9 variants of how to fail at the British, academic job market in style – or not

Since I lost my permanent job in July 2018 due to a company insolvency, I’ve been muddling through professionally and keeping my head above water, at least mentally, by doing small freelance jobs. Of course, this is not my declared goal, at least as long as freelancing doesn’t completely support me financially. Therefore, since moving to the UK in August 2018, I have been applying for a variety of jobs that somehow match my qualifications and skills and, to some extent, my interests. I have certainly written over 25 such applications, all with great expectations. In nine cases, I was actually invited for interviews. But nine times my hopes and fears were bitterly disappointed. I have now decided to take a break with the applications for the time being in order to clarify for myself where I see my professional future. Is that resignation? Maybe. Is it self-protection? It certainly is! And I will now explain that a little.

Actually, everything started quite confidently here in England. We arrived in August 2018 and despite the company insolvency I mentioned, I had a freelance order situation that filled me completely until the end of the year and with it a lot of self-confidence. My own doctoral thesis had just been published as a book and the doctoral certificate was on its way to me. So nothing could have stopped me; on the contrary, the job market grew enormously for me, simply because of the option of now being able to apply for postdoc positions. So I promptly started writing my first applications here. And one of my first applications was immediately successful in that I was invited to an interview. At a university that prides itself on being a member of the elite Russel Group. Unfortunately, this always leads to a great deal of arrogance among many of their employees, who then like to turn such a job interview into a test of the applicant’s ability to satisfy. So my first interview was a mixture of sincere interest in my person (by the actual supervisor later on) and relatively obvious, elitist arrogance of another panel member. Nevertheless, I had actually done quite well and had come out of this interview reasonably hopeful. That same afternoon, however, I received my first rejection – by email:

Dear Dr Mueller,

Thank you for attending for interview for the [Research Assistant] post this morning. 

I am sorry to inform you that your application was not successful.   Although you interviewed well, another candidate had greater relevant experience for this post.

I am sorry to give you this disappointing news, and wish you well for the future.

Kind regards

Signature

I was utterly disappointed, but nevertheless very interested in the details, when I looked at this rejection several times afterwards. And of course discovered the two blanks in the second paragraph. Here, the job advertiser obviously inserted a personalised part, which at least confirmed my impression that I hadn’t sold myself too badly. More relevant experience for the job, yes, that may well be when it comes to partial analysis of the UK health system, I had after all only been in the country for two months and to date just successfully registered with the GP and therefore the National Health Service. So, wipe your mouth, move on.

As a dream dancer into the next great adventure

I then received the next invitation for an interview in March 2019 at a small university in the countryside. It was about a research project that wanted to do qualitative data analysis to study dance therapies. Qualitative data analysis: I can do, dance therapies: I had heard of. So of course I used the week before the interview intensively to familiarise myself with this research field so that I could shine in the interview later, if not with personal experience, then with informed questions about the topic. The interview itself went relatively well, I was able to answer my questions and I felt as if I had “sold myself quite well”. That same evening, I received a call from the person advertising the job. I could tell that she had a hard time turning me down for the job. She emphasised that I had really made a good impression and clearly had methodological experience in qualitative data analysis, but that the job had been offered to someone more suited to the field of dance therapy. But I should not take this rejection personally. Of course I did, but of course it had to go ahead and in principle I very much appreciated that this rejection was personal and that I was given a little feedback. That’s how you stay motivated.

And just one month later, the next job interview was scheduled, at the Institute for Tropical Medicine. Here I had applied for a position for a research project that wanted to qualitatively investigate the treatment of neglected tropical diseases, which often lead to lifelong disabilities. I had previously discussed whether it made sense to apply with the person advertising the job by email and was encouraged to apply for the position with my academic background. So I wasted another week on learning about the research field of neglected tropical diseases. There may be things you don’t really want to have to see. At the interview, I met a panel of five(!) staff members of the research institute who were supposed to support the job advertiser in the selection of personnel. Before the interview, I also had to prove in a 30-minute assessment how proficient I was in qualitative data analysis. What I didn’t know at the time was that this assessment required the qualitative analysis of one answer to one question from eight different interviews as well as a summary report analysis. In just 30 minutes. On interview material that had not been seen before. The whole thing was introduced by saying that the panel had looked at the quality and scope of this assessment and considered it appropriate… After the interview, I had the feeling for the first time that I had not performed quite as well, precisely because I still had the previous assessment in mind.

