the conclusion that the British interview process is largely about finding people with the right attitude – it is about making sure that the university only hires academics who are adaptable to management priorities (e.g. shifting administration down to faculty), to wider institutional pressures (e.g. RAE/REF), to fitting in with the direction British academia is going more generally (e.g. the emergence of student consumers), and not rocking any boats along the way. It is, at heart, about disciplining future colleagues; more importantly, it is about ensuring that future colleagues discipline themselves rather than require constant oversight so that they are willing to adapt their lives to the constant and nagging administrative burden that will be placed on them as soon as they start. It is, in short, about breeding in compliance.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


For North Americans: the peculiar British interview process (A Guest Post) — 50 Comments

  1. Some things to add from this side of the Atlantic:
    – The short interview is not just a UK peculiarity, I’ve had the same experience in four different EU countries, so you will encounter something similar in other places in Europe.
    – The panel being someone else, not your future colleagues is also a European-wide phenomenon. In most places in Europe, you will first meet your future colleagues only when you actually start the job.
    – In my experience from sitting on three searches at a UK university this semester, the interview panel does have to include at least two experts and they do actually have to question the candidates on the depth of their knowledge and in particular their future research and funding plans (very important the emphasis on how and where to find funding!). So you won’t get just managerial talk, you may be asked quite specific questions in your area.
    – However, all candidates have to get the same questions (except for the knowledge questions from the previous bullet point) asked by the same interview person, so if e.g. the Dean is asking you “why would you like to work here”, he/she is asking that of all other candidates as well.
    – A very common question this winter was “Are you REF-able?” If you don’t know what that means, go do your homework, as Karen says.
    – Another thing that was widely expected was that the candidates are familiar with UK-specific (or other country specific) funding sources – so if you don’t know what RCUK are and if you fit under ESRC, ESPRC, BBSRC, etc., well, there’s more homework for you.
    – In my experience in all four countries, it was never allowed for the candidates to have any contact with the panel or with the other candidates before/after the interview. That means that they are not taken out for lunch in a group and are taken into presentation/ interview rooms through separate entrances or the first candidate is taken away before the next one arrives.
    – That said, each candidate was treated to either lunch or dinner, taken out by one or two other members of staff (those not on an interview panel).

  2. This piece does not chime with my experience at all, especially the “management speak” comments. All interviews I have attended have discussed in depth my research, and have been chaired by departmental staff, with addition of a senior member of the wider faculty, or an HR person. In no case have I ever been interviewed by a panel of people unfamiliar with my field.

    I would recommend US colleagues use this source with extreme caution. In addition, the final remark about “breeding in compliance” is as rude to those of us working in the UK as it is inaccurate.

    • First off, I did say “you may have only ONE interviewer who knows anything at all about your field” and not that you WILL have only one or no interviewers familiar with your field. It is all dependent on institutional practices, of course.

      Second, these British practices are very different from my North American experiences where voting members of the selection committee are almost all derived from the department (again, this is from my experience so there are likely institutional differences). This is an example of where there seems to be a major difference in collegial governance between the UK and North America – your future colleagues interview and select you in North American, which is often not the case in the UK where it is a range of people (including non-academics). It is helpful to know this as it impacts on how you prepare for interviews).

      Third, as I wrote in the post, the final comment about breeding in compliance is “My very personal take on this whole process…” and not necessarily reflective of everyone’s experiences. It’s my take on broader concerns I have with the loss (or simply lack) of adequate collegial governance in the UK across a range of issues. Apologies if it’s rude; I do, however, think it is a fairly accurate reflection of the state of British institutional decision-making, or lack thereof, in the hands of academics, especially junior academics who are rarely involved in actual collegial governance (again, from my experience).

      • While British interviews can be quite perfunctory and I completely agree that the management speak makes you want to throw yourself under a bus, you are incorrect in thinking that only those people sitting on the interview panel are deciding on who will be hired. After your presentation, which will often be to the whole department (as a PhD student I went to a number of these presentations), all of those in attendance will discuss the candidate’s presentation and research. After all the presentations were completed, we then ranked and compared the candidates. Everyone’s opinion was taken to account in terms of generally rating the candidates, although then only members of staff had a say their preferred choice, so they were having a say in who would be their future colleagues. And although the decision lay with the interview panel, at least several academics from the hiring department would be present and would have a significant say in the final choice.

        Of course, candidates don’t necessarily see that. I must also say that the idea of a two-day interview sounds frankly tortuous. And I have also had friends interviewing at the Modern Language Association in the States and other such large conventions who had ten-minute interviews.

  3. I am not familiar with the UK situation, but at my university in Australia (whose processes are derived from the UK), the selection committee follows the pattern of a fairly short interview (here usually 30 minutes, plus or minus 10, except for a senior appointment) asking scripted questions which are the same for every candidate who gets to the interview stage. Given our distance from the world, and our limited budgets for travel, the interview is sometimes done by phone, with the top candidate then flown out to meet people and give a research talk, after they have been chosen [but perhaps before the formal offer is made, just in case they turn out to be a jerk; the department might keep an option to not hire anyone at all in the position, rather than appoint someone they don’t want to have around].

