Tough Love: Tips on Getting Your Application Right

headshotIn anticipation of our upcoming Employability Event we asked Prof Kate Newey to give us the benefit of her experience shortlisting candidates for jobs. What we got was a combination of practical and strategic advice that we think you’d be silly to ignore!

…be ready to hear it like it is…

 

CVs – the basics

Layout, layout, layout. Make it clear and easy to get the main facts from a CV quickly. Jobs I’ve been on the selection committees for have up to 100 applications – there are some areas (eg Eng Lit) where this is doubled. If we have to hunt for information in your application, it’s not necessarily a good thing for you! If the information is unclear, or ambiguous, ditto. And I start to wonder what you’re trying to hide…

On the other hand, no whizzy showy stuff to “stand out” in that pile of 100. I can live without pictures on a CV too. We don’t need to know what you look like (Sorry <grin>).

What will stand out is a clean, professional, sensible knowledgeable CV with a clear straightforward application letter.

Always order things from the most recent to the most historic ie backwards.

Be judicious about what you include. We don’t really need to know your hobbies or your non-academic employment UNLESS you want to refer to it in your cover letter for a specific this-job-related reason. EG voluntary work is lovely, but only mention it if you’re doing such work in an area relevant to the job for which you’re applying. But I really don’t need to know that you enjoy reading (I should hope you do in this business!) or fell-walking in your job application. If you’re invited to interview, we can have a great talk about that over lunch. But don’t waste your space or my time on such stuff in your job application.

Resist, resist, really resist the urge to inflate your CV. Please.

You really don’t need to have more than you’d be expected to have in relation to your ‘career age.’ The problem with CV inflation is that you think you have to have all this stuff for a job application, but we might make a less than positive comparison between what you write and what we know to be the case: for example, book reviews are book reviews, not publications in the same way that a refereed journal article is a publication.

Just be straightforward about articles out for review: say that you’ve submitted an essay for X journal, and are awaiting readers’ reports. In the first couple of years post-PhD, we’re looking for a research trajectory, which means that you need to show you know what you’re doing & the direction you’re going in, and that you’re taking practical, concrete steps to get there eg you’re preparing a book proposal adapted or drawn from your PhD (important to show you know that your PhD is rarely publishable in its raw form!) and have submitted/about to submit to XYZ publisher. Be ready to talk about why that publisher in interview. Basically, any claim you make in your CV, be prepared to discuss in interview.

Personally I don’t like the Twitter-like biogs at the top of a CV for an academic job: just stick to the utilitarian basics.

Ditto for the summary such as “I am a highly motivated self-directed individual, able to work on multi-disciplinary project.” That sort of guff. This is for your cover letter, and needs to backed up by concrete evidence/examples. For non-academic jobs, such statements are required & useful, but for an academic job, we all know what the job is; your distinctiveness is going to be in your CV, which represents the mix of your experience so far.

Cover letters, proposals etc

Again, remember that your application or proposal is going to be one of many. So keep things clean, clear, and try to be helpful in your submissions – in that you should adhere to any directions given you about layout or word length and so on.

Simple stuff such as: if you’re submitting an electronic document, name each document with your name & what it is not just randomly “Exeter application”.

Instead, label it clearly <YOURNAME_Grant proposal Exeter 2017>

Think about what information you would need and in what order if you were managing say, 20 applications for the same thing. You’d want to be able to sort & save the documents by applicant probably.

I always prefer MSWord, rather than a PDF but check about format for sending something. Usually, if you’re asked for several parts eg Proposal, summary, and CV it makes sense to put it all in one document (as above, think of the recipient, managing 20 or a 100 such documents), each section of the document separated by a page break.

It’s all just digital good manners.

Cover letters for jobs

Be straightforward and clear, and get to the point of what you offer to the post.

Give us a one or two sentence summary of your PhD research, and what was original. Then tell us how this is relevant to a broader field. And show us/explain to us how what you’re an expert in will add to, complement, enable collaboration, challenge the students etc etc in the Department you’re aiming to join.

Think beyond your PhD. It changed your life, but your PhD won’t change the world – it’s just the start.

To be really tough on this point: when I’m chatting to ECRs informally, and even more so when I’m interviewing them for jobs, I do tend to find those who can’t look beyond their own nose – see beyond their PhD topic – can be rather <ahem> boring and a bit self-absorbed, and I do wonder what sort of a collegial sharing generous person they’re likely to be. Ditto people who are arrogant about their work, or secretive. You should be able to talk to colleagues about your work in an open, non-jargonistic way; indeed, you need to be able to explain your research to your colleagues, and enthuse your colleagues about it. One way of doing this is to have a built-in response to the “So what?” question – excite them about how your work opens up broader issues, or whatever, and so on.

It’s important because it’s a good way to conduct your professional life – it’s a good ethic to share and to engage, and to collaborate. But on a more pragmatic note, if I have concerns about your arrogance or the narrowness of research enquiry, from the way you share or don’t share in writing and in person, I’m going to probe and prod & push you in interview. Or if I can’t see, in your CV and your research forward planning, that you’re aware of the level of team work and collegiality needed as an academic, and the openness & breadth needed as a teacher, then I may not push for you to be shortlisted. With 60 or 100 candidates, we’re looking for reasons not to shortlist as much as to shortlist.

Take your work seriously, by all means, but don’t take yourself too seriously. I think if you approach it like that, you’ll find your balance.

And if you’re a man, you’ll probably have to work a bit harder at this, because you’re socialised since birth to feel self-important and necessarily of interest to others without having to try too much; it’s as well to try to be self-aware about that socialisation. Gender politics are real, and you can’t rely on the advantages of institutional sexism for very much longer. (And women, note that I am deliberately phrasing this in terms of male advantage rather than female disadvantage.)

Kate Newey

<aka the Grumpy Professor>

________________________

Kate Newey is Professor of Theatre History at Exeter. She has been a Head of Department for three different University Drama Departments (Lancaster, Birmingham, and Exeter), and has sat on appointments committees from Teaching Fellows to Professorial and other senior appointments. She is currently Director of Research for Drama at Exeter, and has led on the last 3 REF/RAE submissions for her department (2001, 2008, 2014). She was a member of the AHRC Peer Review Panel from its inception, and is a founding committee member of the British Association for Victorian Studies, and the Theatre and Performance Research Association. She was a judge for the Society for Theatre Research Theatre Book Awards (2008) and sits on the STR Research Awards sub-committee. She has taught in English and Drama Departments in Australia and the UK, and is an expert in the literature and popular culture of the nineteenth century and has published widely on Victorian theatre and women’s writing, including the books Lives of Shakespearean Actors: Fanny Kemble (editor, 2010), John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre (with Jeffrey Richards, 2010), Ruskin, the Theatre, and Victorian Visual Culture (co-editor, 2009), Women’s Theatre Writing in Victorian Britain (2005), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1993). She was co-editor of Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film from 2005-2015, and led the AHRC-funded project ‘A Cultural History of English Pantomime, 1837-1901,’ 2009-2012.

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