A few days later, I finally received the following reply from the institute’s human resources department:

Dear Arne

Further to your interview for the position of Research Assistant […], I regret to inform you that on this occasion you have been unsuccessful.

I know that this will be disappointing news for you, but please do not let this deter you from applying for future roles within […] and its subsidiary companies and please keep on checking our website regularly.

I thank you for attending the interview and wish you every success for the future .

Kind regards

Signature

That was all. No feedback whatsoever, and from the sterile environment of a human resources department. After I had already had a personal email exchange with the person advertising the job. How pathetic. Well, I thought, I’ll at least ask. Another fifteen days later (!) I actually got an answer:

Dear Arne

Apologies for the delay in responding to you, feedback from the panel indicated that you interviewed well and gave good answers, you had strong qualitative analysis experience but other candidates had stronger experience of working with partners in Africa and in NTDs.

I hope this help you going forward with other roles in the future.

Best wishes

Signature

Well, with this answer I could at least do something more. Namely, I decided not to send any more applications there, because an institute for tropical medicine will always prefer someone with experience in the field of tropical medicine, and I also found the way they treated me after the interview to be deeply unprofessional.

And just one month later, I was allowed to audition at another university, this time for a research project in the field of applied health research in the mental health sector, which wanted to use the Delphi method in particular. Here I had already been able to gain experience in all areas and so I also prepared a five-minute presentation about my skills with great enthusiasm. Again, the interview actually went quite well, but one day later I received a call from the head of department of the institute, who had also been a member of the three-person panel, but not the person advertising the job. Once again, I was assured in the feedback that I had given a good interview. However, they would have decided against me as I had not yet gained any experience in UK health research. He would recommend that I do so before applying for other similar jobs. 

The academic Catch 22

And there it was, the Catch 22, which is so often used as an excuse by personnel decision-makers. Preference is apparently given to candidates who at some point must have made the mistake of simply hiring them without any experience. If you look again at the previous explanations of my rejections, the decision had already been made due to a lack of experience (in a specific area). But please don’t take it personally.

I then had to wait another seven months until the next interview. But this time I felt really confident and well prepared for the interview. The vacant position was about conducting a qualitative study on the accompaniment of people with learning difficulties who have moved into independent living from a residential care setting. I had already worked on exactly this kind of study a year earlier as part of my freelance work in the Australian context. My experience in this field would be an unexpected enrichment for the project! And I was able to make this very clear in the interview, I felt I had the panel on the hook, so to speak. Already during the interview, the person advertising the job began to make plans with me about which accommodation in my neighbourhood I could look for interviewees. But when the interview came to an end, I could have guessed that the job had apparently already been taken elsewhere. I was told that it would take a few more days before a decision could be made, because not all the letters of reference had been received yet. That’s stupid when your references put you :bcc, especially when they send their references to the panel and you know that you are obviously not the candidate whose reference still has to be waited for. Nevertheless, from Thursday to Tuesday, I sent countless prayers to heaven until I was sure that I had the right idea again. But still, I was personally called by the person advertising the job, he also gushed with praise and recognition of my experience and skills, I was definitely “appointable”, i.e. formally employable, BUT: they had chosen a candidate who already had more experience in the UK context in this respect. Coulda, woulda, bicycle chain. I can’t buy anything for that. In any case, my disappointment at not getting a job has never been greater.

Four months later, the wheel continued to turn and I received an invitation for an interview at another university. Once again it was about Mental Health but in the field of people with learning difficulties. Ha! Score! The first part of the project was to be a so-called realist review, a special kind of literature review on a topic. I hadn’t done that before, but I had done it in other contexts and anyway: another post in the field of learning difficulties. Give it to me. And then came the Corona lockdown. Job interviews were taken to a new level. On the computer. Via Zoom. Never mind, can’t be more difficult, though I won’t find it as easy to use my soft skills in conversation anymore. I usually keep strict eye contact with people who ask me questions when I answer. Then you can react to body language and facial expressions if necessary. However, this is only possible to a limited extent in Zoom. You simply cannot look into the camera and at the individual windows of the conference participants at the same time. Well, the interview was okay under the circumstances, but the cancellation came once again only by email:

Dear Arne,

Re: Interview for the position of Research Assistant Mental Health and Learning Disabilities within the School of […]

Thank you for your interest in this position and attending the online interview on Monday, 23rd March 2020. I am sorry to say that you have been unsuccessful on this occasion.