    Typically there would be on the committee: 2-3 people from the department, who know about the (broad) field of the position; one senior academic manager; one academic who is from another department (to ensure fairness and protect the university-wide standards); perhaps an expert from the field from another university (though this is more common for a senior position rather than for a recent PhD looking to start their career), and perhaps an HR admin person.

    The most important realisation for an inexperienced candidate, or one from another country, was not mentioned in the original post. It is that the selection of who gets the job is not based on choosing the best colleague for the next 30 years (as seems to happen in the USA) but rather the committee is tasked with finding the person who best meets the published selection criteria. Of course, the department will have tried to shape the selection criteria, but once those have been written (and they are published as part of, or alongside, the job ad), the employment legislation requires the committee to base its decision on, and only on, the criteria they have in front of them.

    The questions are chosen to elict information relevant to the criteria. If, as is common, a criterion is “capacity to attract research funding”, then don’t be surprised by a direct question like “how will you get funding for your research agenda”. Advice from the HR people often shapes questions to ask for explicit examples from the candidates experience, eg for a criterion of “capacity to deliver high-quality teaching” a question (for an entry-level position, where candidates might not have experience giving lectures) might be “describe an occasion when you had to teach something to someone, and how you went about it”.

    Here you can expect the interview to end with some variants of three standard questions: “When could you start work here, if you are offered the position”, “Is there anything you want to tell us that we haven’t touched on already in this interview” and “Do you have any questions to ask us”. These expect brief answers, so be prepared.

    You should come to the interview with, in your head, a clear list of points you want made (that show evidence of how well you meet each of the published criteria), and as the interview proceeds, think for each question you are asked, which point you can include in your answer (but do not just deliver a canned statement that does not respond to what you were actually asked). Tick them off as you get to mention them; if anything is left, use the opportunity at the end. Also (and do this even if everything has been covered already), use the end of your statement of what you want to add, to deliver a one or two sentence summary of your strengths (which can repeat points made earlier).

    I also find it helps a candidate to have a good question to ask the committee at the end; this should not be about pay or conditions, but rather it should show that you have studied the department, its research agenda, and its curriculum, and have thought about yourself as a future colleague. For example, “I think it would be helpful to have more about U (a broad issue related to your research) in the third year curriculum; how possible would it be for me to propose a new subject, or introduce this into your course on V (a subject that is there already)?”, or “I would really like to connect my research with the work on W, done here by Profs X and Y; what support is available internally, for seeding a new line of work before it is ready to apply for external grants?” Of course, as well, one should always ask in this final opportunity “When can I expect to hear about the outcome?” but this will tell you the official timeline as executed through the HR process (usually it is a few weeks after the interview, after the paperwork gets signed up through several layers of dean/deputy vice chancellor, etc) — as noted in the original post, you may well get an (unofficial) phone call that day from someone on the committee, if you happen to be the top candidate.

  4. [this comment is not by Karen, despite her thumbnail photo being attached! It’s by “Vanessa,” whose comment had to be manually added by Karen as it kept getting stuck in spam.]

    It’s very easy to become so accustomed to our own traditions that other people’s seem wrong or weird when read instinctively. It’s also easy to come in all guns blazing when someone criticizes your own ‘home’ system! I’m going to try to avoid both those pitfalls…

    The advice here is great – one thing I regularly tell colleagues (because it threw me at first) is that this is a *job* interview, and that you should expect general questions; it’s not a PhD viva, it’s not a set of post-seminar questions.

    However, the analysis is unnecessarily mean-spirited. Leaving aside assumptions about managerialism three really crucial factors haven’t been considered.

    1. There is a lot of mobility in the UK higher ed system. We do get ‘lifers’, but we don’t have the same process of tenure as North America, and it’s not at all uncommon for people to shift institutions at any stage of their career – especially as an alternative to in-house promotion.

    2. It is uncommon-to-unheard-of for people to be hired fresh out of their PhD. So the UK system is not hiring new, untested, current students into tenured jobs – it’s hiring people who’ve had anything from a year to a decade or more with real work experience in higher ed.

    3. It’s fishing in a much smaller pool! The odd brave overseas candidate aside(!), it’s a small world here. Given point (2) above, you’re unlikely to be hiring a total unknown quantity – you’ve probably already heard of this person, or read their work, or had them come and give a paper, or met them at a conference, or know their old boss, or whatever.

    In other words, it’s not as much of a gamble as the North American system seems to be.

    Therefore it’s better to think of the application process as being divided into three parts, each of which test for different but essential skills

    Your academic ability is essentially proven in your written submission, your references, and any reputation you have.

    The presentation tests a different sort of academic/intellectual ability – thinking on your feet, presenting new ideas orally, and gives you an opportunity to talk about work that’s in progress, or your over-arching ambition and theoretical orientation.

    The interview tests what *can’t* be proved on paper – that is your ability to do everything else the job requires – manage colleagues and students, attract grant money, engage in outreach, how you work with colleagues, your potential to collaborate and work interdisciplinarily, and getting a general sort of sense of what you’d bring to a department beyond the ability to write a good book or article.

