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Wednesday, 6 April 2022

Interview Woes

A colleague told me in confidence he was desperate to leave the software company we were with. He was tired of having to spend so much time abroad. The week after he’d been to Venezuela they had sent him to Athens – talk about jetlag! Fortunately for me, he was away so much he couldn’t get to interviews. Had he escaped, I would have picked up all his travel. It was bad enough being sent away just occasionally, like being asked (i.e. told) on a Friday morning to go to Stockholm to sort out an urgent problem, and having to pop home to pack a bag and leave a note that I might not be back until Tuesday. Newly married with a family in mind, it was not what I wanted. I understood my colleague’s predicament entirely. I decided to get out before he did.

I started applying for lecturing jobs in Polytechnics. It would be a cut in salary, but not all that much taking pensions into account. I had to make my own provision at the software company, whereas lecturers were members of a government-backed, inflation-proof, final-salary scheme worth at least 20% on top of what they paid you. A salary of £20k was the equivalent of £24k, and £25k was worth £30k.

Things did not go well. I applied for no end of posts, but despite being well qualified – higher degree, authorship of academic papers from previous work as a research assistant, relevant commercial experience – it counted for little. I was interviewed often enough, but, no matter how well I felt I’d done, they appointed someone else. It was usually either an internal candidate or the cheap option. At Leicester Del Monte they appointed a twenty-three year-old straight off their M.Sc. conversion course. At James Heriot they appointed a mystery candidate who wasn’t there when the rest of us were interviewed.

Nearly a year went by and I was spending more and more time away. With one last throw of the dice, I applied above my league to the University of Nottingham. There turned out to be two posts and four candidates. We sat around after the interviews awaiting the outcome. It took ages. Finally, they called in the first successful candidate and then the second, but told me not to go away. I will forever be grateful to Professor Peter Ford who explained that they had appointed the two candidates with the broadest balance of skills, and had they been appointing to only one post it might well have been me. “Do not be discouraged in any way”, were his exact words.

I vaguely knew one of the successful candidates as one of those people who spend their lives messing others around and being unreliable, and it annoyed me a few months later to learn that he had chucked the job and moved on.

Polytechnics then changed. The government decided they were all to become universities, and they started to hunt for staff able to carry out research and bring in external funding. It was like a football transfer market. I applied to a Yorkshire institution and got an interview. In phoning to accept I discovered there were six candidates. Not good odds.

On the day only four turned up. Then, like at Nottingham, they said they were hoping to fill two posts. Two out of four looked promising until I learned that one of the candidates was an internal candidate called Anthea who was just about to submit her PhD thesis, another was a high-flying researcher from British Telecom, and the third an affable Rory Bremner lookalike who was a temporary lecturer at a Russell Group university.

We spent the morning giving presentations. I managed to work in stuff about something called SSADM (Structured Systems Analysis and Design Method), the expert systems research I’d previously done, and how it related to the commercial system I now worked with. The Head of Department though it an excellent presentation.  

We were taken for lunch at which Rory Bremner did most of the talking and Anthea said nothing at all. Then the chap from BT was taken aside and didn’t come back. I heard later that his talk had been terrible, and they doubted his ability to connect with the Higher National students. The remaining three of us waited for our formal interviews in the afternoon.   

It went badly. There were questions that caught me out and set me talking too loud and too fast, and they said not to wait around because decisions had to be approved by the Vice-Chancellor.

I waited ten days. The Head of Department was out so I phoned the personnel office. There was a muted conversation at the other end of the line during which I overheard the words “Bremner and Dunham” and “shussssh”. They said the decision was still awaiting approval. Soon afterwards, the Head of Department then rang me. Yes, I had a job.

The other post did indeed go to Rory Bremner. I felt sorry for Anthea who had to vacate her desk to accommodate him.

We were both still there twenty years later. One thing I learned during that time is that with these kinds of jobs, probably with any job, you can never truly be aware of all the considerations, and why you might or might not be successful.  

39 comments:

  1. An interesting recount of some of your career. It must have been your expert knowledge of SSADM that weighed the balance, aside from your personal charm. My job of 41 years was one where their was shortage of staff. Now people queue up to go on the waiting list for that job. I doubt I would be employed for such a job now.

