Natalia Buitron, political anthropologist with regional expertise in Latin America is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the Oxford Department International Development (ODID) and former LSE PhD student and LSE Fellow. She spoke to LSE PhD students about her experience of and learning from the rigorous selection processes involved in academic career progression. Temporarily putting aside her substantial knowledge of Ecuador, the Amazon, and three major research themes of: autonomy, justice and sovereignty Natalia, described the practicalities of how to survive, thrive and progress in the academic field.
Be prepared. Be kind to yourself.
Whether you are a beginner, new to academic selection, or a ‘perseverer’ – those already in the game, Natalia shared her experience-based tips to help you prepare as well as you can. She explained the importance of knowledge of the differences between different types of posts in different types of institutions. Natalia described her experience of interviewing for research positions as part of externally funded research projects; fixed-term lectureships in research and teaching-intensive universities; permanent lectureships in research and teaching-intensive universities; permanent appointments in up-and-coming, experimental teaching institutions/future universities. She has learnt that they all require particular types of preparation.
Research postdocs in a research-intensive university
There’s often a back story to tell (draw on previous experience to show how you fit with the project); familiarise yourself with the project and its focus, aims; know what you bring to this project and understand the specific challenges of managing your academic identity amongst the needs of the team collaboration. How will you develop your own work and grow as part of this project? Expect detailed questions about your previous research work, methodologies, and scenario-based questions linking your previous experience to their project (how would you set up experiments in…?), innovations you can bring to the project. Scholarship, your discipline and sub-field will matter in these types of institutions, so they want to get to know you as an academic. The questions Natalia faced included theory, for example: What is coming up in Anthropology in the next 10 years and how do you see yourself in those conversations? What is your favourite theory? What is your favourite method? Career stage matters too, the panel wants to know what your plan is for the next three or five years in terms of REF/TEF/Impact.
Fixed-term lectureships in research and teaching-intensive universities
This was a different experience for Natalia, and she had one very teaching-focused interview. First, she was invited to present on her research and how it would influence her teaching, having submitted a syllabus for an eight-week seminar series in advance. She also prepared to show how she would be a good addition to the department, as a theorist and a researcher, as a colleague, but the interviewers’ questions were about practicalities of teaching. How many lectures have you given? Can you use our Learning Platform? Can you use other teaching technologies? How will you teach (this topic) to students in this year? Specific questions about the courses Learning Outcomes. The PGCertHE knowledge was invaluable to Natalia here. Despite not being offered this post, the experience helped her know she could face other academics in other departments even if she did not fulfil the criteria for this role. Negative outcomes can boost your confidence; help you learn and realise what else you need to do to have experiences to draw on and present at the next interview.
Interviewing in departments other than your own and applying beyond your own discipline means additional preparation. To tailor your CV and cover letter so you look like ‘their’ discipline, contextualise your experience and use the language (jargon) of the discipline, in their terms. This takes lots of reading. Get to know your hiring committee and interviewer panel – read their bios, their website and the key papers of the people on the Panel. This is not to mention your reading in the interview but to understand where they are coming from and to help you frame your answers, so you sound as if you fit within their world. Pre-empt their concerns about your fit at the interview and prepare an answer about how you will teach their topics to their students, building on your own expertise while addressing the key questions in their field. Additionally, interdisciplinary work is increasingly common, so practice how you describe your contribution to the interdisciplinary field they are offering. This does not mean changing your work but knowing how it complements the others in the team, what you bring and why that matters. If teaching is part of the role, then prepare how you will work with students and teach the core concepts they cover. Sometimes you will also need answers for how you will prepare students for the job market, their employability and progression.
Preparing for interviews
Natalia recommends spending half of your time preparing the presentation, writing it and asking for feedback from mentors, peers; then rehearsing and delivering it to different audiences, with the type of tech you will use on the day. Prepare for unsettling questions about your presentation, including some from people in different disciplines, talk to people in the field you are applying to, hear them use their vocabulary. Then spend the other half of your preparation time in preparing your approach for the interview questions. Find out about the department, its philosophy, the issues it is facing. Find out about the people. Then focus on performing well. Draft some answers based on your reading. But be ready to think on your feet and be ready to improvise on the day. Also, put yourself in the shoes of the interviewer so you can predict topics that will come up.
There are some unfailing questions that you must prepare answers for in advance. Always expect these: Why did you apply for this position? Why did you apply to this department? What attracts you to this university? Prepare to talk about your past and current research, and importantly your plan for the next project. Its approach, methods, outputs, impact. Also, questions for them. Think of two or three interesting ones so you can ask a different one if the topic has already been covered. For teaching roles, for example, you might ask about the support available for you as a new PhD supervisor.
After the interview
Write down the questions you were asked to keep a log; this will be useful for the next one. Also, ask for feedback about your performance. Send a polite email to request this and thank them for their time. It might be very helpful, but you might not be impressed by the feedback, sometimes it is limited and formulaic. But it will help you learn and understand the position from their point of view. You might learn simply that another candidate is a better fit but sometimes this feedback can lead to a conversation which can help you with specifics, for example, such a conversation taught Natalia to be ready to speak more specifically about collegiality and to have some more detailed examples ready.
It is shocking to get rejections. You might feel exhausted and like giving up. So be kind to yourself, take a break, re-consider your position and try not to be too disappointed. If you decide to keep going you might try working on various fronts – preparing grant applications while building your teaching experience, for example. Make a plan for how you will approach the job market and funding applications to manage your workload realistically.