Please, Sir, I Want Some More Employment: Applying For UK Jobs, Part I – The Lay of the Land

By Alice Kelly, Ph.D.

Alice Kelly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. Her academic training has been in the UK and the US. She completed her PhD in English at Cambridge in 2014, with a year as a Fox Fellow at Yale, and before that she studied at Sussex, Reed College (Portland, Oregon), and Oxford. She has taught English and History in the US and the UK. Having applied for academic jobs on both sides of the pond, she understands the challenges and opportunities of being on the transatlantic academic job market. Alongside her academic research on twentieth century literature and culture, she advocates healthy writing practices. At Oxford she founded the TORCH Academic Writing Group, which she has written about in Times Higher Education.


Note from Karen:  I met Alice during Kellee’s and my visit to Oxford in Spring 2017. We really hit it off, and I was impressed with her energetic, no-nonsense, and clear-eyed sense of the UK academic job market.  I could tell right away that she’d be a wonderful resource for TPII readers and clients looking for jobs there.  I requested a series of blog posts, and she has kindly obliged with a four-part series. She will also be serving as an informal consultant on the UK job market.  Please welcome Alice, and please do send along your questions!

Part One: The Lay of the Land: Your Guide to British Universities and Jobs

Tired of getting nowhere on the US job market? Interested in applying abroad? As the job market looks increasingly diminished in the US (and if your personal circumstances and lifestyle permit), you may be broadening your search to include our fair isle.

Then, dear reader, look no further than here for this new series on applying for academic jobs in the UK. Think of this as a British version of Karen’s post “Why Your Cover Letter Sucks,” primarily aimed at doctoral students and early career researchers in the humanities in the US – but UK applicants may also find it useful. Although we technically speak the same language, in academic terms we don’t always match up.

Like other modes of writing, job applications have a set formula. I’m writing this series because I believe that we could be doing much more, especially in the British system, to train our graduate students in how to write them well and with the least possible stress. My own 70+ applications on both sides of the Atlantic (with separate letters and CVs for each country), plus giving talks on this topic and reading numerous cover letters for applicants on both sides of the pond, have given me some hard-won experience. I may not know everything that works, but I definitely know what doesn’t.

This series will teach you how to navigate the different types of universities in the UK, the types of jobs you might apply to, and the schedule of applications; the current academic landscape, primarily the unknown, utterly unquantifiable impact of Brexit and the opposing total quantification of publications through the REF; the language, length and structure of UK cover letters; and the interview and the multiple forms it might take.

So without further ado…

First of all, if you’re going to be applying for a job in the UK, you as a candidate need to understand the different types of universities in the UK and their particular cultures and preoccupations. In a nutshell, there are four key types:

Ancient universities, founded before 1600: Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh. Likely to have small class sizes, particularly Oxbridge (a hybrid term for both universities), which have tutorials (Oxford) and supervisions (Cambridge) with one to four students. Incidentally, these points hold true for Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, as well.

Red brick universities, founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in industrial cities: including Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield. There are also other universities founded between 1900-1963, including Cardiff, Leicester, Nottingham and Reading.

Plate glass universities, founded mostly in the 1960s on self-contained campuses: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick, York. Sometimes this list is extended to included existing institutions which became universities in this period, such as Aston, Bath, Salford and Strathclyde.

Post-1992, mostly former polytechnics and central institutions: These institutions were mostly given university status through the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, and include Anglia Ruskin, De Montfort, Oxford Brookes, Greenwich, and Nottingham Trent. These universities may require lower entry grades.

There are a lot of other universities – these are just a few of many.

Another grouping you may come across is the Russell Group, a group of twenty-four public research universities, which joined together in 1994 to represent its members’ interests to the government. These universities receive two-thirds of all research grant funding in the United Kingdom and are generally regarded very highly. There are also particular types of university, such as the Open University, which is a distance-learning university, or Buckingham University, one of the UK’s five private universities (most other UK universities are government-funded). There are also UK satellite campuses of American universities, most in London (including Boston University, Central University of Iowa, Florida State, Georgetown, James Madison, NYU, Pepperdine, Syracuse, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Yale) and some elsewhere (Middlebury College in Oxford, Harlaxton College in Grantham, Luther College in Nottingham and Randolph College in Reading).

You might be thinking: how does knowing the types of British universities help me on the job market? Well, you have to be familiar with the lay of the land and the particular focus of each type of university and which students it may attract. How will your research and teaching fit in this university? What are the class sizes and how will your courses serve its students? What’s the availability of funding and how will it enable or restrict your research and teaching?

Next, what are the types of jobs you might be applying for? (FYI – in the US, a ‘job’ typically means a tenure-track job, but in the UK we use it more loosely to mean short-term posts, postdocs and teaching fellowships, as well as permanent lectureships):

Postdoctoral and Research Fellowships: These come in many shapes and sizes and vary from one to five-year contracts. They are usually themed or based as part of an existing research project team. Like American postdocs, these are research focused and usually involve little or no teaching. At Oxbridge, postdocs are called Junior Research Fellowships (as well as postdocs) and are based at particular colleges, and may be themed or completely open. If you’re a UK citizen, you can also apply for prestigious fellowships through national funding councils such as British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowships and Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowships, which are held in conjunction with an institution.