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    1. When young people apply for jobs now, not only do they need the essential stuff but employers also want them to have loads of extra things as well, such as music qualifications, sporting prowess and overseas volunteering. I'm only half joking.
      I was no expert but what I knew about SSADM helped. The first thing they did was to send me on a course about SSADM software (Select SSADM) which then became a significant component of our courses.

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  2. I was shocked when working in local government just a few years ago to discover that jobs were advertised nationally and offered all sorts of things like "informal chats with departmental heads before submitting your application are available" when all the time an internal candidate had been identified for the job. Vast teams in HR were employed setting up interview days, departmental heads taking calls etc. etc. All a waste of time and resources to satisfy the rules of offering all vacancies externally. It made a mockery of the rules in my opinion. I went through this myself and discovered the system when I later "got in" via a temporary job where no interview was necessary. Being on the other side of the fence I fielded calls from dissatisfied interviewees who had been told they were "just what we are looking for" and then not even being short-listed. Four to six candidates would go through the hoops of being interviewed and then the internal candidate would stroll through having already been given the nod that they were going to be successful.

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    1. The number of admin staff just grew and grew. There were things I did manually at first, such as collating course marks on paper, which later had to be passed to admin staff to put into speadsheets and collated by other admin staff, which occupied three times as many people and took five times as long.
      I saw internal candidates appointed so many times, or alternatively they were unsuccessful because either they or the clique they were in with wasn't liked, irrespective of suitability for the job. I think I just struck lucky on the day - internal candidature premature, other candidates not turning up, one being unsuitable, etc.

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  3. I'm surprised that there were so few candidates for the jobs you describe. Nowadays I think there would be many more. Hiring can be hit or miss for the poor applicants. So many agenda that the outsider isn't aware of. I'm glad you got suited.

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    1. Not all would not get to interview because universities have quite specific requirements. There must be lots with teaching or training experience who could do the teaching part of the job, and if universities are just for teaching then fine, but they also create and preserve knowledge. Whether that should or should not be the case is a political and economic issue. But to do research and bring in external money needs a different skillset.

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  4. Several years ago I was desperate to leave a job with a financial institution that had a brutal personnel ethos and was very relieved to find a position in the public sector that was exactly what I was looking for. It was only after I had been in the job for some time that my line manager confided in me that there had only been two applicants!

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    1. How to undermine confidence! I'm sure your manager went on to say that you would have got still the job even if there had been two hundred applicants.
      Financial institutions were excellent employers until they adopted a ruthless sales ethos.

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  5. I am not sure if organisations being forced to advertise outside for candidates is a good thing or bad, but I suppose that you can always decide on a winner in advance of the interviews and waste everyone else's time.

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    1. Who knows what's going on? It's different every time.

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  6. Fascinating. You say so much here.
    I can be snappy when I choose, especially in the company of a much higher intelligence.

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    1. You mean like Morrisey:
      I was looking for a job and then I found a job
      And heaven knows I'm miserable now.

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    2. You have made me laugh for the second time today, Tasker.
      The first time was reading Meike's comment back to me.

      Dry humour, like yours and Meike's, reminds me of my days as a drinker.
      Dry Vermouth with Gilbey's Dry Gin, before Dinner.
      I thought I was Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell's novels.
      Another life, another planet.

      You write in a pleasingly dry English way rather like Powell.
      With the advantage of being a Man of the North.
      Damnit, there's a bloody good novel in ye, somewhere.
      I'll find Goole in its pages.

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    3. John Boynton Priestley already wrote that one.

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    4. Fresh from his triumph after Room At the Top, John Braine met the Grand Old Man.
      'They say I'm the new J.B. Priestley,' Braine said.
      'Happen they'll call you that when you've written as many books as I have, lad.'

      There are as many ways of looking at places as there are people in those places.
      At my second school reunion I kept looking at an elegant and refined lady who was in my class.
      I had no memory of her whatsoever.
      Another girl from my class told me in confidence:
      *She came from a family of eight, and I'm no being cheeky, but in my primary class she was always smelly. Maybe her mother just couldnae wash and dry her clothes properly.'

