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.

Top Tips on Writing Conference Abstracts

Catherine HindsonCatherine Hindson provides us with some great tips on how to write good conference abstracts. She is Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies and Head of the Theatre department at the University of Bristol. She was convenor of the Working Group in Theatre History and Historiography (2012-2015) and is lead organizer for next year’s 2016 TaPRA conference at the University of Bristol.

Catherine’s research interests are in popular performance in the long nineteenth century and the relationship between the theatre industry, heritage and historiography. Her latest book West End Actresses, Charity and the Theatre Industry, 1880-1920 will be published by University of Iowa Press later in 2016. 

Abstract writing demands a very particular set of skills. Some people find writing abstracts simple and straightforward. I am not one of them. In fact I’d go as far as to say that the production of a coherent abstract is one of my least favourite professional tasks. I guess this makes me a good person to be writing this blog post in which I have tried to put together a brief list of the key things I have learnt about abstract writing from writing them myself and from reading many abstracts as a conference organiser and TaPRA working group convenor.

1) A key reason why writing abstracts is difficult is because they require you to think hard about what you are proposing to do and to put down on paper how you are going to do it and why it matters. All in a very small number of words…

2) If you flip this on its head, what this also mean is that writing a good abstract can really help you with planning a paper, chapter or article. See, there is an up side…

3) What it should also suggest is that writing a good abstract is going to take some time. The most important thing I have learned about reading and writing abstracts is DON’T leave it until the last minute. It might be a short piece of writing, but it’s not an easy writing task. Don’t confuse the two things! If there is a call for papers have a draft abstract ready a good week before.

4) Write a new abstract for every call for papers, practice or articles that you respond to. The abstract must always be specific to the call. Never lift one that you have written for another version of your research project and try to use it for another purpose. Avoid generic descriptions of your research, be precise and focused. Conference organisers regularly get abstracts that propose material the size of a thesis for a twenty minute paper. Think about what you can realistically achieve in the set time or word count. You can be sure that your conference organiser or editor will be when she or he makes their selection…

5) Send your draft abstract to someone else to have a look at it before your submit it. It could be your supervisor, a peer or a friend, but it needs to be someone you know will be honest with you.

6) Remember your abstract could well end up in the public domain – on websites or in conference programmes. You’ll probably get a chance to edit it, but rarely to completely rewrite it. Sometimes it just goes up/out as you have submitted it first time round. A good litmus test before you finally hit send is to imagine someone you admire in the field reading it. Still happy with it? Still feel it does the job? Then it is ready to go…

5 Top Tips on Teaching Performance Practice

Photo by Elyse Marks

Photo by Elyse Marks

Poppy Corbett is a playwright and Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway University of London who has kindly agreed to write this post on teaching performance practice. She co-wrote (with educationalist Pie Corbett) The Enormous Book of Talk for Writing Games for KS2 teachers – a book that can be used to help children improve their written work through speech and drama games. In 2014 she won a College Teaching Excellence prize.

I’m a Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, specialising in playwriting. Term is, scarily, into full swing and so I want to reflect on what it means to teach practice. These are my top five tips for teaching practice, which I’ve kept non-subject specific so you can apply them to your own teaching. All the ideas have arisen just as much from me being a student of great teachers, as they have from my own feeling-my-way-in-the-dark teaching.

1. Frame the practice very carefully

When I studied for my Masters degree, we spent a glorious week with Toby Jones as a visiting practitioner. Just before we were about to present our final performances (hastily thrown together), Toby gave some perceptive advice about how to be an effective audience. It went something like this (I paraphrase):

We have to be clear what we’re looking at – this is very fragile work – we had no time to make it and are responding to something we’ve received. It is unfinished work but confusingly has the hallmarks of finished work (clapping at the end, an audience watching). But it’s NOT finished, it’s just step one – so we must treat it carefully.

I’ve never forgotten this and believe it’s important to carefully frame the showing of practice. When work is shared, it is vital that the whole seminar group understands what stage the work is at. It is no good students responding to a first draft, or an initial piece of choreography as though it is a few hours before opening night at the Olivier. This helps students to develop their own critical faculties. Context is key.

2. Practice before theory

Introduce practice immediately. If you throw students into practice straight away it becomes a habit and eliminates nervousness. I learnt this important lesson when I was an undergraduate student. On a physical theatre module it felt (to my twenty year old self) like we spent a long time (disgruntledly) rolling about on the floor and throwing sticks at each other. Our lecturer (the fantastic Dick McCaw) then gave us critical reading. I was amazed – I understood difficult reading on the practices of Meyerhold, Zinder and Barba with clarity because I had embodied the very exercises described. If the reading had been introduced before we explored the physical work, I believe it would have been harder to understand the exercises. Because we already had embodied the theory, we understood the reading more perceptively.

3. Compliment more than you criticise

Give more compliments than criticisms. It can be tempting to be hard on students and continually point out what they are doing wrong but like all of us, students thrive from positive feedback. This is not to say you should not be critical, but you mustn’t forget to tell them where they’re going right.

As a theatre director, the best thing I ever did when forming a company was to invent the ‘circle of love’: at the end of a rehearsal the actors sit in a circle massaging each other’s backs. One by one, each actor offers a compliment to the actor they are massaging. This can be anything from ‘I like your new trainers’, to ‘you really impressed me in that final scene’. It is the most successful exercise I have facilitated in order to bond a group. This was inspired a brief time at the Moscow Art Theatre School where the Michael Chekhov teacher insisted on a love of your fellow actors. Although I don’t (obviously) massage my students, I have found they thrive off compliments. Make sure you praise what they are doing well and it is inevitable they will keep doing that.

4. Provide professional opportunities

Give students opportunities to engage with professional practice. This could take several forms, depending on your practice: take them to see a play, encourage them to enter work into professional competitions, or invite a professional into the seminar room. Always encourage students to perform their work in front of an external audience. Students hide for so long in the academy that they forget an audience not constituted of their peers may have a completely different reaction to their work.

When suggesting external opportunities, make sure you organise them in advance or you may end up like I did, seeing a Thornton Wilder play all by myself. My students asked for a theatre trip; I suggested one and a date to attend, but ended up being the only person to show up…! Departments may have resources to pay for these activities – chat to your Head of Department.

It can be time-consuming and costly to try and organise professional opportunities for your students, but I believe it is always worth the effort.

The most successful project of my teaching career was to produce professional play readings of students’ work. I found two excellent directors who offered dramaturgical advice to the students. Following this I produced public readings of their plays at Shoreditch Town Hall, using professional actors. The returned feedback forms at the end of the course mentioned it as a key learning experience: “it gave our group a more accurate idea of what writing a play ensues: this wasn’t being written to be marked, our play was being written to be performed and enjoyed by an audience.”

5. Share your practice with your students.

If you’re a practitioner I encourage you to share your practice with your students. Let them know when you are performing or running a workshop. Make it clear to them what professional practice you do. It places the students’ trust in your professional ability to teach and it allows them to link practice-based work with academic writing: “did you notice that moment in my performance when Oedipus realised the terrible truth he’d shagged Mum and killed his Dad? THAT, my students, is what Aristotle means about ‘anagnorisis’.” Thirdly, it gives you an immediate platform for your professional work. One of the most touching moments in my teaching career was during a nervous time before an industry reading of a play. Nervously scanning the auditorium to work out who all these stern faces were to my surprise I spotted a group of my students in the audience. Suddenly, the industry professionals mattered much less and the interaction of the students with my work mattered a whole deal more.

If you want a chance to learn more about teaching practice, come along to our teaching practice event on Saturday 12 December 2015 at Royal Holloway University. For more information click here.