Applying for academic jobs - what to ask a contact for informal enquiries

Posted in: Academic Career, For PhDs

The inspiration for this post came from a session I participated in yesterday as part of Bath’s Academic Career Academy, which focussed on academic job applications and interviews.

One of the topics we discussed was whether to contact a recruiting Head of Department before applying to a lectureship position and what questions to ask them.what questions to ask when contacting a recruiting Head of Department before applying for a lectureship position. The vast majority of academic job adverts will mention the possibility of doing this, but it can be hard to know in practice why to do this and what can be useful and appropriate questions to ask.

The following advice is very much the combined ideas of colleagues who attended the course and the course leaders, Dr Tracey Stead and Dr Amy Birch, as well as my own.

What’s the point of informally contacting the recruiting manager?
We agreed that the most important reason for taking this up is to find out additional information about the post, research group, department and university which can help to inform what you focus on in your cover letter or personal statement and your motivations for applying. Academic job descriptions can sometimes be vague and hard to decipher, so taking the opportunity to ask for more information to ask what they are looking for in terms of research and teaching expertise can really help you to know what to highlight in your application and decide whether this is the right job for you.

A second possible reason for contacting a recruiting manager before you apply is to get on their radar so they recognise your name when they see your application. Admittedly not all of us will feel comfortable with this, and in any case academic applications are increasingly anonymised before being shared with the recruiting manager, but rightly or wrongly contacting them can mean that they look out for your application and are already aware of your interest in the post.

What are useful questions to ask?

• We agreed that the most helpful approach is to have something you genuinely want to know rather than asking something for the sake of it. A good way to generate questions is to research read the teaching and research strategies of the wider university – these will usually be open access – and ask what approach the Department is taking to implementing these. You could also use the information in the strategies as a way of testing out what to focus on in your application; ‘I can see that developing external partnerships is really important to the University, so I’m planning to highlight in my application how I can contribute to this; am I on the right lines?’

• Questions about current ‘hot topics’ in the Department, or their key strategic aims for the coming year, will help you align with these in applications and interviews
• Asking for more information about research or teaching areas they want the post to focus on, providing this isn’t already stated in the advert, can help you to know what aspects of your experience to highlight. A related question here is to ask how the vacancy has come about. If it’s a replacement for someone who has left, they’re likely to have specific teaching gaps that they need the candidate to fill. If it’s a new post created with the intention of expanding particular research strengths, there may be ‘wiggle room’ on the exact profile they want the postholder to have, within the boundaries of overall research themes or areas they want to strengthen.

• Questions about training, development or mentoring for early career lecturers

• Questions about the ‘start-up’ support available; e.g. budgets for equipment and PhD students
• Asking where the Department’s research funding comes from will give you insights into funders and funding schemes they might want you to target
• Equality, diversity and inclusion, enhancing research culture and supporting staff wellbeing are all currently high on the agenda in higher education, so questions around the approach the Department is taking to these are perfectly valid.

• Asking when they expect the new lecturer to start the post can be very helpful for you; this is not always as fixed as you might think. If you are a replacement, this may be fixed on when they need you to start teaching; however, if it is a new role, there may be room to negotiate this as it is likely that the department will be waiting to find the right candidate.

Whatever questions you choose to ask, the goal is to ask questions that help inform your thinking about the role and help you to demonstrate curiosity and motivation. Do some research beforehand and avoid asking anything that you can find out very easily from the job description or their website. Also, practical questions, such as those relating to working hours, are often best left until later in the recruitment process.

If you choose to have a telephone conversation, it can be courteous to send a brief email thanking them for their time and letting them know you’ll definitely be applying.

Posted in: Academic Career, For PhDs


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