Research Assistantships: Useful if you’re a UK citizen and need a short-term post to tide you over before you get a longer-term post (and you’re interested in the work). Due to short-contracts and funding constraints, they’re probably unlikely to hire an overseas candidate, although it depends on each particular project.

Teaching Fellowships: Usually a year, although can be longer or shorter. In American terms, these are a bit like Visiting Assistant Professor positions. At Oxbridge, these posts are usually called College Teaching Posts, as opposed to permanent/long-term Faculty/Departmental Lectureships. Can provide useful teaching experience, especially if you’re a newly minted PhD looking for experience. However, these posts can sometimes be exploitative and have been criticized as hiring fresh blood in order to free up more senior academics from their teaching qualifications to write more REF outputs (see my second post coming up, for more on the REF – and Dr. Karen posts links to writing on the REF periodically on the Facebook Page). Watch out for weird-length contracts – I’ve applied for 7-month and 10-month contract positions, which can make finding accommodation difficult.

Lectureships: Our equivalent of tenure-track assistant professorships. In book-fields in the humanities, most applicants will have either published a monograph based on their dissertation, or have a book on the way, before getting one of these prized positions. Although these posts do not advertise themselves as being permanent, they are typically just that. They come with full research, teaching and service requirements. Lecturers are referred to as “Dr.”, not “Professor.” (In the UK, “Professor” denotes a position of seniority, whereas in the US it is used colloquially for all lecturers, regardless of rank).

Applying for more senior positions (Senior Lectureships, Readerships, Professorships) will come later. Hold your horses.

To complicate things further, some British universities (such as Exeter, Reading, Warwick and Kingston) have taken on the American terms for academic ranks, using the term “Associate Professor” instead of “Reader.” Oxford has got rid of the term “Reader” altogether, and only hires at Associate Professor level, not Assistant.

One significant difference between the two systems, however, is the schedule of applications. In the US everything depends on the disciplinary job lists coming out August-September, whereas in the UK jobs are posted throughout the academic year. There are pros and cons of this system: in the UK, jobs can still appear late in the academic year (May/June) for a September start, and the turnaround time from application to interview to offer is much faster than the US system. But it can mean that you may not know whether or not you will have a job in the next academic year until the summer.

To Do: Subscribe to daily/weekly jobs posting from either or Times Higher Education Uni Jobs to give yourself a familiarity with the types of jobs being advertised. Subscribing to either rather than both should adequately cover your back, as the same jobs are posted to both. To find out about JRFs in Oxbridge, look up the vacancies sections in the Cambridge Reporter or the Oxford Gazette (old school, I know), or more simply check the Postdocs Wiki where they are usually posted – just remember to check that you have the right year.

So that gives you a brief introduction to the types of universities and jobs you might apply to. In my next blog, I’ll discuss the current landscape of the British academy.

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Please, Sir, I Want Some More Employment: Applying For UK Jobs, Part I – The Lay of the Land — 12 Comments

  1. This could not come at a more perfect time for me. I am currently on the job hunt in the US but would love to work in the UK or Ireland. I am very excited to read everything you have to say. Thank you for doing this!

  2. Thanks so much for this excellent and timely post! Just wanted to point out that, if I understand correctly, to be eligible for post-doc fellowships from the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, being a UK citizen is not a requirement. Holding a degree from a UK higher education institution is enough.

    • Yes, I completed a PhD at Cambridge. I was told this many times, but I believe you must land the position within a certain amount of time. Also with Brexit and possibly changing sponsorship numbers or requirements, anything could happen.

  3. Thanks! This is very interesting. A hair worth splitting: Oxford and QMUL often hire research project staff at a research *assistant* level where other institutions would typically offer a research fellow or associate role. It is possible to be employed as a research assistant on a five year contract, associated with a funded project, and a college, conducting research. I’ve heard various explanations of this – differentiating with Junior Research Fellows, tradition, ensuring that no thinks there might be a continuing role – none of which quite seems satisfactory. Cambridge have started to adopt this practice. It might well spread.

  4. The claim that British Academy and Leverhulme postdocs can only go to UK citizens is incorrect: people who have doctorates from a UK institution (regardless of their nationality) are also eligible to apply. The BA website says: “Applicants must be a UK or EEA national, or have completed a doctorate at a UK university.”

    Could this be edited and corrected, please?

  5. Pingback: The UK Job Market, Part IV: Interviews, British-Style | The Professor Is In

  6. I would appreciate guidance on how to fill out job applications in the UK, especially how to input my qualifications for these job applications and translate degrees. Also, they tend to ask about teaching certificates, which we don’t have in the US for PhDs. I did however complete a teaching certificate program as a doctoral student in the US but this is more of an informal program helping you adopt better teaching approaches. I wonder if I should or should not then answer “No” to the question about teaching certification on UK job applications. Thanks!

    • Please use the “International Perspectives” category to find ALL the blog posts about the UK job market that I have here. There are many and they will help!

  7. As an American living in Europe and applying to UK universities, I am always struck by the question of whether I have a legal right to work in the UK. I wonder if my lack of a UK visa upon application automatically makes me ineligible for the job? In other words, how likely will I (a junior scholar) be considered if I am seen as a candidate that requires sponsorship? Is there information about this for international applicants? Thank you!

  8. Pingback: The UK Job Market, Part III: “I Beg Your Pardon, But May I Have This Job?” (The Winning Cover Letter) | The Professor Is In

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