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Alan - finishing up and moving on
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Name: Alan
PhD discipline: Spanish Literature
Area(s) of work: University teaching
Year of graduation: 2003
Date of Interview: 16/06/2008

Now Playing: Alan - finishing up and moving on
Alan recalls interviews for academic jobs, his doubts about his eligibility for Oxbridge posts, and his early experiences in his current role as a college lecturer there.

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Please would you tell me how you made the transition from the short-term contract that you had to your subsequent job? 

Well I started to look to see what positions were opening up elsewhere during the time. I mean I was very conscious that I needed to submit the PhD. I felt that although there might be posts available where they would be willing to look at candidates who hadn't submitted, that it would obviously be a big step and something to signal to a future employer by submitting it. And so I think that was my main focus. And so I submitted that at the beginning of March 2003 and around that time it was when posts were starting to open up anyway and so normally in the academic year around then.

And that year I think was a particularly lean year for jobs in Spanish. If I remember rightly a couple came up in Scotland, which I automatically discounted because of the geographical location. And possibly one in London, I'm not sure now.

Effectively I applied for three jobs: one was not really my research field anyway and I didn't get any response from that at all. Another was in my area and I was invited to interview and was short-listed. I went down to that university, it is a fairly small modern university is probably the best way to describe it, not a polytechnic but… 

In the south of England? 

Yes. And yeah I went to interview and felt the whole thing had gone okay but wasn't sure. I didn't get the job anyway. And so the only thing left was this particular post. And I remember when I found out that I hadn't got the job at the modern university I was thinking okay well hm there is only this one left, I'm never going to get that one because I don't have an Oxbridge background etc etc. But obviously I will go for it because I have to, it is the only job left in this particular round of applications.

Did you do anything different to prepare for it compared to the previous interview you had had?

I don't think I did, no, partly because I just didn't know what to expect anyway when I came to the interview here because I didn't know whether it would be a very different approach.

Did you do any preparation for the interview? 

Well I had to send in some research work and so I sent two pieces, which were effectively already finished but had not been sent for consideration yet, one from the PhD and another piece that was completely separate actually. I got slightly distracted at one point in the third year of the PhD by writing an article by a completely different author.

They probably liked that though?

They probably did actually, yes.

Because you were going off topic

Yes but not in a terribly off topic way if that makes sense. I mean it wasn't as if I was doing exactly the same thing but it was kind of related. And so I sent the two pieces in and I had to prepare a short presentation on my research. Effectively I had to start the interview by talking for 10 minutes about my research and where it was heading. And so effectively that was the only preparation I did apart from obviously a little bit of kind of research on the institution just to see what kind of things they teach and who was already here for example.

Did you contact anybody at this institution?

I had met somebody at a conference who was a PhD student here and had come through the whole system at this institution. And so I contacted her and said 'oh I'm coming in for an interview can I meet you for lunch?' I had lunch with her before I was due to come here in the afternoon to be interviewed. I remember her telling me a little bit about some of the people who were likely to be on the interview panel but she didn't really know anyway. Yeah I probably didn't really get much more than that. I didn't contact anyone in a department for example; I didn't know anybody in a department apart from the fact that the head of the department was on of the keynote speakers at the symposium which I had organised but had not yet happened. And so I hadn't actually met him but I had been in email contact with him about inviting him to my symposium and he turned out to be on the interview panel as well as her and so when I walked into the room I was like 'ha, okay!' And so no I hadn't really and I don't know whether that's because I really didn't think I had a chance anyway and so I didn't feel that there was any point trying to spend too much time, you know, wasting time I suppose.

What was the interview like?

It was 30 minutes long, me sat at one end of the table, seven interviewers sat around the table and that was it. As I was just saying before, a 10 minute presentation at the beginning and so I started off proceedings talking about my research. All I can remember about that is shaking like a leaf. Then some questions about my research, some of which were conducted in Spanish and then several questions about teaching. Things like 'do I prefer teaching very poor students or very good students?' 

What did you answer to that?

I remember answering that I enjoyed both because with very poor students you can actually feel a sense of satisfaction yourself when they learn something and they get better and improve. Whereas with very good students you find yourself challenged and pushed in other ways, and you enjoy the intellectual stimulation from that. Or the question about how would you help a student that was struggling to write essays and structure essays, where I said 'go and look at the guidelines for essay writing' and they said 'well, suppose they don't actually exist' and so then I talked through something which I had done so many times before. And maybe that is one of the things that had helped me in that interview – I had spent a lot of time helping students to learn how to write essays because of the institution I was in where some students were very weak at that. And some students are very weak at that in this institution as well – it was a good question because it is the kind of thing that you do do. 

