A reader posted on Facebook a month or so ago, asking some very specific questions about the UK job market. Several readers took the time to respond in detail. I am pasting their responses below. If you’ve been wondering about mysteries like the UK interview system (everyone is invited on the same day!) or the REF, read on. The questions themselves are replicated in the first set of responses.
How do you craft a job letter for the UK system? Someone in the UK told me that the letter needed to explicitly address the specific “duties” or “qualifications” listed in the job ad, and so the language seemed slightly different from the US ones/your templates.
– I think this is a red herring. Yes, they say you should specifically address the “qualities” listed in the job announcement, but in reality this would make your cover letter very “tell-y” rather than “show-y”. I worked with Karen on my cover letter, which never directly spoke to the job specifications. Rather, I “showed” how I was qualified by using specific examples without ever falling into the tedious trap of parroting the job announcement. I submitted US-style cover letters (with slight tweaks) for all the UK jobs I applied for. Out of 10 applications or so, I was shortlisted for 5 jobs, was the second choice for 2, and recently got a permanent, full-time position at an R1-equivalent. FYI, I am in Modern Languages.
What do you do if you can’t make the designated time/date of the visit? My sense was that there’s no room for negotiation at all, but I’m not sure…
– Generally, there’s no room to move the interview/presentation (e.g. job talk), because all of the candidates are interviewed/present on the same day. However, they will usually allow you to do it by Skype if you can’t make it.
What should the tone of the presentation/job talk be? I read in blogs that it should not be like a conference paper, but I didn’t quite know what that meant.
– This is tricky, and it can really vary by school and department (not least by discipline). In fact, I have had specific instructions from several schools that they wanted a “conference” style paper. I interpreted that as meaning that they wanted me to present on one or two specific aspects of my current (usually) research in-depth, rather than a large overview. Be aware that job talks are much shorter in the UK – generally between 15-20 minutes, so in that sense they are more like a conference paper. One thing where I would differ from Karen on with regards to UK job talks is that they often want to hear about your current/future research BEYOND the dissertation (or thesis, as we call it in the UK). This can mean presenting on something that you actually don’t know like the back of your hand. But you can always clarify with the head of department/head of the committee, who are generally happy to answer questions about what they’re expecting.
Can the presentation be read, if disciplinarily appropriate (like anthro) or should I not read no matter what? (I ended up giving a 10 minute presentation without reading, based on some blogs)
– Again, I think this is discipline-specific. I wrote a presentation as if it was a paper, then practiced it until I almost knew it verbatim. I then delivered it as if I was talking, but had my paper on hand to refer to at points, particularly where I was giving a mini close reading. The most important thing re. the delivery, in my opinion, is to give a lively presentation, e.g. don’t mumble or keep eyes glued to the paper, make sure to make eye contact with the audience, walk around a bit, etc. Having said this, I have heard of presentations where the audience was bowled over because the candidate delivered the paper without notes.
Reading your (Karen’s)advice on the job talk backwards, do Brits then prefer a more informal approach to the presentation? (Karen: my British clients tend to be WAY too chatty and informal in their job talks for the US market)
– I’m not sure what you mean by “informal”? They certainly want you to take your research seriously, otherwise why would they take you seriously? On the other hand, I have often been told they are looking for someone “nice” – presentations/job interviews are very brief in the UK compared to the States, but they could be working with you for the next 10 years, so it’s important to come across as affable.
How should I prepare for the interview? What kinds of questions might they ask? What are the different people looking for (people from the department, admin people, dean-type person, an external scholar, etc)?
– They will ask about REF/impact (if you don’t know what that is you aren’t ready to apply for the UK market). Often the first job is why do you want the job/what attracts you to the university (e.g. looking for fit, but also enthusiasm). They will usually ask about your doctoral research, your next project, maybe a course you could teach (although they generally don’t lob one of those “how would you teach a survey course in XXX?” the way they do in the States, at least in my experience). You will also get stupid management-speak questions, which you need to answer seriously.
– I only had interviews at R1-equivalent schools, and the people on the committee were all academics who wanted to talk seriously about research (in particular the writing samples), that is, there weren’t any HR-type people, even if some academics had to ask similar questions. For the last two interviews, there was the head of the interviewing department, the head of the school, the dean or vice-provost or similar, the direction of research for the school, someone “external” from another school, someone who oversees “impact” and funding, etc. But again, there were no HR people. I have heard this can be different at other institutions.
– There are lists of questions on the internet that seem pertinent, but there is also quite a bit of overlap with US interview questions. I did Karen’s Interview Intervention, which was still enormously helpful, and it translated very well into a UK environment.
I know that in the UK there isn’t much room to negotiate the job offer, but what can be negotiated, and how? In my case, I was able to negotiate the salary, but only that. And it was a very friendly process.
