The Oxbridge Interview (A Guest Post)

The author is an academic in a humanities discipline who has interviewed at both Oxford and Cambridge, with previous success at the former. Currently, s/he holds a senior academic position at another Russell Group university (US:  R1 institution) in the UK and has served on a handful of search committees.

For more on the UK Interview, please see this earlier guest post.  For more on the REF, see this post.  For an overview of various anxieties about the UK search process, see this post.

My experiences of interviewing within Oxbridge (British portmanteau for Oxford + Cambridge) were bittersweet. I have interviewed at both. At Oxford, I was successful. At Cambridge, I was not. Nevertheless, the experiences had similarities and I am happy to share these with readers, with the hope that they might benefit from my own mistakes.

The interview day, as with all British interviews, will consist of two prime components: a presentation of your research (usually in the morning) and a formal interview (in the afternoon). In between, you will often have four or more hours to kill. For this time, you are on your own. I suggest that you look online beforehand in order to locate a good coffee shop, and then try to clear out of the immediate interview area when you have downtime. You will see the other candidates as they go before and after you, and, while many enjoy scoping out the competition, others can let this interaction impact them negatively. As much as I’d love to know the competition, in reality, I know I react like the latter and so I would carry myself away (and look only when I’m entirely done!).

The morning presentation, in my experience, was a mix between a British research presentation and a longer US job talk. In fact, I was asked to give a 30-minute talk on my research, but the expectation was that it was pitched to an advanced room of academics. In both cases, there were no grad students present (at least not that I could spot!). But, at the same time, they were the largest audiences I had ever seen for a job presentation. At both universities, I was in a room with staged seating and there were approximately 40-50 people present (at Cambridge I had to speak into a microphone, which I very much disliked). No doubt the entire Department was in attendance, but the audience also included people from related faculties whose work I knew well. It immediately appeared to me that the prospect of a new addition to the group had been advertised widely, and these people took my work very seriously, more so than I had ever seen.

The name of the game at Oxbridge is ‘scholarship’, and they were going to ensure that the next to walk amongst them was a scholar. To prepare for this rather daunting experience, I would suggest presenting work you know well, and work that is on the conservative side. Obviously you must get to know your audience and present accordingly, but if you are presenting to an ancient Divinity faculty that mostly work on Greek biblical translations, then now is not the time to whip out that new Queer hermeneutical reading of Acts of the Apostles. You can do that work once you safely get the post, but for now bring out something impressive but conservative, which demonstrates your abilities to produce tight and robust scholarship. The exception to my recommendations concerning taking a conservative tone would be if the post advertised was for some type of cutting-edge (postcolonial, poststructuralist, queer, whatever) theory, but this most often is not the case with these two establishments.

The presentation will be followed by the typical Q&A. Expect good questions. Oxbridge scholars are good listeners and they’ve taken your presentation seriously.  Think of this like a conference presentation session, but all the questions come to you. Some questions might be tough, but don’t panic and DO NOT retreat to defensive-student-mode. All of Dr. Karen’s rules for handling Q&A within the USA job talk apply here also. But be prepared for really good questions, and possibly for some dumb ones, too (they’re not perfect after all)!

When you return later in the day you will have your formal interview, usually scheduled for 1 hour. The membership of the interview panel you will probably not know before you walk into the room. You will be able to guess some, but others will be a complete mystery (like the random scientist, appointed as an external member to your humanities interview committee – he’ll probably make a joke about how he is present to ensure everyone behaves and this will be followed by group laughter…that one never gets old, apparently). First, be prepared for the audience and do not be age-intimidated. Not always, but often your Oxbridge interviewers will be much older than you would encounter elsewhere. I’m not sure what it is about these two academic environments, but people don’t tend to retire at the UK-government age of 65.

This can, no doubt, be very intimidating for a young or newly minted PhD, who looks upon these senior scholars with awe. And respecting them is a must, but treating them like your doctoral supervisor must be stopped. You do deserve to be there, or you wouldn’t be present, so keep your head high and hold your own weight. With this being said, never at these institutions be too bold and make broad, sweeping statements about the crimes of your academic predecessors. Odds are, at least one, possibly four, of them is at Oxbridge.  You toe the line of respecting the past while progressing the discipline.  In short, get to know the department research culture and complement it.