    You’re asked to present and talk to people who aren’t expert in your field because that’s who you’ll have to talk to day in, day out, for most of your career! You need to be able to persuade all sorts of people about the value of your work, not a few specialists.

    This is not a PhD viva, or a seminar paper, it’s a job interview, and there’s a lot more to the job than being a smart academic who can quickfire responses to intellectual questions. The fact that there aren’t experts sat in on the interview does not mean that experts have not carefully combed your written submission and made a decision about your academic credentials. They’ve just done it before the interview.

    If you want to experience rigorous questioning about your research – try applying for a UK research post-doc! That’s usually the entry-point for a new PhD, and therefore asks quite different questions to a tenured job interview, which is dealing with different, more mature scholars, who have very different demands placed on them, and (usually) have developed a track record of provable competence in basic academic ability.

    • Good points Vanessa, especially about the lack of “lifers” in the British system but maybe not my mean-spiritedness! The lack of lifers and the high turnover have to have some sort of systemic impact on how institutions go about selecting candidates since there is less reason to worry about long-term compatibility. The tenure process, at 5 years or so, really adds an extra dimension to the North American system which is not there in Britain – one could even argue that it is a major gap.

  5. Hi Kean, thanks a lot for your blog on this. I am a European citizen (from the Continent as the Brits would say) doing a PhD in Britain. As such I, too, had to learn quite a bit about the inner workings of British academia. I dont know much about the interview process but do want to comment on the issue of compliance that you mention (since it seems to be raising controversy) as well as how hierarchical the system is here.
    My own analysis of this is simply that British academia is, as you say, extremely hierarchical but also, and crucially, there is no sense of COMMUNITY. The concept of community and creating community is non-existent at least in the institution where I am and others I know. When I tried to propose initiatives in my department that might foster community and student involvement in the institution I was seen as a THREAT. I was bullied and this was not just in my imagination. For instance, other students were offered conference money to travel and I was not. I was told by some senior people that it sounded like I wanted to bring in “a revolution”. I was not allowed to participate in the organization of an important conference organized by the department (although other students were). It took me about 2 years to understand the point you make in the post: you must learn conformity and what your place is. It is crucial to survive in British academia that one knows one’s place. They don’t like anyone rocking the boat in any way, bringing in innovative ideas or even questioning senior faculty at seminars. This is all very frown upon. I am not saying there will not be Universities here that will have a different collegial environment but this is an impression most foreign students I talk to also share. Of course British students do not usually have an issue with this at all because they are socialized not to question authority and to accept the order of things. They simply KNOW how to act and how to behave in order to fit in. At least in my department, the less you question the more accepted you are as a grad student. I will never forget a scene I witnessed once at a seminar. A foreign student simply asked a question to a senior faculty member who was also participating in the seminar. The student was polite but did press the Professor on their point. A British student said to me after the seminar that she was “appalled” that this foreign student had had the nerve to question the professor in public. That is just something that is not seen in a good light here. I could go on and on and I know that British people will have a very hard time knowing how their system works unless they experience other systems and have a point of comparison, like you and I have. Thanks again for the post

    • Late to this party, I know, but that’s not the case everywhere either! Students in my department staged an actual revolution (badges, protests, letters to the press and MPs, the works)…that said, we had at that point nothing to lose. Our department faculty are amazing, but the greater systemic problems in UK academia (the ‘student as consumer’ business model, the jargony Impact crap, and in our case an administration that’s so corrupt the BBC did a special on them) are really discouraging. This came after the 8 grad students in our department had to pay our own way to a conference, were denied the use of offices, and had our library closed, so I’m not going to pretend it’s all sunshine and roses. Just that revolution and not conforming weren’t our problem!

  6. Interesting post – I don’t think, however, that you can aggregate all UK interview experiences into a single generalised set of experiences. It very much depends on the type of institution (Russell group / ex-poly, teaching focussed / research focussed). I’ve been interviewed and trained at a range of institutions including Oxbridge, Russell group, and a bunch of ex-polyechs now universities, and some ‘new universities’ who are also music colleges. All of the experiences have been entirely different once you go beyond the basic day structure / experience.
    The interviews are always short, and nothing like a viva conversation! You need to think on your feet and be prepared for left field questions about who you’d research, balance teaching and research, cope with teaching, cope with parents, cope with open day, manage bizarre situation……
    When I interviewed for an Oxbridge research post (as opposed to lectureship) I got into a 15 minute debate about the meaning (on many levels) of a topic they had pre provided to talk about (creativity). It was brilliant!
    I would say where ever you go and for whatever, carefully check out the department and who they ‘sell’ themselves – what is the feel of the research going on, and what sort of dynamic appears / is encouraged in the department when you visit it. What balance will the enable you to have between teaching and research? Can you find anyone in the department you want to collaborate with…….
    Mostly – and it’s been missed out of every post now, go and enjoy the experience! (I did….geek)!