– I negotiated a slightly higher salary (e.g. a “spinal point”) within the academic “grade” I was in. I also negotiated a slightly earlier starting date. I have been told you can negotiate for a shorter probation period, and I imagine for start-up costs in scientific-type positions, but things like leave are almost always the same across the board.
Are there specific things that UK schools are looking for, especially from candidates coming out of the US? I.e. how best to make oneself appealing to a UK institution?
– Can’t really speak to this, but I do think that UK academics can be wary of a certain style of US academic (in particular graduate student or recently-minted PhD) who comes across as too bombastic. But I think this is a minor concern, really.
How horrible is the REF, really? Someone in the UK told me that it just means 1 output a year, and there isn’t even pressure to produce a book. So how much do I believe people in the US who told me how awful the REF and audit culture is in the UK, when the tenure process in the US is also terrible?
– The REF is an oddity, as is the US tenure process. There are two major differences, in my opinion: an “early career researcher” will only (normally) have to submit two “outputs” (horrid word) for the REF, whereas in the States the pressure is on in the first five years to put out a book, 4-5 articles, organize panels at major conferences, etc. Obviously if you want to be promoted in the UK you still need to do all these things, but the existence of your job is not exclusively dependent on them. However, unlike with tenure, when the pressure to publish then eases off some, in the UK it never stops, because the REF works in approximately 6 year cycles.
There’s no tenure in the UK but it also means that the job is not contingent on tenure. I was told that unless I do something stupid, I have the job for life (after the probationary period). And if you don’t produce much, they still won’t fire you, they just won’t promote you and/or they’ll give you a heavier teaching load. No promotion doesn’t mean no job. And university staff are unionized so there’s that protection too. How do I understand all of this in better context, i.e. how do I make an educated decision comparing the US and UK?
– There is also more mobility in the UK. It’s common for people to move institutions even after they’ve been promoted to quite senior positions. It is rare that they’ll fire you if you don’t publish, but you could be marginalized and suffer the disdain of other academics, which I think can be a powerful depressant, actually. Also, if the university goes through hard times and wants to lay off staff they will undoubtedly get rid of the “unproductive” ones. University staff are not automatically unionized – you have to join the union (I did, even as a teaching assistant and adjunct). The union does provide some protection, but workplace protections are just better in the UK in general (e.g. maternity leave, holiday entitlements, etc.). More often I find the union is a mobilizing/activist force.
How difficult is it to return to the US system later on? What would one need to do to keep that possibility open?
– I can’t speak to this.
If you can’t make the designated time/date:
Basically no room for negotiation, there were no other interviews and job talks for candidates that did not attend the designated days. I know for the PhD scholarship I won they offered the potential for Skype interviews if you were based abroad but that was not mentioned in the original advertisement and was only mentioned when I had already made it onto the shortlist. Even then the Skype interview had to be on the same day as the other interviews. However I don’t know about this at the academic job level. Basically: if it really is impossible to attend the designated time/date and they don’t mention skype/other form of video conference I suppose it is worth asking on the basis of ‘if you don’t ask you’ll never get’ but the client would be clutching at straws.
Tone of presentation:
I haven’t been to a conference (well one not entirely composed of phd students) yet so don’t know what is meant by the tone of a conference paper well enough to really comment.
Reading the presentation:
Do not read the presentation. Refer to notes briefly on occasion – yes, read – NO.
Informal approach in job talk:
The committee knows the job talk is stressful and people have their own preferred presentation styles. Rather than informal I would say personable is a better description of what they should be aiming for.
Finally thank you for the blog and free resources. Though I have so far been entirely UK based I discovered your blog whilst still a masters student and took the the general attitude from it (particularly How Not to Act Like a Graduate Student) and won a fully funded PhD. Though the materials are not geared towards the UK your website is still one of the first I recommend to friends contemplating applying for a PhD.
Also forgot to mention Q&A featured a fair bit of planned future articles/research output and how you plan to build on current work. Perhaps most importantly about funding sources and what research can be carried out even if funding applications do not come through – one candidate I saw made a convincing case for articles which could be written up on existing data or could be based in the UK minimising costs. The department knows funding is competitive and knows no one will be a 100% successful all of the time so ideally a client should be able to make a case for a plan b which will cover a year or two in the mean time if asked. They need to know how the funding councils work and which ones they can apply for (they shouldn’t forget there is now a European wide funding council as well).
On REF, yes theoretically you only have to have one output a year, but that is a baseline. Also the REF will score someone by the prestige of the journal they publish in and citations. Furthermore departments may choose not to submit someone for REF in which case they won’t lose their job (if they are not on a fixed term contract or on probation) but they won’t be promoted and have their research sidelined to make more room for teaching. But yes promotion and a permanent contract will hinge almost entirely on a persons REF score. Allowances are made for things like maternity leave (paternity leave beyond the previous 2 weeks is only starting to be a thing) or prolonged illness, any formal leave of absence. One thing I have seen in the arts and humanities is anger about how research is weighted with books being perceived to be under-weighted leading to a shift in articles even in disciplines that don’t normally focus on them (such as history). Also this REF for the first time has a 20% weighting for “impact” which arts and humanities almost entirely as well as large swathes of social sciences (mostly people doing qualitative research essentially) despise, the wording is vague and no one has a clue how it is going to turn out.