Second, be prepared for larger-than-usual interview panels if you are interviewing for a permanent (tenure-track) post. In my experience at Cambridge, every established ‘Professor’ in the Department was invited to sit on the interview panel, but this might not be the case always. If the university post also comes with college affiliation, then that college will have separate representation on the panel. There can often be quite a few hands in the pot (or faces in the room), which can be confusing if you are unprepared. In one of my cases, I walked into a room with a long conference table, which had 12 seats on each side. On their side, all 12 seats were filled (in fact, there was a 13th member perched on the end – interestingly one of the only two women included, but that’s another story). On my side of the table, I saw only 12 empty chairs and a small glass of water.

To draw a parallel to the plot of a famous Oxfordian, I felt like a miniature Alice after stepping into the looking glass. My other Oxbridge interview panel was smaller, but still the membership was larger than the typical four members that you would find elsewhere. As Dr. Karen writes about body language, take up the full space of your chair, sit up straight, and occupy. DO NOT look like the student who they too often see in their offices. Remember: you deserve to be at this tea party, or you wouldn’t have received the invite. As a gender scholar I particularly noticed the gender, race and age demographics of the room in both of my interview experiences (i.e., it was mostly old white men), but this may not faze many people. This is a known issue at these institutions, the minority of female Professorial appointments, and this matter might be reflected with an imbalance on the panel. They will all introduce themselves to you at the beginning, and they’re typically very nice.

The interview questions will primarily be about research, with only a few exceptions. Expect the first question to be a typical one: why have you applied for this post? Please don’t say ‘because it’s Oxford?!’. Think of something better beforehand. They’re looking for a colleague, not a grad student and most definitely not a fan club member. You will next be asked to speak about your research. See Dr. Karen’s rules about being able to recite an elevator version of your expertise and how it links to the job ad and complements the departmental programme. Leading off of your response, they may have follow-up questions about publications (your previous ones or your future plans).

It is important to remember that we live in an REF-world here and these two universities compete to be the best. They don’t so much need to worry about doing well on the REF for further government funding, like many smaller UK schools; they want to be the best because it is history and tradition. You absolutely must have a solid five-year plan. This should include more than five peer-reviewed publications (they will only officially enter four, but they love having choice!), preferably one of which is a book with a reputable publisher in mind. The entries into the past REF were measured on ‘impact’, so the press/journal does matter. It is also good here to show that you won’t depend upon the University’s money and have plans to apply for external grants (AHRC, British Academy, whatever), with a precise project in mind. If you don’t have any sort of plan that fits this brief and you hope to interview here, then it is time to step up your game! You will look like a gamble next to someone who has this research agenda sorted, and this group ain’t the betting type.

The middle of the interview will include more questions about your work, possibly as it develops into a programme (not just a project!) or perhaps specific questions about the publications you submitted beforehand. In one of my cases, I had a book out before the interview and I was asked to send a copy one month beforehand. To my surprise, some read it, although some clearly did not. I was very intimidated when I sat down and saw my book, front and centre, with post-it notes sticking out. I absolutely dreaded this man’s questions, but I knew I could not avoid it. He began to speak, and I tensed – and then I became defensive even before he finished speaking. I failed the test because I treated it like a doctoral defense, but a doctoral defense it was not. In hindsight, he was treating me like a grown-up and asking me tough questions in order to have an intelligent, philosophical, and professional exchange. He wanted to see if I could think beyond the text, to the bigger issues facing the field – the very issues impacting his own work. This is how they operate and push each other to be their best. Just imagine getting the job, wearing tweed, and doing this over a pint of ale in some ancient pub. He wasn’t ‘out to get me’, but I didn’t see that at the time. Be cool and professional, but confident in your ideas. Rise to the occasion and be collegial and intelligent.

The end of the interview will have obligatory questions about admin and, perhaps, teaching. The admin question will come from the Head of Department and s/he will ask something broad and maybe even nonsensical to the effect of ‘what admin would you see yourself doing?’. You think they want to know how much you love committees, holding office hours, getting involved, attending sports games, eating pizza with students. They don’t want to hear any of that. They simply want you to say you will pull your weight, just like everyone else (if you offer to do more than everybody else, then you look pathetic, so please refrain).