  7. Having had four UK interview experiences, all but one for permanent positions, I have to say the above analysis and description strike me as largely incorrect, barring the speed of reply and the importance of the REF. Only one interview involved more than a single administrator, and even there, there were also 4 academics from the department present in the panel interview.

    And all of the interviews were largely on substantive issues concerning my research, usually involving very detailed questions about my submitted written work. In addition, there were a few questions on what courses I would teach; a couple on my future research plans; and potentially one or two questions checking awareness of the REF and demands of the job. One interview, at the lowest ranked place I applied to, did include a handful of management speak questions.

    In addition, despite the poster’s strange final analysis, I suggest that in fact, they are aiming to hire a colleague – certainly, the many UK academics I have talked with who are on interview panels aim to do so. What the poster may have overlooked is that a good amount of the selection process is done before you ever get to the interview: both in terms of assessing your research ability and ascertaining from references and others who have met you what you are like. Here, I agree entirely with Vanessa’s comments – and would advise UK job seekers to focus on her analysis.

  8. I enjoyed this post… As a UK-based academic, some things from this ring very true whilst others not so much. I work at a Russell Group and the first thing is that this is indeed quite different from what I heard other colleagues in post ’92. I interviewed for a Lectureship post (I’d say the equivalent to an Assistant Professor). I would say that the process is fast and furious! It seems that there’s no time to mock about and people are generally desperate to get it over and done!

    1) The shortlist. I got an email from an HR Admin person with a letter attached inviting me for interview. The letter included a brief for the presentation, and asked to reply to accept the invitation (which I did!).
    2) The follow-up. I got an email from the same HR Admin person asking me if I needed accommodation or parking.
    3) The whole process. It lasted one day. It started at 9am and I was done by 3pm. There were 5 shortlisted candidates.
    4) The panel. When interviewed for the post the panel was indeed the Head of School, Deputy Head of School, the Faculty’s Pro-Vice Chancellor, and the Head of the Department (these are people that I now see very single day!).
    5) The presentation. The brief was 15 minutes to talk about my current research and its importance in the field, and there would be 10 minutes for questions but I swear those 10 minutes felt like an hour for some reason! There was quite a good crow, which included half colleagues from the Dept and half colleagues from the School. In this case, I learned that everyone (as in the whole school) was invited and yes, unrelated individuals from other departments (whom I must say I’ve never seen again since!) showed up. My impression (this was later confirmed to me during lunch by a now colleague) is that they clearly had nothing better to do and showed up for the lunch or something worse (to make a point of asking really strange questions that have nothing to do with what you have talked about).
    6) Lunch. When I was going for the interview, someone said to me that lunch would be a great time to fare future colleagues as people tend to be quite upfront. I found this to be very much so! People were open with their answers and I found that it was really helpful during the interview as many of the challenges of the higher education sector as a whole (which inevitably come up, particularly in relation to NSS scores and the student experience given the increase of fees to 9k –there will be likely someone in the panel asking questions about teaching and learning so asking colleagues informally about NSS scores might be useful).
    7) Questions asked during the interview. Lots! The interview lasted 45 minutes and each person in the panel was asking questions in relation to one of these categories: First question was the usual “Why do you want this job?” Then they did go on to ask questions in four dimensions: Research, Teaching, Admin and Engagement. The main focus was on research I’d say 70% of the interview was on this – It’s started with something like “This is a research-intensive institution blah blah blah and then it went for the metrics… Are you REFable? what publications do you have on the pipeline? The issue of the ranking of the journals was also a point of discussion as was the % of contribution to joint publications (I got a question like: You have a 4* publication with so and so, what was your contribution to this? Be prepared to have to explain this even if you are the first author… I was!). I also got asked questions about the status of submitted publications (as in, you’ve submitted but are these accepted, revised and resubmit? and for those that were accepted, when will they come out?). There were questions about funding (what grants had I applied to? which ones had been successful, and of those unsuccessful, which ones had made it to the second stage?). At some point there was even a question about what my research contributed to knowledge. There was a question about research synergies with members of the department (pretty explicit and clearly wanting names or at least for me to demonstrate that I had looked at people’s profiles on the website!: “do you see any research synergies with people from the Dept?”) and a question about PhD supervision (how many had I supervised; how many completions did I have and to give specifics about whether they had finished in 3 or 4 years).

    In terms of teaching, questions about the courses I had taught, numbers of students, and there was also a question about T&L strategies (what strategies would you use to support increasingly diverse student cohorts… this is because of the increasing number of Asian students in UK universities at the moment). One of the trickiest questions was: What would you do to improve the student experience? (bloody ‘ell, that’s like the equivalent to “how would you bring world peace!”). I thought this was tricky because obviously they do not tell you all the things that are happening so you have to be ambiguous enough not to sound patronising but at the same time concrete enough to make sense!

    In terms of administration, questions were about my experience leading modules, programmes, but there was a bit of overlap with teaching and learning. Here there was a bit of managerial jumbo (from me!!!!!) because they actually phrased the question with something that sounded a bit like “would you make a good administrator” or something like that. I went off on my organizational skills and my ability to prioritise and balance my research, teaching duties and module/programme leadership. I felt that went well. I gathered they wanted someone dependable that would get the job done without obsessing and not losing focus that ultimately what matters are the publications.

