Mid-Careers on the Job Market : Q&A (4/5)

Short-fire answers to some key questions.

What do you prioritise in your Cover Letter?

C1: A story of how you are uniquely interesting and accomplished. 

C2: The type of historian I am and how my past achievements will help me excel in the advertised role.

C3: I like my cover letters to be detailed and I want them to include concrete examples of what I have done. 

C4: I structure it like a story of where I came from, what I’m doing, and where I’m going. But I want to make sure it ticks the boxes for the job specification. Makes their job easier.

C5: Demonstrating that you meet the person specification (job description). Go through each criterion systematically to make the assessor’s job easier. They will be reading a lot of applications and need to tick boxes for shortlisting!

How long do you spend updating your CV?

C1: I think of two types of CV. There is the total CV, which you need for things like promotion applications. The approach for updating this one is: little and often. Whenever you give a talk, or something new comes out, add it to the total CV.

The second type is the job specific CV, which I do based on my total CV. It’s harder to say how long I’d spend redrafting the job-specific CV, because I would do this alongside the cover letter: the letter tells the story, the CV is the footnotes. And like footnotes, you are probably including too much in your CV, no matter what they say about ‘full CV’.

C2: I update my CV as and when I get a new publication, etc, so I don’t spend very long updating it for each specific application.

C3: I update it at least once a year. Otherwise, it’s a huge chore to do it when you’re asked for one.

C4: I have annual versions of my CV: CV 2019; CV 2020; CV 2021; etc. I update it regularly with publications but also public engagement activities, papers, committees, PhD supervisions, etc. This is mostly because otherwise I will forget these things which I have done/am doing. So when I tweak it for the job application, it is a pretty quick affair.

C5: Not that long. Follow the headings in the person specification for that particular job, if provided. Emphasise bits you know will be of interest to that particular institution, cut bits that are of less interest. Try and update your CV fairly regularly when not making applications so the task is less onerous and to avoid forgetting things.

How do you prepare for an interview Q&A?

C1: They’re going to ask the standard questions. There’s a question bank for ECR interviews on the FHN blog, but mid-career questions might take a slightly different form, as in the question about ‘influence’. They might also ask about evidence of your leadership to date. Or about your research students. Draw up your own question bank and think about the answers.

C2: I look over past questions and also prepare a series of vignettes from my own experiences (teaching, research, service, mentoring) which could equally fit past and unexpected questions

C3: I don’t. Except the teaching-related bits. Who knows what curveball the selection committee will throw you..? (This is not necessarily good advice!)

C4: I regroup possible questions according to category: research you’ve sent them; teaching examples; institutional fit; future research. Ask friends to think up of some questions and add them.

C5: Try and think about what questions you might be asked. The person specification will help you here. Really research the institution, and the panel if you know who they are, but don’t overdo it on the synergies to the point where it sounds forced and a bit fake.

What do you wear?

(1) Minefield. At ECR, suits and office wear seemed standard, but I have seen EVERYTHING at mid-career level. You can’t go wrong with going absolutely formal, although you may personally be more comfortable in the jeans and shirt you would normally wear to go to work.

(2) Sober-looking suit and tie, I’d sooner they forget what I wore than what I said

(3) I’m a wannabe soixante-huitard who has never worn a tie in his life. So I go (very) smart casual.

(4) Smart casual: trousers, shirt, jacket. I always feel more comfortable in trousers than skirts/dresses.

(5) Clothes is a good start, preferably something comfortable. See below.

What was your best interview moment?

(1) Real talk. How good or bad the moments feel to you on the day is radically divorced from how well those moments land with interviewers. The bad news is that when you feel like you are on fire, they might be thinking where the nearest emergency exit is. The good news is that some moments that feel really difficult in the room might be taken as evidence that you are thoughtful, or can respond on your feet.

(2) Honestly, whenever I can make the panel laugh or feel like we’re having a chat more than an interview

(3) When the whole selection committee smiled approvingly at something I said – not surprisingly, it was at the interview for the job I currently have…

(4) Peeing on a stick during the 2-day interview process and finding out I was pregnant. Didn’t get the job, but got the baby.

(5) Doing the teaching presentation and realising that the students were really engaged.

What was your worst?

(2) I remember clashing with the panel about how their institution narrowly defined a field and as soon as I started, I knew that I wasn’t getting the job

(3) Being asked unconvincingly about the Third Republic by the only historian on a panel that clearly had no interest in appointing me. 

(4) When I got a phone call at 10:15am on the day of the interview from a Committee member asking where I was: they were expecting my job talk at 10am. I panicked so much I stabbed myself with a pencil throwing everything into my bag. I had a panic attack in the taxi, but managed to calm down slightly when I double checked the invitation letter which clearly said 12:30pm. I arrived, completely frazzled, ready to be squeezed in between two other interviewees. I tried to explain that the email had in fact said 12:30pm, but a committee member told me not to worry, that ‘it did not matter whose fault it was’, and that what mattered was that I was there. I could not help but think that it did, in fact, matter that this was not my fault, and I really felt that they should be the ones apologising. Didn’t get the job.

(5) Putting on a pair of trousers which I had not worn since pre-lockdown, and realising too late that they were too tight. Spending aforementioned teaching presentation worrying that my trousers were going to split. 

Does it get easier?

C1: The obvious answer – yes – is about being practiced and (for some people) having less riding on the interview.

But actually mid-career interviews are tougher in one important way: many people in this situation will have very demanding, full-time jobs, young children, or relatives to care for. Of course, this is also true for many ECRs, but a great many ECR applicants are using postdocs to apply for jobs. Mid-career researchers are applying between doing their [70 hour week] teaching and admin, and they are using the time that would otherwise be the article they owe their department for the mock ref exercise, or the grant application to get some time to finish the book.

C2: Ish. I think we build up callouses so that the rejections don’t hit so hard, though I don’t think we’re ever immune!

C3: No.

C4: In a way: by now, I am better able to see the wood for the trees, and to know that life does not stop, or start, with academic jobs. I have enough stability in other aspects of my life to be able to bounce back. No because: pre-interview nerves are tough, and rejection feels shit. That process of constantly having to prove yourself to others is tiring.

C5: You won’t necessarily think so when you’re in the thick of doing a job application or interview preparation, but yes.


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