Here is a good time to mention some admin experience you may already have, like committees on which you have served. At Cambridge, the Head of Department followed up my response with the further question, ‘but WHICH admin role would you choose? If you could only do ONE?’ (i.e., we each only do one so mark your territory). If you get this one, again know your audience. If you were interviewing at a smaller UK school facing recruitment issues, then they’d be thrilled to hear you say you would serve on any recruitment task force, to help promote the programme and explore ways to boost recruitment figures (the job we all need done, but which absolutely nobody wants to do). Oxbridge programmes do not really face these same recruitment crises, so you would be safe here to talk about running a research seminar, which you would publicize to all academics in the local area, to draw attention to the exciting work being done in that college/school/faculty/department. If you have experience doing this already and you can point to your previous success (even having organized a conference), then that will be a form of interview gold.

At the end of the hour, of course, you will be asked if you have any questions for them, and this is a way to elicit information about you. Ask about the research environment, ongoing research seminars, doctoral student support (i.e., training researchers). Do not ask anything about teaching undergraduates (although I think it is OK to ask advanced questions related to training postgraduates, i.e., ‘do you provide doctoral students with teaching experience?; ‘is there a doctoral student research seminar series?’; ‘do you run a dissertation writing workshop to help the doctoral or masters candidates turn their theses into published peer-review articles?’). They want to know your priorities are in the right place, and that is strictly in the research world.

Coincidentally, in both cases I was asked to submit beforehand a sample undergraduate syllabus but in neither case was I once asked about it. At one of my two Oxbridge interviews, when asked if I had any questions for them, I asked, bewildered, ‘but what about my syllabus?’. The panel then turned to the man apparently appointed syllabus-guardian who just confusingly looked down at his papers and, in less than a hot minute, looked up and said ‘no, no questions’. The room then fell silent. That’s as far as the undergraduate teaching conversation ever got in my two experiences, but, of course, be prepared just in case you do get a teaching question. But the main focus here is, undoubtedly, research.

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The Oxbridge Interview (A Guest Post) — 4 Comments

  1. This is a small addition, but when I was a postgrad student in English at Cambridge, there were definitely grad students in the audience at the job talk. I doubt it changes the experience significantly, but it might be comforting to know that a few people at the talk are actually younger scholars trying to get a sense of what they’ll face in a few years.

  2. I think this experience also may be variable by discipline. I’ve been interviewed for lectureships at Cambridge twice, and both times I was asked to prepare a research talk as a teaching presentation, and presented my research to an audience consisting of a mixture of academics from various related departments, the department in which I was interviewing, postgrad students, and undergraduates. In addition, I was asked to do a teaching demonstration. The questions at the research talk were a mix of what the author above describes and undergraduate (albeit extremely smart undergraduate) questions.

    Also, at both interviews there was a pre-interview day formal dinner with the search committee and all the candidates, so avoidance can be impossible in some situations!

  3. I have studied and worked in Cambridge for sixteen years, and I’ve seen many, many people go wrong in their applications for academic jobs – on paper, in the job talk, and at interview. One thing that can be exceptionally difficult for outsiders is understanding the relationship between the central University and the Colleges. First, investigate how teaching is divided for your subject. A decent rule of thumb is that lectures, classes and exams are centrally run by departments/faculties (i.e. the University), whilst supervisions (small-group tutorials) and matters pertaining to student welfare are managed by the Colleges. Once you’ve sussed this out for your subject, then you can move on to the meanings of Tripos, Part I, Part II, prelims, and the rest. Start with the admissions pages on the University’s website, which do a pretty good job of explaining this stuff. And check out the student union, CUSU, which produces an ‘alternative’ prospectus.

    The other major misstep I’ve noticed over the years is when applicants assume that Cambridge teaching follows a similar pattern to other universities. That’s a dangerous assumption! If you’re asked to design a syllabus, remember that Cambridge students do a lot of work in very short terms (8 weeks) and that there is virtually no continuous assessment. For example, a typical 2nd yr modern languages student will do at least two translations and three essays (each roughly 2,500 words) per fortnight, all of which will be marked and discussed. But none of those pieces of work will count toward the end-of-year grade unless the student has specially opted to do a ‘portfolio’ and, even then, only a single portfolio of essays can be offered in lieu of one exam. It’s a very old-fashioned system in some ways, and it could be said to reward certain behaviours unfairly, e.g. the lazy student who puts in a bravura exam performance versus the diligent student who doesn’t thrive under exam stress. Whatever you think of that, you need to know the system and understand the culture if you’re going to design an appropriate syllabus – or, as we might say, design a Tripos paper.

    • Thank you, Steve! READERS: Steve Joy is THE EXPERT on Cambridge career issues (can we assume this applies to Oxford as well? That would be helpful for American readers to know). Read and learn!

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