    In terms of engagement, the issue of impact (another REF favourite!) was the main focus. This took me back to my research and its impact on “the real world”. There was mention of whether I had any collaborations with organisations in the private/public sector, or any potential for my work to help in developing a case study (that would be no to both of those!). However, I was able to use a publication I made to a practitioner journal to make my case and I think this saved the day. It seemed to me that this was more of a practical concern (short term more like it given that the REF is ’round the corner) but ultimately what cut it were the “real” publications.

    8) Offer. The last thing the chair of the panel said was “We will be in touch today and at the latest tomorrow with the outcome”. And off I went to catch my train back home. It took me roughly 3 hours to get to the city where I was living at the time. As I was leaving the train station, the Chair of the panel rang me on my mobile with the offer. Right then and there, I was also told the salary! The chair asked me whether I accepted (‘course I said yes… I really wanted the job!). A couple of days later I got the offer in writing.

    • Kay, your experience sounds very familiar! It seems you did have a longer interview than some I’ve been to though and more interest from future colleagues.

  9. Thank you, Kean, for writing this.

    I am currently a graduate student at a prestigious British university, and admittedly have no experience at all with the British academic hiring process. However, Kean’s point that British academia is geared towards ‘disciplining future colleagues’ and ‘not rocking any boats along the way’ strongly resonates with my personal experience, and it is a relief to see somebody else echo my sentiments.

    My particular institution strongly discourages graduate students from transgressing unspoken norms. Examples of transgressive behavior include things like asking about how to propose a new course, starting an interdisciplinary seminar, or being too aggressive in seeking out funding. I have found that simply being a person of color also causes palpable displeasure among faculty and fellow students, and students of color who display any offensive tendency are more quickly marked out as ‘problems’. Failing to quickly grasp and adhere to this etiquette may be met with a range of consequences, from being given a cold answer, to being passed up for funding, to being yelled at and humiliated for a half hour by an irate administrator (I speak from experience)! There is generally no interest in creating a scholarly community and there is little support for students wishing to do interdisciplinary work.

    I do recognize that this institutional environment is probably unique, and cannot possibly be generalized. However, I am grateful to Kean for writing this post and for illuminating some broader, systemic characteristics of the UK academy, as it helps me understand my own experience better.

    • No worries – glad it was of some use (or reassurance) …

      I think there are many more general issues with British academia, which I briefly touch on in my final comments above, that need serious unpacking and confronting head-on by British academics. This is especially the case in the current climate when British universities are being pressured from all sides to meet certain objectives. What is key – and an important part of my interpretation of the British interview process – is that many of these objectives or criteria are not being made by us academics but by other people altogether (e.g. politicians, policy-makers, government agencies, senior university managers, etc. – notice I didn’t say students as they are as beholden to the choices made by these outsiders as academics are).

      So, British academia is being driven by outsides and not by collegial governance in which academics discuss things and then decide what they want to do themselves.

      • … oops, forgot to add.

        All that said, British academics (and I include myself in that) end up becoming self-disciplining subjects (in the Foucauldian sense) but we come to embed (and then embody) pressures / objectives established by non-academics as if they represent what academia is all about. For example, I have a rather pernicious interest and fascination with citation checking on Google Scholar because that is now one way are informed we can ‘objectively’ assess our scholarly impact. Another example is the impact agenda which is driven by some really strange imperatives (see Stafan Collini’s article in the link in the post above).

        This self-discipline combines with existing cultural pressures in academia (ones you mention like not questioning your seniors) to create a really depressing picture of where British universities are heading.

  10. Does anyone have any experience on Canada, especially francophone or bilingual universities? I have to do a 30-minute presentation on my “background” (education, research, teaching) and a 20-minute formal presentation of my current research. Does anyone have a sense of how scripted the presentation segment should be? How much control does HR have in a Canadian context? Karen, do you think you could get someone to do a guest post?

    • Hi E,
      This is from my (somewhat limited) experience in Canada (not Francophone though) … especially bear in mind that my experience is limited to one institution. HR has less influence over the actual hiring decision as far as I can tell (the committee is departmental colleagues, maybe an ‘objective’ outsider, still faculty). Most decisions are made and things done through the department and by (potential) departmental colleagues.

      Likely interview day …
      – meet dean
      – go over affirmative action & equity
      – full seminar presentation (to anyone in department)
      – discussion of your research (committee only)
      – discussion of teaching (committee only)
      – final round of general questions (committee only)

      Sometimes you might be expected to do a short, mock lecture. And you’ll probably have lunch and dinner thrown in. One tip someone gave me was to make sure you always have some high energy food (e.g. nuts) with you throughout the day because your energy will flag at some point so you’ll need a boost now and then.

      When I was interviewed, I talked about my research trajectory and interests (i.e. background), and then about two-three specific projects I wanted to get off the ground if I got the job. I think there is quite a bit of leeway when it comes to Canadian interviews; that is, in terms of how you go about doing it. Enthusiasm is key as is getting interviewers interested in what you do – be prepared to discuss theories, concepts etc. (i.e. make sure you know where to position yourself if the question comes up). Generally, it’s not just about making sure you tick certain boxes.