      This girl could not have stayed more than 30 minutes' walk from my house.
      Today she looks like a retired barrister.

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  7. Phew! You went through a lot before you finally got the job you kept for 20+ years. A lot has been already said in other comments, so I won't repeat that.

    My own experience is sort of the reverse of all that:
    When I was 17, I wanted to leave school and start work, preferably something to do with books and people.
    So I applied to apprenticeships in a few book shops, big and smaller ones, but wasn't successful.
    Then, for the first time in history, my hometown's public library advertised a position in Librarian training, to start the following September.

    I applied for the job, along with about 200 others, as I was told later (I was born in 1968, so not the only one to look for something to once I'd leave school). Out of the 200 applicants, 60 were asked to come for preliminary tests. Those tests included stuff we'd done at elementary school, such as a dictation (and, incredibly, some of the participants tried to cheat and look at how the others were spelling certain words).

    Two weeks or so later, out of the 60 test candidates, a handful was invited for an interview. One of those was me. I entered the large sun-flooded meeting room on the first floor of our impressive town hall. A committee of 12 was sitting at one side of the huge polished table, and I on the other. I was asked questions, and I answered, feeling completely at ease and untypically self-confident.

    To cut a long story short: I got the job and ended up not only completing the two years of training at Librarian School, but doing so top of the class and getting an offical prize from Baden-Württemberg's Regierungspräsidium. None of my teachers at school would have predicted that!

    But I digress:
    The Head of Library's secretary later told me that he had come in from the interview with me that afternoon, telling her: "We have just made a great catch! There is only one snag... it is Mrs Hölscher's daughter."
    My Mum - said Mrs Hölscher - had been working at the school library, a branch of the main library, for years, and he wanted to avoid it to look like nepotism. But since I really WAS the best candidate (even if I say so myself), I was given the job.

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    1. Brilliant. A great story.
      A friend applied for a job as a postman (he was is an artist so wanted something mentally undemanding) and had to take some tests. One had pictures of bicycles with wheels or pedals missing and you had to say what was wrong with it.
      I hated those large panel interviews where you can't see them all at the same time, especially when answering someone at one end. The most unsettling was at Aston university where I kept thinking "that chap at the end looks like Norman Tebbit" (a government minister). It turned out to be his brother.

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    2. I got a job in the Newcastle University Registry following an interview in front of a large panel. I thought I had performed terribly and did not expect to get it. I got it. It was a position well above anything I had had before and I did not think I had a cat's chance in hell but thought I would have a go because the pay was good. I found out later I was the only candidate who had not been to university although I was the same age as the other applicants, or younger. The man who was to be my boss was on the panel and he said that he knew immediately that I was the candidate he wanted because I was the only candidate who challenged any of their questions.

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  8. One must be persistent in applying for good jobs, no doubt about it. Competition is stiff.

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    1. It often can be, but as others above point out, sometimes there are hardly any applicants. Whatever, I'm glad I no longer have to do it.

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  9. One thing I know from my many years as a Head of Department in a very large comprehensive is that pieces of paper with qualifications do not always equate with ability at the chalk face.

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    1. Too true. The fundamental problem in universities until into the 1990s was the old assumption that lecturers were principally scholars and researchers, not teachers, and that students taught themselves. The purpose of lectures was to scope out subject matter for students to follow up themselves. I know of some courses (notably in English and History) that had fewer than 5 contact hours per week. For the most part, this model worked fine until university expansion pulled in students who were not particularly good at self-directed study, but they were stuck with staff who, despite being brilliant, were hopeless or negligent teachers. Again, it comes down to political and economic questions of what is the purpose of universities.

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  10. I'm glad that you persevered and got what you wanted.

    Many, many moons ago I was invited by a University Business School, for which I was a visiting lecturer, to apply for a job. Against my better judgement (I didn't think that it was a job I would really enjoy) I applied. After the interview the chairman of the panel took me for a walk and basically said that I would never fit in to academia and should continue as a practitioner. It was the best advice I've ever had (and taken). I withdrew (I would not have been appointed anyway). I was still invited to give occasional visiting lectures.

