Getting Fit for Academia? Taking Part in the Academic Boot Camp

Welcome to the first in a series of posts on the History UK blog. This is an occasional series in which committee members, postgraduate students and guest authors post on the issues and themes that are important to HUK and to professional historians across the community. For our first guest post, we are very pleased to welcome Dr Charlotte Faucher who took part in our Academic Boot Camp which took place earlier this year at the Institute of Historical Research. Charlotte’s AHRC funded Ph.D was on the history of the French Cultural Institute (1910 – 1959) in South Kensington. She is currently a Teaching Fellow in Modern History at Warwick University. Charlotte tweets as @Cha_Faucher . An earlier version of this post can be found on the French History network blog.


In April 2016, History UK organised an “academic boot camp” in the form of an interview for an imaginary lectureship. This workshop aimed at giving feedback to those of us Early Career Researchers (ECR) who struggle with the academic job market. Interviews for all shortlisted candidates (around 25 of us) were held in the form of a workshop at the Institute of Historical Research on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

 

A team of wonderful historians from History UK had given up their time to give a few lucky ECRs the opportunity to go through a 20 minute interview (followed by 10 minutes of feedback). The participants then held a short research/teaching presentation which was observed by 5-10 other candidates who proceeded to give their feedback orally and on a piece of paper. A round table about the myths around job applications concluded the day and we were then all taken to the pub and to diner.

Besides being able to practice in front of people who had never heard of my research before and were not my friends, I received extremely useful feedback on my own interview, but was also able to observe one other participant’s interview as well many research presentations. Probably the most valuable insight of the day was how these helped me deconstruct some of my views on what makes a good interview/research presentations.

Here are the interview questions I got asked (which had been asked to candidates who had applied last year for a lectureship in history at the University of Loughborough) and some advice for answers that my panel suggested to me.

  • How do you maintain the attention of students in a big lecture theatre?

Here, it’s all about the examples. My panel was really looking for specifics on how I structure my lectures and how I feel this can impact on students’ attention, or what I do to keep them engaged. If you have not lectured to large cohorts very often, there’s no need to say so! Rather try and reflect on the (little) experience you have and demonstrate what makes you stand out as a lecturer.

  • Can you tell us about a form of innovative teaching or assignment that you’ve used in the modules you’ve taught or that you’d like to use in the future?

For this question, the panel was again expecting candidates to be reflexive and think both about specific forms of teaching or assignments and also to outline what the students had got out of them. They also suggested discussing some forms of resistance to these new methods that a few students might have expressed, or more generally, what were the problems related to these innovations and what you did to overcome them.

Another approach could be to link an innovative form of teaching to employability. This probably would not work for everyone’s teaching but it’s certainly a good point to be making if it fits in with the module objectives.

  • What are your four REF output?

The panel were not only expecting to hear about your publications but they also wanted to know when / where you were going to be submitting that book proposal, that article etc. This question is also a good opportunity for the candidate to expand on each of their outputs, giving the specific title and outlining the argument.

  • What makes your research four star?

For this question, we had to be familiar with the REF vocabulary but also go beyond merely repeating the REF criteria for a four star output (“Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour” in case you are wondering!) As the panel suggested, other ways to think about this question is to ask: why are people going to be citing your work in 10 years’ time? What is going to be changing your field and how is your research contributing to this change?

  • If your head of department was involved in an accident and you had to step up, what would you like your legacy to be?

Here, you want to show that you are aware of a department’ needs – and especially the department you are hoping to join.

Of course, these are just some of the questions you may get asked during an interview, and we all stumble on different things. For those of you going through the hoops of interview preparation, the French History network has a dedicated section on its blog where you will be able to read a list of interview questions compiled by fellow historians.

Following my mock interview, I joined in the academic presentation session. I heard about seven short presentations given by ECRs working on various topics and periods. Whilst I was impressed by everyone’s career paths and accomplishments, I also tried to focus on how participants were presenting their research: the structure of their presentations, the pace of their voices and how accessible they were making their research to other historians. These were also the points that the participants and I most often discussed in the feedback sessions which followed each presentation.

Finally the day ended with a round table on the myth of academic interview. We heard from a wide range of speakers including HR staff, academics at various stages of their careers as well as heads of departments. The session helped me better understand the recruitment process: I now keep in mind that my application is likely to be screened by HR before ending up in the hands of academics. This means that applicants want to make sure that they distinctively outline how they tick each “essential criteria” boxes for the job in their cover letters (as opposed to assuming that a CV speaks for itself).

A couple of lecturers also encouraged participants to broaden their search to jobs outside History departments as departments such as sociology, politics or law are sometimes on the look for historians.

Overall, hearing about the different professional experiences of those researchers keen to stay in academia and those with a permanent job served as a (reassuring) reminder for participants, but also for the whole profession, that there is no one single path to interviewing success.


If you would like to suggest a blog post (for example, on your impressions of an event, on research culture, on the changing academic landscape) we are always very happy to hear your ideas and encourage you to get in touch. Please contact us on: jwood@lincoln.ac.uk

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