  11. Well, in some European countries in some disciplines you can be hired without interview. So simply on your written application, reference letters and reputation. The offer can then be simply a (very unpersonal) letter with the offer. This also leaves the candidate with no idea with whom they might negotiate some terms. And if there is an interview, it can be short as described in this post. If the applicants ask to also meet with specific members of the department (normal in the USA system I hear) next to the interview this can be frowned upon in some places: ‘He/she already seem to think that he/she can come and work here’. It is thus received as obnoxious. So I would recommend use your network to get in touch with academics in the country you apply to to find out as much as possible about the interview process and unwritten rules. Personally I prefer the elaborate campus interview system of the USA (which occasionally also occurs in Europe, though probably it is pretty rare).

  12. Do you happen to know if the other Commonwealth countries follow the same interviewing procedures as the UK? Also, what might be the procedures if you have been asked to interview via Skype?

    • Hi American adjunct,
      I’m sorry I can’t speak for rest of the Commonwealth – see Australian Alan above for his take on Australia obviously.
      I’ve encountered the same procedures when it came to doing interviews over Skype – but I’ve only done one interview this way so couldn’t make more general claims. I had to do a presentation (at an horrific time in the morning) and then an interview about an hour and a half later.
      Hope that helps!

  13. Pingback: The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors | a medievalist errant

  14. Yes, as a UK academic I support the objections that others have raised to the original post.
    Note that parts of what is described are consequences of UK equalities law, which requires all candidates to be treated equally, against objective criteria, hence the apparent script of questions, and the fact UK universities have mostly done away with one-on-one interviews with faculty as part of the formal selection process.

    The script should be treated as guidelines that develop differently for each candidate. And the good side of UK equalities law includes essentially tenure from the start, and decent maternity leave.

    Applicants should surely be given a campus tour, to get a chance to see if they like the place, and can always come back and talk to possible colleagues once they have been offered the job!

    As to concerns over expecting people to “conform” – you are probably going to get aspects of that wherever you go. In a US university it might be lower division teaching, interactions with donors, or views on the athletics programme. The wonderful Emily Toth columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education give a flavour…

  15. First, thanks so much for this guest post! I’m an American whose postgrad work has all been in Britain, and I’d really prefer to stay here. This has less to do with how academia in general is run–the dismantling of the academic life here by the REF and Impact Strategy and the like is shocking–but it’s a better place for my particular field (a small one with a wonderful sense of community and collaboration, and also mostly in a minority language), plus my friends, partner and colleagues being here. So it’s been incredibly helpful to read through both the post and all the comments of different people’s experiences–thank you all!

    Apparently the reason for having outside people as the hiring committee is to avoid the appearance of favouritism by the department, which is stupid for many reasons, but there it is. My department is about to recruit for a new head, and the faculty already there get so little say that we aren’t even guaranteed the person appointed will even be in the same field.

    I wonder if anyone could be persuaded to do something along the lines of Professor Karen’s ‘Foolproof Grant Template’ for British postdocs/ECR-level applications? We’re generally only given about 1000 words for a research proposal, and sometimes this also includes your past research. There are usually no cover letters; it’s your CV and proposal and that’s it. Some assistance from people who have successfully managed these would be so very helpful.

  16. Over the weekend, I’ve had the chance (lucky me!) to browse some British university websites and, in particular, to browse their recruitment policies. These are not always available to non-institutional browsers, obviously. It goes without saying that each university has a different policy – and therefore it’d probably be worthwhile to check out what they are when you apply to each particular university (if you so care).

    However, what my brief browse does highlight is that my post above is generally accurate (cf. @UK Academic, and @British interview candidate). Here is an example of members of appointment committees from Glasgow University, for example. This committee membership policy reflects what I said above – it’s pretty similar in other universities, with institutional differences as I mentioned; that is, the committee will comprise senior academic and administrator staff who may not work in your area of expertise. Just be prepared for this.

    Another issue I raised was the identification of job specification criteria; an example here is Britsol University. Reading this document reveals that job descriptions etc. “must align with the appropriate Role Profile on the relevant Academic Career Pathway” (p.6). These role profiles / academic career pathways are generic HR creations, rather than specific criteria decided by academics to determine who to appoint for a particular post. Again, be prepared for this. Make sure you address all the job spec criteria (essential and desirable) or you will not get an interview, and be aware that during the interview you may be asked questions related to job spec criteria that can’t be answered from your CV.

  17. I’d like to chip in a quick cautionary note, meant particularly for folks who have held low-paying academic jobs in America. If you get a job offer in Britain, and you’d like to bring a spouse or partner along with you, you need to prove that you yourself have made more than 18,600 pounds in the last twelve months. Otherwise, your visa application will be denied, and your spouse won’t be able to enter the country. (I speak from bitter experience!) See more information on the visa laws at

    • Of course by the time people get hired at this point the requirement could be more, less, or the delivery of a flock of diamond-studded magic purple chickens directly to Theresa May’s office. :p The immigration rules have been rewritten four times since last September, have new changes scheduled for this month, and apparently the new plan is to break up the UKBA entirely.