Your summation of the UK and lack of tenure is correct as far as I am aware. Also maybe worth mentioning is that any permanent resident (and their dependants) of the UK is entitled to free healthcare so an American (or anyone else) does not have to sort out health insurance if they don’t want to (as a type 1 diabetic I’m eternally grateful for this, one run in with a hospital in the states when I was on vacation was terrifying!).
Making the designated time/date is usually quite important. They often have listed in the job description the exact dates for interviews. Dont be surprised if you are interviewing at the same time as others and end up sitting together in the ‘waiting room’ and having dinner together with staff. Interviews are usually one long intense day with the usual presentation, individual meetings with staff, meeting grad students etc. Decisions are usually made very quickly, with offers often made the same day as interview. There is usually pressure to make a very quick decision.
Each university has a pay scale for each grade (lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, etc.), which is made public. It is nearly impossible to negotiate beyond the limit of that pay scale. After the probation period, jobs are ‘for life’. There is no tenure system and you cannot be fired unless something insane happens. Yes, there are plenty of lecturers who never produce anything after they are hired, but cannot be fired. You just never get promoted beyond Lecturer.
The REF is the end-all be-all of the UK system and you will live and die by it. The closer it gets to the REF deadline, the more UK hiring is all about your REF-submittable publications. The REF just happened, so the next one isnt until 2018. There are various qualifications for the how much you have to submit for REF based on how far after the PhD you are, whether you have been on maternity/paternity leave, etc. I have never seen any importance given to a book in my field (anth/archaeology).
The job talks are usually fairly relaxed powerpoint presentations. I wouldnt suggest you read something or give a formal conference-type presentation. Since you will be a permanent addition to the faculty it important to make clear not just your own research, but how you would fit into the department as a whole.
The top question I have seen candidates trip up on is “who would you want to collaborate with in our department? how does your research fit with the research of X person?”. Admin work also seems to be a bigger part of the job description for the UK. They will want to know that you are willing to take on things like running a Master’s degree program or organizing the undergrad class schedule or tutor groups.
I’m an American working in the UK for the last 7.5 years. In the first few years I was here, I got calls from US universities interested in recruiting me. But after I had been here about 4-5 years, when I did think about moving back, I put in a bunch of applications in the US and didn’t even get a single interview. Because the funding of PhD students is on such a different system here, I consider the two systems to be increasingly divergent so figure I’m “stuck” in the UK for now. As for the REF, it was a lot of very stupid paperwork and no one knows yet what the outcome will be.
the letter needed to explicitly address the specific “duties” or “qualifications” listed in the job ad, and so the language seemed slightly different from the US ones/your templates.
Yes, they assess qualifications against a particular list stated in the ad. Address all of these!!! Some universities have particular essay forms on the applications where they ask you to answer particular questions related to some of the qualifications.
- What do you do if you can’t make the designated time/date of the visit? My sense was that there’s no room for negotiation at all, but I’m not sure…
Expect to receive an email with a date and TIME for an interview. If you’re lucky, you’ll get invited to a webform where you choose out of 2 or 3 timeslots (if the other candidates haven’t taken them first).
UK positions are most often offered the day of the interview. I would not expect any flexibility on the date of interview.
Even when I stated, in the application, that I was not available on a particular day, they insisted on interviewing me on that day via skype, despite the difficulties.
- How should I prepare for the interview? What kinds of questions might they ask? What are the different people looking for (people from the department, admin people, dean-type person, an external scholar, etc)?
Interviews are generally done in a panel format, where you interview with everyone at the same time. They may have a list of questions that each person asks in turn. (I find this similar to US phone interviews, just conducted in person, YMMV.)
Compared to US interviews, expect a shorter time (maybe 1-2 hours rather than all-day). Campus tours, if any, may be given a few hours apart.
Don’t be surprised if you meet your competitors. Be nice! And make friends!
- Are there specific things that UK schools are looking for, especially from candidates coming out of the US? I.e. how best to make oneself appealing to a UK institution?
Read the comparators of the CHE:
Be aware of the recent changes in tuition fees (except in Scotland).
Know what the REF is, and how your work would contribute:
For background some other suggestions:
Know the differences in the educational system in the US vs. the UK — e.g. more vocational training
Know the different types of universities (e.g. “modern university” etc.)
Best website I’ve seen on academic careers abroad is:
e.g. for the UK section, see
See also the ERA watch, e.g. report linked here:
An addendum for UK jobs. Among the jobs.ac.uk advice (there is lots on their website, all worthwhile), they also offer three pamphlets about writing cover letters at different levels:
Just rediscovered them. The “before-after” examples will be of interest even for those targeting jobs outside the UK.