Academic Hiring in the U.K.—General Information

There are four types of universities in the U.K.: top-tier; leading provincial; former polytechnics made universities in 1992; colleges of further education

Appointments Process:

This is done by a sovereign committee, not the whole department. At the big London universities or at Oxbridge there might be no formal job talk; at others there might be a 20-minute presentation to the entire department (but rarely to students). There will be a short interview of one hour and that’s it; 5-6 people will be short-listed and you will all be interviewed on the same day. You will thus meet each other, since part of the interview experience means socializing with the other candidates (a disconcerting but also refreshingly human touch!). During the social hour, “generic slick confidence” is less appreciated than friendliness, especially if you have a North American accent.

The interview focuses on your research (and may start with your presentation of a 15-minute talk); there is much less emphasis on teaching, so no practice teaching, though it doesn’t hurt to have some sample syllabi ready, if asked—but don’t be too eager to give them out. You may be asked what courses you’d like to teach or design, but likely you’ll be assigned to existing courses because you’re filling an existing position.  The interview is the key intellectual moment and the committee may seem old and indifferent, but that’s the way it is and you have to practice dealing with it.

One thing to be very aware of: there will always be an official administrator type at the interview who doesn’t know anything about intellectual interests, teaching, etc. He/She is usually some kind of manager who wants to make sure that you appreciate the corporate structure of the university, and the demands of the government. It is therefore a good idea to be very aware in advance of how schools seem to interact (e.g., is it a School of English, or is it a School of Humanities?), how the university markets itself (will they want you to talk about student recruitment, will they want you to hype your ability to attract research funding, etc.).

When you are there for interview, you can ask to meet up with people you already know professionally or ask the department head to arrange meeting with colleagues (since there isn’t necessarily going to be a coffee or lunch or dinner as in North America); it will help to give you a sense of the place; you will be told who the interviewers are and most will be in your field. In the U.K., they don’t do interviews at large professional conferences but they do want to meet rising young stars, so feel free to introduce yourself at conferences, and use your contacts to gain introductions.

A note for your referees: North American reference letters are better than most British ones, because they are 2-3 pages long and more detailed; it is crucial that referees write about your research in some detail and why it matters. Tell them not to say anything critical/negative about you as a candidate; your supervisor should contact someone s/he knows in university and give an honest opinion over the phone to recommend one candidate over another.

Finding Job Advertisements:

-Guardian paper’s education supplement on Tuesdays;

-Times Higher Education Supplement on Friday; website, which also lists postdocs; increasing presence of ads in US professional journals.

The timing of ad: they are advertised all the time (not a defined cycle as in North America).

Career structure:

In North America: postdoc-assistant-tenure-associate-full

In the U.K.: lecturer-senior lecturer-professor-reader (except for the Oxbridge Universities, where a lecturer is more like a full professor).

-At Oxford or Cambridge, the entry level will be ‘teaching fellow.’ Don’t apply for the position of ‘postgraduate tutor’ anywhere — those are always T.A.-type jobs.

In the U.K. there are lots more postdocs with manageable teaching loads and no administrative responsibilities. There are lots of temporary jobs advertised; DON’T take them if you have a choice, because they have heavy teaching, no research funding, and won’t result in a permanent position.  There are courses training you in teaching when you first arrive.

RAE (research assessment exercise):

Every 5-6 years every department in every university in the U.K. is ranked on their research average during that period; each person is expected to have 4 publications; results determine how much funding the university gets from the government and how much each department gets from university. There is little or no attention to teaching or students in this process. There are 110 British universities in total. Because of this, research is of paramount importance now: you HAVE to have published something, which represents a big shift from twenty years ago.

To apply for even an entry-level job you need minimum of one really good, peer-reviewed publication; apply with your Ph.D. done already, have one or two articles published, and be prepared to show how your thesis can be turned into a book or more articles. The importance of the RAE cannot be underestimated. It determines everything – you are really hired at most places based on how you will help the university with its ranking. If you are applying right after the RAE has been done, then you’ll be hired for your potential as much as your current achievements. If you’re applying closer to the RAE, then it’s best to have strong publications which you can tout as ‘world-class’ (it’s how things are ranked by the RAE).

One thing, though: ‘early career researchers’ (i.e., people who have four years of experience or less – sessional lecturing DOES NOT count) only have to submit two publications for the RAE. If you have a great publication record, you can negotiate good deals that minimize your administration and teaching. External grants are increasingly important because RAE won’t result in as much funding as it used to do; research councils are looked to to dispense money. When applying for positions, try to demonstrate that you have and can get research grants.

University fees are becoming an important source of revenue; until about 5 years ago university education was free for students but now it is 3,200 pounds per year. Fees will rise especially for elite universities; this will increase the focus on teaching, which has fallen aside because of research incentives. Universities are less and less willing to assess critically, and tend to provide MUCH more ‘pastoral’ support to plagiarists, weak students, etc. This is due primarily to the fact that they want to keep their RAE ranking (student satisfaction, enrolment, number of appeals etc. do influence the ranking). So you’ll be under pressure from the Chair to give the students what they want, more than to be pedagogically innovative or demanding.

Miscellaneous information:

Many jobs don’t go to U.K. Ph.D. grads—unless they’re from the London universities, says one cynical jobseeker. Do be aware, though, that a LOT of jobs that are advertised have already been relegated to internal candidates. At Cardiff, for example, they advertised for ‘Lecturer in Cultural Criticism: must have taught on the Cultural Criticism module at Cardiff University from 1999-2000, and have at least two publications.’ It’s really not worth trying for these weird ones….

Salaries are quite good because of RAE, if you’re going to a university that gets lots of funding; start at $50,000-65,000 CDN, BUT the cost of living is terribly high; housing shortages don’t help matters.

Spousal appointments are virtually non-existent; the only way to get a spousal appointment is if one person is very senior. The good thing is that lots of universities in U.K. are close to each other (in physical proximity). Remember that funding in U.K. for jobs is position-specific, so they aren’t interested in getting a great physical geographer with their English hire unless there is a position open for a physical geographer, and vice versa. So the situation is dire for two junior candidates. Cross-appointments are rare.

There is an advantage to having an EU passport and full working rights, because it lessens burden on the university to apply for your visa; it won’t affect their decision to hire you but smaller universities are less likely to have the manpower and motivation to track down these arrangements; it is easier to get a work visa in U.K. than in US because they are moving towards a points system like Canada’s. They do have to demonstrate why they’re hiring a non-EU candidate if that’s what they choose to do

Curriculum is less flexible because in the U.K. – they prepare students for particular exams; you don’t get to teach your own research as much as in North America, especially if it’s in a less popular area with students (and thus not helpful for the RAE).

There is a lot of admin and bureaucracy, especially late in career, and often of a different kind than in North America.  At entry-level, you will be expected to help in the hand-enrollment of students. You will be a personal tutor, counseling students suffering variously from dyslexia, family breakups, woes in their courses.… There’s a lot of personal pastoral responsibility, the kind that would in North America be handled by a registrar’s office.

With thanks to Sarah Copland for her notes on Desmond King’s presentation (April 11, 2007), with updating and additions by Dr. Irene Morra in 2008.