You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps

There is a knack to applying for jobs in Higher Education. I’ve been involved in several vacancies this year from short listing and interviewing, so I thought it might be helpful to write down some of the pitfalls applicants fall in to.

This is also a cathartic exercise. There is something incredibly frustrating about a candidate who should be interviewed missing out because of a poor application.

Whilst there will be advice that can be applied to any role in any sector, I am solely talking about professional or support service roles in Learning Technology/ICT.

Seek and ye shall find…

The best place to look is jobs.ac.uk as it provides the broadest and most comprehensive list of vacancies across HE, FE and beyond. It is split in to disciplines/field as well as department/job areas so you can really hone in on your expert areas. If you have a specific institution in mind, sign up to that institutions job alerts (most have them).

Not all Universities are created equal…

Do your research. More to follow…

Money is the root of all evil…

University salaries are based on pay/grade scales. For example, a role could be advertised at Grade 5. It may be advertised like this “Grade 5 starting from £25,000 rising to £32,000. What this generally means is the grade starts at £25k and will go up a scale point each year until you reach the top of the grade at £32k. The grade numbering/lettering and boundaries differ from one University to the other so a grade 5 in one university won’t necessarily be the same as a grade 5 in another.

A mistake applicants often make, is thinking that salaries are negotiable. On the whole, for professional/support services, there is little to no room to maneuver. Most Universities will have a policy of starting you at the starting scale point of the grade. Unless you are an incredibly impressive candidate, you’re unlikely to be able to push them any higher. If you do, it’s likely to be a scale point or two at most.

There are reward and recognition schemes but you’re unlikely to receive any bonuses or performance pay. You don’t get to renegotiate your salary every year. If you think you deserve a pay increase or a regrade to the next grade, you are going to have to have some very strong evidence to demonstrate why. It’s never a guarantee.

If you’re paid £50k a year and the job is advertised at £30k, assume you will be paid ~£30k. Don’t waste people’s time applying for a job at a salary level you aren’t able or willing to accept.

The devil is in the detail…

READ THE WHOLE ADVERT. READ THE PERSON SPECIFICATION. READ THE ROLE DESCRIPTION. PAY ATTENTION TO ESSENTIAL AND DESIRABLE CRITERIA.

I’ve seen a lot of applications, and even interviews, where the applicant clearly has no idea what they applied for or has totally misunderstood the role.

The person specification will detail what kind of person they are seeking. What are the skills, qualifications, attributes and experience they are seeking which could be split in to essential and desirable criteria. In short, if you don’t meet all of the essential criteria you’re unlikely to be shortlisted for interview. Desirable criteria are things they’d like the role holder to have but are not essential to the role, so they might give you an advantage over another candidate but they shouldn’t stop you from applying.

Most adverts have a suggested contact who you can get in touch with to discuss the role so if you’re not 100% sure, get in contact.

Forms, forms everywhere…

If you decide to apply, prepare yourself for a long ass form. Most universities will use an online system but not all. There’s a lot to fill in so make sure you leave yourself time. The most important part of any application is the personal statement.

Up close and personal…

If I could, I would scream this in to the face of every applicant. THE PERSONAL STATEMENT IS REALLY IMPORTANT.

The personal statement is your opportunity to demonstrate how your experience and skills are relevant to the role. The key here is relevance to the role. It doesn’t matter if you can swim 100 meters without arm bands if the job you’re applying for is in software development.

Top tips:

  • Everything you say should demonstrate how you meet the essential and desirable criteria.
  • If it’s not relevant, don’t put it in.
  • Structure your statement based on the essential and desirable criteria.
  • Back up everything you say with an example from your work.

Let’s look at an example. An essential criteria is “Experience of software development”. Which is the stronger of the two statements:

I have extensive experience in software development.

I have extensive experience in software development. I recently developed a piece of software which…

The latter is the strongest statement because you are directly referencing the criteria whilst backing it up with an example.

In a non-competitive recruitment you may get away with the former statement. However, if you are up against a lot of candidates, the second statement will pus you higher up the invitation list.

I can’t stress this enough. Make sure the statement covers all of the essential and desirable criteria. For a higher chance of securing an interview, make sure you back everything up with examples. Your invitation to interview relies on your personal statement.