      Which is to add to, not contradict, these wise words of warning–for the love of God, check out all the immigration rules, especially if you need to bring family over. There are HR people at the universities whose job it is to help with this, but they are only human beings and can’t always keep up with the force of chaos that UK Immigration.

  18. I have been through the interview process in the UK (in Glasgow as it happens, Kean!); I guess we need to unpack the information given into the practical/procedural, and what that has to say about the wider academic culture in the UK. Personally, I’d rather have a 45 minutes interview than a 2-day one, as I find interviews unbearable staged performances, but I guess the longer interview is designed precisely to avoid that, as one is bound to reveal more of his/her ‘true self’ the longer the interview is. It is also true that the UK interview is not designed to assess academic merit, as that would be impossible in the short time given, and that is assessed mostly through the application, references, statement, publication record etc. It is also the case that often the choice is a foregone conclusion, and the other interviewees are just there to make it look like a fair process, which is most unpleasant if you are one of them (as I was on occasions). The range of questions that was suggested in the post and comments pretty much covers it; the trick of course is in being able to provide the answers they want to hear, as the questions are by and large vague and open enough to allow for anything really. Academic posts in the UK are definitely not for life, so what they want is somebody who can ‘hit the ground running’ as they like to say here, and comes bearing gifts (REF-able publications) also because, while academic jobs are not for life, departments are full of people who do not publish much, and they are very hard to get rid of, so as a new hire, the department hopes to find somebody who can carry more weight, i.e. publish more.
    Comments on the conformism/hierarchy of UK institutions probably hit the mark for those who made them, but I am sure it will depend a lot on the institution, some are more open and adventurous than others. I imagine Oxbridge thrives on both, at least socially if not academically, which again are two different things. In my experience, many departments give you a lot of leeway on what you publish, so one can exercise his/her anarchist and revolutionary tendencies there, but socially a certain degree of conformism might be expected, and it is important not to confuse one for the other, as some comments seem to have.

    • Thanks Alessandra, you confirm a lot of what I said and experienced.

      I will say that I think the North American experience now seems to make a lot more sense to me than it did prior to moving to Canada (maybe I’m biased because I got a job over here!). The UK process now just looks like a waste of time for most people involved – as you said, it’s almost a foregone conclusion unless the favourite really messes up on the day.

      Just another warning for people … in the UK, the interviewers will generally not both to collect references until AFTER the interview or only slightly before. So, they may not have seen them prior to the interview.

      • Oh well, I am sure I will like interviews a lot better once I do land a job! But, at the risk of being called heretic, especially on a website like this one (!), I think there should not be interviews at all, and people should be selected on the basis of application, references, including on teaching skills, and publications. It might make sense to look for compatibility on a personal level in North America, with tenure and all that, but not here in the UK, where academics move around so much. If you don’t fit in, you can always move. Plus, everybody pretends at interviews, so they are a very poor indicator of personality, character or anything at all. And, one could scale down HR departments, and nothing but good would come from that….

        • I realise this is a rather old discussion, but I know lots of people use Dr Karen’s archive as a resource. Just to say that I have sat on over a dozen appointment panels across the Arts and Humanities and it is absolutely not the case that the result is a foregone conclusion. I have never experienced a case where candidates were making up the numbers.

  19. I’m Canadian and did my PhD in the UK, then worked at two year long temporary posts in UK institutions, and was offered a permanent post at a UK institution a few months ago, which I’ll be starting this summer. The job offer was after my 8th interview (a reflection of how difficult the climate is right now!) so I’ve been through quite a few interviews. In my experience, interview panels normally have 4-5 people: the head of research, the head of teaching, the department head, and sometimes another colleague, someone from HR or (in the one where I was offered the job) someone from the research office. The presentation was sometimes a mock lecture, or a statement about your teaching and research interests, or about how you would develop a class/module. Sometimes they are for an interview panel, and sometimes they’re for staff and students in the department. All the questions I’ve had at job interview had to do with research and teaching; the ‘admin’/’management’ related ones were about things like ‘how would you deal with a big pile of marking?’ or ‘have you ever supervised a teaching assistant?’.

    I did find that the most important things to get across in interviews were 1) that you have a clear research agenda and plans for grants and publications; 2) that you are a ‘safe pair of hands’ when it comes to teaching (as they say over here) and can do it without having to be babysat – which I think is really because they’re too lazy/cheap to train people; 3) that your research fits the department and 4) that you’re a good colleague — I actually know a couple of people who got rejected after the interview because they came across as arrogant jerks that nobody would want to work with (I’m not kidding).

    I found the most difficult thing was having to compete with established academics (who were trying to change institution – this is where I would agree about the turnover) who had published more than I had, and thus were able to make a better contribution to the REF, even though I have more than enough publications for my career stage (they expect fewer from early career researchers). There’s a lot of gameplaying going on right now, as departments are using the hiring process to boost their ranking, which is resulting in a lot of short-term thinking, and is making it difficult for recent PhDs to get their foot in the door. I think the only reason I was hired was because the institution (which is a post-92) wants to build their research profile over the next 10 years, so they want early career researchers.

