Monday, 15 October 2007

I have the best days out

If you've ever wondered what it's like being interviewed for a lecturer position at a Russell Group university, read on...

I applied for a lecturer position at the University of Birmingham, and they asked me to come down for an interview last Friday. This is quite an involved process, and I was asked to give a research presentation, a teaching presentation, and an interview. I was to give my research presentation at 9am, so it was the 6:17 train out of Piccadilly to New Street. The train was pretty quiet at that hour, until we got to Wolverhampton and the train started to fill up with commuters travelling to Birmingham. Arrived at New Street bang on time, and then the short hop on an electric commuter train to University. Yes, the campus has its own railway station, 6 minutes from New Street, which is a nice touch. I was asked to arrive 15 minutes prior to my presentation, but taking the advice of my PhD supervisor (I have always been 15 minutes early, and it has made a man of me: Lord Nelson, supposedly) I was there 30 minutes early. I assumed that mine was the first presentation, but in fact there was a guy who started at 8:30. I got to see some of his presentation through the door of the meeting room, and started to realise that it was a lot better than mine. The candidate made clear how his research would fit in with the department, use the facilities, how he would work with other research groups, and so on. My presentation is more along the lines of 'Here's some cool stuff I'm doing'. Oops.

I do the presentation from a Birmingham laptop, and none of the animations work, which throws me off a bit. I get quite a grilling from the assembled staff, post-docs and postgrad students. A lot of the questions are not about the research I'm doing, so much as the research I intend to do in the future and how I intend to fund it. I realise that these are the questions I ought to have addressed in my talk. Oops again. One of the staff, a geophysicist, seems particularly unimpressed with the LiDAR data I've been using. I handle the questions reasonably well, but I'm already pretty sure that I won't get the job. I wander around the campus and try to collect my thoughts a little.

The teaching presentation is supposed to be an introduction to a proposed third-year level course, delivered as if I was talking to the students. It's not easy to pretend you're talking to a bunch of students when the room is actually full of professors, lecturers and post-docs, but I give it a try, and actually it goes down reasonably well. I get a few questions about how I would handle assessment of the course and so forth, but I do OK. The problem is that the main criterion for awarding the position is going to be research excellence and not teaching. Oops yet again.

Two of the postgrad students give us a tour of campus, which is quite impressive. The Earth Sciences department is in one of the older buildings, close to the magnificent clock tower. Campus is leafy, quiet, clean and pleasant, a welcome contrast to the Manchester campus with the noise and bustle of Oxford Road cutting through the middle of it. The building is old but serviceable, and architecturally quite spectacular. It also includes the Lapworth museum, a nationally important geological collection. I look at some impressively spiky trilobites. Then we get to have some university catering sandwiches, which are tasty enough. Especially since it has been nearly 8 hours since I ate anything.

The afternoon brings the interview. This is perhaps the most intimidating part. The interview panel consists of the Dean, the head of school, the head of department, the leader of the research group I would be working with, a fellow from Archaeology and a lady from Human Resources. They grill me for half an hour, and the questions are again mainly related to funding, research directions, potential collaborations with others (internally and externally), and so on. I was asked what I thought were the main challenges for universities, and how I thought the work would differ from what I currently do. I handle this OK, but one question stumps me completely. I'm asked how my work would address the strategic objectives of NERC, the government funding council for Earth Sciences. I have no idea what those objectives, and have no option but to say so. That's not an error I will make in the future. If I get another interview, I'll have a slide on it in my presentation. I get to ask some questions at the end, so I do a little grilling myself, asking where the school and research group expects to be in 4 to 5 years, and what support there is for new lecturers. After that, they thank me for my time and I'm free to go.

I'm pretty much shattered at this point, so I decide to find beer in Birmingham. I get on the train to New Street. As you leave New Street station, you emerge into a huge shopping mall, with no clue as to where the exits are. My nerves are jangling enough as it is, and wending my way through the throngs of people past brightly lit shops full of tat doesn't help. I emerge into the open air eventually, and walk for what seems like miles until I find a pub. The Crown is possibly the dodgiest pub in Birmingham, but I don't care by now, and get myself a pint. The only bitter they have is something called Brew XI. I take a sip. "Bloody hell, that's even worse than Stone's", I think.

I sit down, and am joined by a friendly man tells me all about his court case. It turns out that the pub is outside the law courts, which explains a lot. The man is on trial for conspiracy because he was holding a banner at an animal rights demonstration at which some other people committed offences. His legal team come and join us for a pint, too.

It's then time for me to get home, so I hike back to New Street. I pick up a pasty, with extra gravy, and get on a packed Virgin voyager to Picadilly. I stand next to the toilets until Stoke, and then get to sit down. I get a bus at Picadilly gardens, but it's Eid, and traffic through Rusholme is pretty much stationary, so I end up walking the last mile or so.

When I get home at about 9pm, Jolan has a cold beer waiting for me, and I love her more than ever.

Well, I didn't get the job, but then getting it would probably have caused more problems than it solved...

5 comments:

Jolan Sulinski said...

Who in hell wants to live in Birmingham anyway?

Anonymous said...

I'm on an interview panel next week. If any candidate shows the slightest sign of knowing what the "strategic objectives" of our research council is, I will be very deeply disturbed. I mean, creepy!

Stef said...

You should come work for industry Paul. The pay is much better and everyone just assumes you are smart if you can spell geology.

George Walks said...

What a relaxing day out. The worst part for me would definitely be the shit pint and the friendly nutters after a full day of examination. Sounds like you learnt a lot though.

Oh, and come to Aberdeen.

Paul Wilson said...

Cheers all for your comments...

I am indeed going to have to decide quite soon whether to keep banging my head against the wall in academia, or try to go the industry route. So far in my career things have tended to fall into place for me remarkably well, but I might actually have to make a difficult decision this time around...