And although you didn't have an Oxbridge experience they valued the kind of experience that the other institution had equipped you with?

Yes I think they probably did yes, yes, and that was something that was indicated to me afterwards in some very informal feedback from the chair of the appointments committee who is a lecturer in French here.

Could you give a sense of what she said?

Well she had said that when I had responded with this issue about departmental guidelines that she had thought this is exactly what the faculty and the college needed – somebody who could come in and actually set guidelines and a structure for the students to help them rather than the very ad hoc continued kind of nebulous things that just don't solve any kind of study skills. And something which I have actually seen since I arrived is a continual stress on study skills. 

Did you get a sense in the interview that it had gone well?

No actually. I remember being very, very nervous at the beginning but I did remember that as the interview went on I became more confident. I remember being asked one particular question and I was very quick to answer it. It was quite interesting because it was a very quick one-sentence answer but it was all that was needed. I can't remember what I said but I do remember that we laughed at one point and I think that is something that is actually quite good, to show your personality and actually show that you are a human being – as well as being obviously an intellectual and an academic is that you are human. And especially in this kind of job because you are working with people in other disciplines who are not necessarily going to esteem you for your research and academic value but actually want somebody nice to work with and be on committees with and you know talk to at lunch. 

Can you remember how you were told that you had been successful and the college wanted to employ you?

I was sat on the train and my mobile phone rang, this was the same evening after the interview. I had walked out of the interview and I had said to the secretary outside 'oh it's a lovely place, it's a shame I won't get a chance to see it and I won't be coming back', you know I thought the interview hadn't gone very well. And I wandered back to the train station and got on the train back to home. I was about an hour down the track and I had the phone call from the chair of the appointments committee. She said 'we would like to offer you the job' and the one word I said in reply to that was 'really?' I remember it very clearly to this day. I thought she had got the wrong person 'no you can't mean me!'  She said 'yes, we loved your research' and I made some comment about the fact that I had obviously not been through the Oxbridge system and she said they had made some allowances for that obviously in my responses but they would love to offer me the post. 

And then when you took up the post did it meet your expectations or was it different to how you imagined it would be?

It was different only in the sense of it being a very different kind of institution. I think if I had got a post in a university similar to the one where I had been before it would have matched everything I expected. Whereas coming here was a bit of a culture shock I suppose. 

In a good way or in a mixed way?

In a mostly good way. There were a few things during the very first term when, let's face it, I cried when I really thought 'my God what have I done?' and I got myself into a couple of situations where people were basically being very critical of what I had done. Just silly things really: one of them was actually a case of misunderstanding which I got caught up in between two other people and then the other one was just the fact that students were dropping out which just doesn't happen in Oxbridge and I had let them do this you see. The head of the appointments committee again was kind of on the phone saying 'you know, you are not going to come out of this smelling of roses etc etc' and I was like 'er…' But I think once I got through that first term everything got a lot better.  

I think because I had made the big jump it took me at least a year just to work out what was going on because it is such a complex institution and there are so many different demands and different things that you have to be aware of. It took me three years before I actually felt confident in everything I'm doing and that's in terms of teaching, the administrative roles and research. I mean it is probably fair to say that in the first year I didn't get much research done and so research did take a little bit of a back burner.

Did you publish anything in that first year here? 

I did but it was stuff I had already written really and so I kind of just sent it off. You know, it took a little while to find a balance again.

And where next? How do you see you career developing now? 

I've just been reappointed here until retiring age, which is very good. But it isn't the kind of job that most people do stick in for a long because of it being a college lecturer – well it is a very complex issue but to some people's minds it is seen as a junior post whilst to others it isn't. I mean, I have colleagues who have done this job for decades and continue to enjoy it and publish very well and are very highly regarded in their disciplines. But they can never become a professor because they are not university employed, unless they moved into a different institution, into a university post. And so there are certain limitations for this job. At the minute I'm happy to stay here because it has security and I enjoy it and I love the institution in which I am working. And there are ongoing talks at the minute about these problems and about how they may be rectified. And so if they are rectified, I could see myself staying here until retiring ages, which is quite scary, in 30 odd years. But I wouldn't be completely averse to moving on at some point, but not in the immediate future. 

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