    That said, what I like about the UK is that there’s a lot of collaborative research that goes on; I’m working on a couple of articles and a grant application with other people I met through mutual interest. I’ve encountered some awful hierarchical attitudes within the more prestigious institutions, but have found a more supportive environment through research networks, societies, etc.

    What’s the most worrying about the UK is the immigration crackdown, and the narrow-minded, inward-looking, xenophobic mindset that it reflects. And the push to turn universities into businesses, and destroy accessible public education. All this needs to be resisted as much as possible, and not enough is being done to resist in my opinion.

    The bit about the £18,600 in previous earnings isn’t quite accurate–this is about British citizens who want to bring a partner outside of Europe to the UK on a marriage visa. If you’re hired on an academic post, you’ll likely be applying for a Tier 2 work visa, and you for don’t have to show previous earnings, although your salary for the job you’re hired for needs to fit their minimum requirement and you need to show at least £900 in the bank for 3 months. Your partner can apply at the same time as you. They need to show that they’ve had £600 in the bank for 3 months.

  20. This post has just been incredibly helpful to me in preparing for my first job interview in the UK (trained in North America) at one of the top universities. My heartfelt thanks to you! In my view, the author does an absolutely wonderful job of just what the title suggests, ie. mapping, clearly and succinctly, the ins-and-outs of the UK process for us Namerican bumpkins unaccustomed to such practices as having genteel conversation with the competition over lunch! I got an offer (and yes, two hours after the whole thing finished) and feel strongly that carefully reading this post beforehand might have made the difference. Thanks!!!

  21. Great advice. I learnt a lot about the UK recruitment process in which jumping headlong. I have been invited by a UK university to do my main job talk via Skype and I feel it will put me at a distinct disadvantage compared to other candidates, in terms of presentation, human interaction. etc. Any words of advice would be greatly appreciated.

  22. I just had a skype interview and these questions were asked. I was applying for a research post doc w/ some teaching.

    (1) why do you want the job; (2) what can you bring to the department; (3) what are your future research plans; (4) how would you teach so-and-so course; (5) how do you show research leadership or go about collaborating; and (6) something about the impact of your research.

    My advice –when you talk about future research plans, include how you plan to fund that research. This was a follow up question.

    This post was spot on.

  23. What a fantastic post and discussion. Thanks everyone. This is incredibly helpful. I am a US trained associate professor at a US institution. I was invited to apply to a UK associate prof-equivalent position and was short-listed for an interview that is coming up. This is so helpful and… a bit disconcerting. The managerial speak and importance of administration both in hiring and in the job itself is very off-putting. The issue of hierarchy and conformity is very worrisome but it all indicates some of the suspicions I have of UK institutions from friends over the years.
    My specific question is regarding spousal hires. I am aware and was explicitly told by the professor who invited me to apply to this UK job that there is no such thing in the UK and my spouse should just move and look for jobs in the Guardian. I find it very odd that they would not event try to help a spouse of a senior scholar they themselves invited to apply and expect me to move my entire family (we have an elementary school age child) to a much more expensive city with no university help of any kind.
    Does anyone have experience with spousal issues in the UK? I should add that my spouse has an independent job, is not an academic, and has not used/asked for any spousal assistance at my current job. Moving to the UK, however, would demand a much bigger professional sacrifice and insecurity on his part.
    Thanks everyone for a wonderful discussion.

  24. Can anyone provide me with quantitative (or otherwise) feedback on how minorities/under-represented individuals fare in this type of interview situation? It seems from the outside that established schema will play a role in the first impressions the committee gets of the candidates.

  25. There is some good advice in this post. In my institution, we would generally also ask about plans for large funding applications, collaboration beyond the discipline, and “public engagement”. These are areas where answers are often weak. Another poorly answered question is “what contribution will you have made to your field in 10 years time?”

    In my institution (Russell Group, arts and humanities) we are looking for candidates who are collaborative, responsive and entrepreneurial. It’s not about being a lone scholar, however excellent, it’s about showing you have the potential to be leading a team of researchers in 10 years time. So the original post is not wrong in thinking that the interview is designed to select a particular kind of person. However, in my view, this is for the best, as this is the sort of academic who will thrive in the current climate. Somebody who just wants to do individual research and teach would not be a terribly good fit, nor would they enjoy life in my institution.

    There are lots of good things about UK HE, not least the opportunities for doing new things. But it is more bureaucratic and managerial than the US. And in my experience those who constantly compare it to N American universities are doomed to discontent. Better to accept it for what it is – or look for a job somewhere else.

  26. Hi there,

    I just got a skype interview for a post-doc research assistant position at Glasgow. Any insight into the process would be so great!
    Thank you!

  27. Is there no equivalent to a lecturer in the UK? The post and comments seem to indicate research is always discussed and weighed heavily. Is there no hope for making the move for those of us who simply enjoy teaching?

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