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I keep hearing that in the UK, it's a positive thing to get in touch with the department during the application process to show you're really interested. Is this true? (I've read that in the US this isn't really a thing... but places like Vitae.ac.uk recommend it?) If so, what are the sorts of things I should ask?

(For context, I'm in a humanities department applying for a permanent-track job in a really good faculty for our field.)

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The practices vary across different Departments/Universities in the UK.

If a University/Department follow a formal process, in which applications are assessed against the selection criteria, then "getting in touch" won't have any effect.

However, many departments in the UK ignore/bend formal rules and instead rely on existing networks of permanent staff (sometimes only Profs) in the Department to form a shortlist of candidates invited for interview. If your target Department is like this, having someone in the Department to recommend/promote you during a selection process is a good/necessary thing. It is not very likely that you achieve much by "getting in touch", unless you're already on their radar, but it won't hurt to try.

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It can help at some points in the process. Not the fact that you made contact has influence, but the fact that by getting in touch and asking appropriate questions can assist you in making your application more relevant to their needs.

It helps you understand what research groups there are there, what courses they teach, what are the gaps that they are trying to fill and so forth. Then when asked at interview, or when making a presentation a question like "How do you think you are a good fit for his department" you know what to say!

Yes: you can learn much of this by reading their public facing materials like web pages, research output and publicity and so on, but remember much of this is targeted at recruitment of students (undergraduate and postgraduate) and not on the hiring of new staff.

Some advertisements often state "for more information please contact [email protected]", and they really mean it.

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This is in addition to the excellent asnwers by Dmitry Savostyanov and Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 with which I fully agree.

Contacting a department prior to applying also gives you a chance to determine whether the department is a good fit for you prior to preparing an application. You could do this by asking some of the questions that you would otherwise ask either during an interview or after receiving an offer. Examples include questions on what the advertised research-teaching-admin split means in practise, what support is offered to newly hired lecturers, and so on. You may find that the department is not a good fit for you after receiving answers to those questions and save the time it would require to prepare the applicaiton.

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