28 March 2007

Job application experiences...

Iknownotwhattodo had a nice little post about being an academic in the UK. I'd like to follow up with a few comments regarding the postdoc salary level in the UK and the overall experience you get of UK universities when you apply for jobs here.

The academic salaries in the UK may have risen lately, but are (still) ridiculously low when compared to the cost of living, IMHO. When moving from Canada to the UK my postdoc salary essentially remained the same (when doing the currency conversion), but because my cost of living in (urban-ish) Canada was ~70% of living in (rural-ish) UK I had a rather large decrease in my net disposable income. Had I stayed in Denmark my salary as a postdoc there would have been in the 33-40k£ range, compared to the 23k£ I currently make in the UK. Compare that to a Danish PhD student making ~28k£/year... Granted, the Danish income tax is outrageously high, but so is the level of service you get from the government, the streets are clean, the crime-rate is low and the girls are pretty (OK, the latter may not have anything to do with the level of taxation).

Between late 2003 and mid-2005 I applied for ~30 postdoc/faculty jobs at universities in Denmark, Canada, USA, France, UK, and the Netherlands. In my experience all universities mail you a letter acknowledging the receipt of your application and – sooner or later – an invitation for an interview or a polite “Thanks, but no thanks”. That is, all universities except universities in the UK, whom I have come to consider as the most arrogant prospective academic employers you will ever encounter. Not only do UK universities not mail or email you an acknowledgment of receipt of your application. They also do not let you know of the outcome of your application; simply, if you haven't heard from them typically within 3-5 weeks after the deadline you are to assume you didn't get the job (this is typically stated in the job posting). It's unreal, it’s arrogant and it’s extremely impolite. Contrast this with the experience I had when applying for a job at a Danish university:

Late April: Submitted my application, including 3 reprints each of my 10 most important papers, CV, and a list of 3-5 personal referees.

19 May: Received a letter from the faculty (office of the dean) that my application had been received. I was also notified that the members of the search committee would be decided upon within 2-3 weeks and that I would then be notified about their identities.

28 May: Received a letter from the faculty that the hiring department had suggested a search committee consisting of three members. I was notified about their identities and affiliations (1 member from the hiring department, 2 members from abroad) and was informed of my right to file a complaint about the composition of the search committee, if I thought that any of the members would be disqualified. I was also told that I was not allowed to contact any of the search committee members directly regarding the application. Finally, the letter ended with the statement that it was anticipated that the search committee would submit their recommendation to the faculty no later than 17 September. See, the thing is that in Denmark you are generally not being invited for an interview at the hiring department; the decision is made based on your application, publications, CV, and letters of recommendation. (Though the hiring department can call you in for a formal interview and lecture should they wish to do so).

23 September: Received a letter from the faculty that the search committee had filed their recommendation to the faculty. For each applicant the search committee had written a one-page report, which made up the recommendation. Each applicant received their own, signed report but not the reports concerning the other applicants. The report assessed my academic/research qualifications and my teaching qualifications. I was pleased to see that the search committee had used the words 'excellent' generously and denoted my publication record as 'outstanding at the present stage of his career'. They then stated whether or not they considered me suitable for the position, which they didn’t, due to 1) limited teaching experience and 2) no research experience in geomorphology (this was partly a geomorphology job and I did admittedly have no research experience in this area). The letter did not state if I would be offered the job or not (but I decided not to hold my breath…), as it is up to the dean to plough through all the reports and then offer the job to the candidate whose report best fits the job posting according to the search committee. So the search committee more or less writes a report for each candidate and then it's up to the dean. Oh, I was also told that I had until 6 October to complain about my report and the assessment of the search committee if I thought that they had misunderstood something in my application.

Mid-october: Received a final letter from the faculty that I would not be offered the job and that it had been offered to another applicant. ‘We wish you luck in your future career, sincerely yours etc.’ – you’ve probably all received loads of these.

Anyway, I wasn’t too disappointed to get the job, as it was somewhat marginal to my research experience. However, I was very pleased with the overall experience and in particular the outstanding communication between the faculty and the applicants: Four friendly letters outlining the application procedure, where and how to complain about the outcome, AND a written report! Take that you arrogant, self-satisfied UK universities! The great advantage of the written report is that the entire search committee signs it, so if they are high ringers (as in my case) you can use a good report as an external evaluation of your research for future applications.

BTW, got headhunted a while ago by a private company, so I'm on my way out of academia now - and not unhappy about it.


H Space I said...

I am a researcher trying to land a job in the UK. Could you give me some guidelines about how to write that damn letter of information trying to relate to the job specification given by the employer. It would be helpful if you could tell me what are the things you write in it. How to divulge your research interests? Should write a synopsis of your PhD or abstracts of articles published. I am a bit confused. Hope you help me out.

Dea said...

Thanks for writing this.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I wonder how many applicants, on average, Danish and UK universities get per job. And whether this may account for the Danish universities' ability to write so many letters to applicants.

GreatDane said...

@Anonymous: Dunno, I'm pretty sure that US and Canadian universities get a lot more applications than UK (and Danish) universities.

When I was in Canada some departments at my university considered it a sign of weakness if they received less than 30 applications for a posting, an indication that they were loosing their edge and had to sharpen up in order to attract more and better researchers. Nevertheless, they still had time to *write* a letter to acknowledge receipt and a second letter to inform all applicants whether their application had been successfull or not.

Anyway, for the job I applied for in Denmark I think there were 9 applications and for the UK one I think there were 7, but I'm less sure on this number. I'd be surprised if the difference in number of applications - on average - was large, although I'm sure that the top UK universities (Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, ICL) get a lot more applications than any Danish university (and any other Uk university).