The panel were impressed with the extent of your skills and experience, especially with regards to research with people with physical and learning disabilities. We were particularly impressed by your publication record, your experience of conducting and reporting on qualitative research, and using Delphi methodologies.  However, we have selected a candidate with more experience in the conduct and reporting of systematic reviews, especially realist reviews.

Please let us know if you would like further feedback.

Best wishes and good luck in your future endeavours,

First names

Shit.

Three months later, the next interview. This time not in a university context. The Clinical Commissioning Group in my neighbourhood had advertised a manager position for the LeDer review. So a special kind of review on premature deaths of people with learning disabilities. I had worked in Australia on palliative care for such people and suicides in this population, so I felt I would be a good fit here again and in an initial contact with the person advertising the job, he had confirmed that my knowledge and skills would be a good fit, that I should apply and that he was already looking forward to the interview. In the interview itself, however, I showed weaknesses in the area of Safeguarding, simply because I was not yet familiar with this concept, which is widespread in the Anglo-American language area under this name. My fault, so to speak, but nevertheless another disappointment, which was also communicated to me in the same way in a telephone conversation. Damn. I would have liked to have done it.

Then came the big Corona break. No more invitations followed for the rest of the year. In January of this year, I finally had another casting, this time at the same institute where everything had started two years before. The interview was again to be conducted via Zoom, and at the beginning they expected a five-minute presentation about my skills and my relation to research that relies on a lay research approach. I had already done something similar in Australia. So I was able to do something with the question for the presentation, so much so that I had to shorten the presentation a few times until it fit the time. I tried to make it clear that I think my skills are very transferable and that it wouldn’t make much difference if I had done exactly the same thing before. Again, the conversation went well in my eyes, there was even some time at the end for a chat about football club loves. The signs looked good to me, but – and I’ve learned this in the meantime – that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It then took a while until I received an answer, a whole week to be precise. The answer looked like this:

Dear Arne,

I am sorry for the delay in getting back to you about the post,

We have decided to appoint another candidate and were waiting to hear if they had accepted the post.

We needed someone with more experience of doing public involvement in a UK context, and the appointed candidate had greater experience in this area.

However, we were very impressed with your interview and if we have any opportunities coming up I will pass them in your direction, presumably you would be happy to work on projects part-time etc?

It was nice to meet you and sorry for the disappointing news,

Kind regards, 

First name

There it was again, the hammer with the lack of experience in the UK context. Great. At least this time I replied that the rejection had definitely been one of the better ones and that I would of course be interested in any kind of part-time work if the opportunity arose. However, I am now very sure that was just another nuance of content-free communication to appease.

March 2021. New job advertisement, same institute, different department. Two months later. I can do that now, I thought. Only the question for the five-minute talk was different, of course. And I didn’t find it that easy. It was about the challenges of international mixed-methods research projects. Nevertheless, I somehow managed to get something into the slides that I was reasonably convinced of. Unfortunately, my health then threw a spanner in the works during the talk itself, when the adrenaline wore off in the middle of the lecture and the mushiness of a migraine attack from the day before took over instead. So I probably (because I don’t remember too much) talked a large amount of nonsense. And once again, I realised already in the interview that I wasn’t going to get the job. I ended up with no more questions and apologised for my migraine. The recruiter was already about to end the interview when another panel member quickly asked when I would actually be available. Immediately, of course, but I wouldn’t get the job anyway (which I didn’t say, of course). However, the fact that the person advertising the job obviously didn’t care whether I could answer this question speaks for itself. The rejection came by email the same evening:

Dear Arne

Thank you very much for attending the job interview today for the post of postdoctoral research associate. Unfortunately, we are unable to offer you the job on this occasion.

With best wishes

First name

Well, what else can one say. Is it German efficiency of the few words (the person advertising the job was German herself) or just emotional incompetence? In any case, that was the worst rejection I’ve ever received by email and it now gives me pause. Over, out, I need a break. But not without sorting it all out for myself and bringing it to a close. Hence this blogpost. I’m currently considering whether I should simply introduce some kind of scale for the quality and chosen method with which bad news is communicated. Then it all gets a bit more “gamification” and I might be able to laugh at it more. If it wasn’t all so bitter…

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