Applying for that alt-ac job

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 25 July 2019 as ‘What we talk about when we talk about recruitment’. It is reproduced with the permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


A cubicle corner, showing office stationery and a desk phone.
A corner of the office, by Lonnon Foster, on Flickr.

Recently, I started a new job. One of the first things on my to-do list was to employ someone to work with me. I thought that it might be useful to reflect on the recruitment process, particularly for academics who are looking for an alternative academic job (an ‘alt-ac job’ as some people call it)—an administrative job within a university environment.

Hiring, like everything, is cultural. Different countries do it differently. I’ve spent most of my working life as an administrator at Australian universities, helping academics with their research grants. All I can draw on is my own experience. Please keep in mind that this may not necessarily translate to your situation.

When I am employing someone, the main thing I’m thinking about is:
how do I find the best person for the job?

However, in the back of my mind, there is also a niggling fear:
what if I hire someone terrible?

As an applicant, keep that first question firmly in mind throughout the entire process, but don’t forget about the second one. As you go through the process, you will need to make it clear, in different ways, how you can do the job well. Where appropriate, be prepared to explain any discrepancies in your application as well, to quieten the employer’s anxieties regarding the second question.

The application

You will most likely be provided with a job description that includes the duties of the role and the selection criteria. Your application must address those criteria. If it doesn’t, it may be disregarded. When one of our human resources experts reviewed this article, she said, “I personally discourage panels to disregard applications not addressing the selection criteria,” this person told me. “It is often short-sighted. Applicants coming from the corporate world are really not used to the idea. By eliminating those who do not directly address the criteria, you may lose great applicants.” However, you may not be so lucky as to have someone like this reviewing your application. Read the guidelines.

There will be someone you can contact if you have questions. This is usually the person who will be your boss if you are successful, and it is worth giving them a call. In looking for a new position, you are also ‘interviewing’ your potential boss. If you get the wrong vibe when you ask a few questions about the job, that might save you a lot of work and heartache.

Don’t worry—you almost certainly won’t be strong in all the selection criteria. Where you are weak, look at the duties of the job and think broadly about what experience you can bring to bear. Years ago, I was on a selection panel for a job that required high levels of organisational skills. One candidate described how being a single mother of three children had sharpened her organisational skills to a fine point. She provided a compelling argument that drew on her life skills rather than her employment experience.

At this stage, you are writing your application to convince someone like me to interview you. You need to provide evidence that you can do the job well. Don’t worry about who else might be applying. That’s my job. During the selection process, I’m trying to select the five or six applicants I want to interview. I’ll read the cover letters, the selection criteria and the CV of every applicant. I’ll be looking for a mix of experience and aptitude: you don’t need to have done the job before, but you do need to convince me that you have the skills to do the job well.

The interview

Interviews for administration jobs at Australian universities tend to follow a standard pattern. We will generally ask the same questions of all candidates so that we can compare their answers. By and large, those questions will be based on the selection criteria and the duties of the role. With a bit of imagination, you can probably predict the general areas that the questions will cover. There will still be surprises, but preparation is definitely possible.

The selection panel will discuss the candidates and rank them. They will try to reach consensus about who the preferred candidate is, and will have the next two or three candidates ranked in order. That way, if the preferred candidate doesn’t work out, there is a clear list of possibilities to work through.

I will probably only contact the referees for the leading candidate. If there are two candidates that are very close because the committee could not differentiate between them, I might contact referees for both. Please let your referees know to expect my call. There is nothing more unsettling than having a referee who is surprised to be contacted. It isn’t a deal-breaker, but it doesn’t help the conversation flow.

If you have been unsuccessful, you won’t hear from me until the successful candidate has accepted the position. This may seem cruel, but it has a very practical purpose from my point of view. When people are applying for jobs, they are often applying for multiple jobs at the same time. If the preferred candidate isn’t available because they have been offered another job already, I will move to the next highest-ranked candidate and so on. I don’t want to tell anyone the result until I know what the result really is.

Some people don’t provide any feedback to unsuccessful candidates. I think that is short-sighted. We don’t like funding schemes that give no feedback, as feedback helps applicants put in better applications next time. It makes the overall system stronger. The same logic holds true here and if candidates have been good enough to be interviewed, I should give them the courtesy of providing feedback on their application.

General advice for alt-ac applicants

I understand the world from an administrative point of view. When I am hiring someone, I want to hire someone who will be a good administrator. Actually, I don’t just want a good administrator, I want a great administrator.

You come from an academic background. I have a general understanding of your world, but only as an outsider. So there is a little bit of translation you need to do to show me that your academic skills and experience will help you in this administrative role.

Likewise, you understand my administrative world, at one remove. You have done administrative tasks for your research, but generally not at the scale that this role requires. You have been responsible for your own research, whereas the role requires you to work with researchers across a whole department or faculty.

My best advice is to talk to someone who can interpret the role for you. Find an administrator at your university who does a similar role, for example. Find out what they do, day to day. Reflect on how their experience is different from yours.

Be aware that you will be competing against administrative staff who have done similar roles and have experience with the scale of the role. Think about how you can show me that you have the aptitude to do this job, and to do it well. What can you bring over from your academic career?

Don’t forget that nagging second question: what if I hire someone terrible? For most alt-ac candidates, I’d be concerned that administrative work might be too routine or rigid for them. Be prepared for a question along the lines of ‘Why are you making the switch?’ or ‘What do you imagine you might enjoy about this role?’

It is OK to talk about needing more job security; we work in higher education so we understand the issues. But it’s important to go beyond that and discuss why you think an administrative career might suit you, and why you might suit this particular administrative role.

If you are truly right for the job, the fact that this would be your first administrative role won’t disadvantage you. I’m looking for someone who will grow with the role. As long as I end up with a great administrator on my team, I’m happy.

About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia. All opinions are his own. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia. His ORCID is 0000-0001-5435-235X. The views expressed here are his personal views and are not the views of the University of Melbourne.

2 Responses to Applying for that alt-ac job

  1. NORDIANA Shah says:

    Dear Jonathan, Interesting sharing, I am in job hunting for academic post. Do you mind to review my CV and give your feedback? Thank you.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Hello Nordiana

      My apologies, but I can’t provide that service. My work for Research Whisperer happens in my spare time, so I can’t undertake more work in this area.

      Jonathan

      Like

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