Job applications

Saturday, July 30th, 2005

I hate writing job applications – in fact, I’ve sometimes failed to apply for jobs simply because I hate the whole form-filling, personal-statement-making process.

There’s a fine line to be made between showing off and being too humble. In the case of applications for academic posts, it’s like making blind bids on eBay. You have to beat your competitor but you don’t want to bet too much too fast, or you risk threatening the people making the selection (you really don’t want to claim you’re the world’s expert on XYZ when everyone knows that the person with the job of choosing the successful applicant is firmly of the opinion that she is).

There’s a need to make out that you’re a star, an expert in your field and a possible attractor of prestige and cash. Yet there’s a contradiction in all this: just about every academic post’s job description fouses on teaching ability; yet I can guarantee that, from experience, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual selection, particularly now that every university in the UK is gearing up for the Research Assesment Exercise. This, for those who don’t know, is a long drawn-out process in which universities are rated by the amount and quality of research they do. The score a university receives translates in to funding for the next half decade. Consequently appointments tend to be based on the probable contribution you will make to the RAE results. Thus a researcher who publishes 10 papers in journals that are highly respected but largely unread, but who can’t teach for toffee because he hates looking people in the eyes and has zero social skills will be preferred over someone who can make a subject fascinating to passers-by but is so busy teaching the damn subject that they never get round to writing for a journal.

NATFHE, the teaching union I’m a member of, has just published some research that looks at the increasing (but long-practiced) tendency for universities to give all their full-time posts to researchers and give the teaching to part-time, hourly paid lecturers whose contracts are termly and thus have to decide whether to hang on for a telephone call the day before a course starts or accept a full-time job in a call centre. It’s not a great way to develop future minds, really, is it? What’s the point in publishing loads of research if there aren’t going to be any people to read it in a few years because they’ve all been so badly taught by overstrecthed, undervalued and constantly changing teachers that they leave university as soon as they can and get jobs dishing out French fries?

So the application process is about ticking all the boxes on the job description about ‘ability to plan curricula’, ‘respect for student contributions to their own and each others’ learning’, ‘knowledge of national academic standards’ etc while the interview is about making out that given the chance you’re the next Albert Einstein of your subject area. Personally I think I’m more like the Jonny Ball of mine (you need to be British and of a certain age to get that reference, so apologies) thus am unlikely to succeed at any of these applications.

Still, birthday number 35 is rapidly looming and I need a full-time job if I’m to retire before the age of 80…

(Here’s another thing – can no one in personnel departments use Microsoft Word? I seem to spend all my time correcting formatting errors and overcoming bizarre tabbing and tables instead of actually typing anything. One form I filled in the other week converted everything I typed into 14pt bold italic green helvetica!)

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