Pudding is in the proof…

Please, if you take away nothing else, pay attention to this. Proofread your application.

We all copy and paste applications but you must read it afterward. Make sure what you’ve used is still relevant to THIS application. You may need to reword it to make sure it fits. We can tell when someone has just thrown something in from elsewhere especially when the formatting makes that obvious.

Spelling and grammatical errors are to some extent, forgivable. But don’t think they’ll go unnoticed. If you’re communication is that poor, it’s hard to overlook. I’ve read applications where someone has used text message abbreviations. I mean WTF? I mean TBH we’re unlikely to consider you a credible candidate. ROFL.  

Please also get the name of the institution or sector right. you’d be surprised how many applicants are keen for a career in the NHS. If you’ve not bothered to check

Not checking your application, says a lot about you.

Failure to prepare is preparing to fail…

If you’ve been selected for interview, now is the time to research the job, the institution, the local area, the people on the panel. If it’s a technical role try to find out what technology is in use. Preparation like this, really impresses a panel.

There’s no excuse for not knowing information that’s publicly available. I find it very irritating when a candidate has done no research. 

Interview with the vampire…

Interviews are designed to suck as much information from you as possible. The idea, however flawed, is to ask questions to ascertain whether your knowledge, experience and skills demonstrate that you are suitable for the role.

The interview panel will ask you a series of predetermined questions. Part of your interview may include a presentation or test which will be detailed in your invitation. You may be able to prep before the interview or time is often allocated on the day. You may have no prior warning about what you’re going to be asked to do so this is where your research will pay dividends.

Top tips for presentations:

  • Make sure you understand what you’re being asked to do
  • Stick to the time limit
  • Refine it to your key points
  • In slide design, less is more
  • Practice, practice, practice.

Presentations are designed to assess not only what you’re saying but also how you’re saying it. Your body language, tone of voice and language you use will all be taken in to account. Clarity is key. You may only have a short time to get across the information so make sure you prioritise the most important points. You don’t want to be filling the last 30 seconds with as much as you can. If you’re including slides or any other presentation media, make sure they are concise and clear. None wants a 1000 word essay on a slide. I like to use presentations solely as a reminder for me about what I need to say next, highlighting my key point only.

If you can practice, practice. Your communication skills, under pressure, are being scrutinised so practice will help you to calm down. Practice will help you articulate what you want to say.

Tests are more difficult to predict or prepare for. They might be scenario based “what would you do if”, data based “what does this data tell you” or technical “how would you fix X” ” if a user has X issue, what would you do?”. 

Something else you can do, that helps you to feel prepared, is write down the kinds of questions you might be asked and how you would answer it. Some of this work can be done as part of the your evidence in the personal statement. Write down projects you’ve worked on, work your proud of, work you’ve found challenging. Think about teams you’ve been in, what worked well, what were the challenges. Always think about what you’d do differently, especially where there was a challenge. By all means write it down and bring it to the interview, have a read through before you go in, but don’t plonk it on the table and spend the entire interview staring at it.

You will have the opportunity to ask questions at the end so consider carefully what you’d like to know. This is your opportunity to find out more about the role so use it. Although there’s no requirement to ask questions, it’s always a bit of a mystery why people don’t. If nothing else asking questions shows you’re interested and that you’ve taken the time to think about what you’d like to know.

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it

There is a balance between saying too much and too little. Candidates who ramble on without getting to the point, don’t get very far; nor do candidates who give short curt answers.

Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity…

Whether you get a job depends on lots of things. You can’t do anything about the competition your up against all you can control is your application and interview. Those are all down to you.

If your application is poor, that’s on you.

If you don’t mention something that might have got you the job, that’s on you. (The panel isn’t psychic)

If you say too much, or too little, that’s on you.

If you didn’t prepare, that’s on you.

It’s about what you know, not who you know…

This is a note for internal candidates. Just because the panel knows you, just because you work in the same place, doesn’t mean you can get away with any of the above. Although I’m sure there’s a fair amount of dodgy dealings that do go on, you will be treated like any other candidate. So approach the interview as though no one knows you and you don’t work in the same place. don’t fall in to the trap of failing to explain something. Answers without evidence are going to do you no favours! If you’re internal, you have fewer excuses so don’t expect to walk in to jobs.

Missed Opportunities