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    1. Universities often said they wanted people with real-world experience, but those that had it rarely met all the other constraints they worked under. Basically it wasn't really possible except for ruthless workaholics who did the equivalent of two or three jobs. I think you probably escaped an unhappy experience there. Visiting lecturing can be a well-paid sideline.

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  11. Famously, Bremner played for Leeds United and Scotland but I don't remember a player called Dunham. You are right about interviews - often there were things happening in the background - the playing-field was rarely level.

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    1. Didn't you know? My real name is Allan Clarke.
      When they imposed the Research Assessment Exercise under which universities received significant extra funding according to research quality, a lot of staff poaching took place. People with good research records were offered money to move before the deadline, so that even though their research and publications had been carried out at another university, it counted for where they had moved. I was lucky in being one of the authors of a paper judged to be internationally important (it wasn't really), so was offered promotion to stay.

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  12. Back in the beginning of time, when I was looking for a job to suit my Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature, I applied to the local two year college to teach English. I had a lovely interview with the head of the department, who told me I was a fine candidate, lacking only a Master's degree in the subject. So, I went back to school for two years, got the degree, and was hired and loved the job and the students I was teaching. Then Nixon was president and to balance his budget decided to withhold approved funding to colleges and universities. They in turn had to cut budgets, and English profs were the first to go. Up came a new school year, and the head of department said he now had PhD's applying to our little two year college and to keep my job, I needed a PhD. So, I went back to school for a degree in accounting.

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    1. Right-wing governments love to cut public services. As regards entrance qualifications, they move the goalpoasts all the time. At one time you could get a training contract ("articles") in accountancy with an employer at the age of 16. Now it's an all-graduate profession. I don't believe that makes them any better as accountants.

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  13. I remember being accepted by a factory when applying there simply by saying "I can be here at 7am tomorrow."

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    1. Those were the days. But if they didn't like your face it was "don't bother to come in again". Easy come easy go. Nowadays they have to do right-do-work and criminality checks.

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  14. I once had an interview over the telephone for a teaching position. I was on summer vacation in Prince Edward Island and luckily for me, the school admin was open to a telephone interview. While I was being peppered with the usual questions, I was staring out the window of my rental cottage at the waves crashing on the beach. Wine was waiting for me in the kitchen for "after" the interview. I think it was the most relaxed I've ever been in an interview situation. I was offered the job a few days later.

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    1. Sounds like an ideal way to be interviewed. If that had been me I would have been too tempted by the wine and then started to say inappropriate things. I doubt they would be happy with just a telephone interview these days.

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  15. Well I have never been interviewed for a job in the way described. But once long ago I did a 'viva' on my thesis for Abbeys of Wiltshire with a famous archaeologist which terrified me. Experts always scare me.

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    1. It was and still is standard practice for appointing lecturers and researchers. I suspect with you having written a thesis on Wiltshire Abbeys that you knew more about the subject than the examiner, but they are well-practised in ways to disguise it.

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  16. True, Tasker - sometimes it is not understandable why one person gets the job, the other one not. When some academic friends with brilliant performance/knowledge and very good exams always got on the second place, it was easy to see why: always they had chosen the woman, not the man. Of course they had no influence on that.

    PS: I visited Nottingham where my sister studied for half a year - lovely!

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    1. There's a lot of quota filling now. At least I didn't have to contend with that.
      Didn't you think Nottingham castle was rather a letdown?

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  17. That all sounds pretty grim. I think job hunting in the '60's was much easier as money was being put into the education system and it was expanding. I applied for a lecturing job in a small college in the Midlands and after a short interview was told I'd got the position. I've been told that often a decision is made subconsciously almost as soon as an applicant walks into the room.

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    1. It was standard procedure and still is - presentation in the morning, formal interviews in the afternoon, although they are no longer allowed to counsel people out part-way through. It was fairly discouraging to see the lowest-paid candidates picked. I was lucky in that when the Polys became Unis, they started looking for ways to justify it, and people with commercial experience and research publication (even though mine were several years old) were suddenly in demand.

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