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5 Mistakes to Avoid on the Academic Job Hunt

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

After conducting many academic interviews and coaching clients to succeed, we've seen the good, the bad and the cringeworthy. So before your next academic interview read this... how not to screw up your interview.

It's not all about you at the interview

You have to look at an interview from an employers perspective. You have carefully thought if the role is right for you by taking the time to explore applying. Now you need to switch things around. Craft your interactions, your cover letter and any required presentations so they are geared towards how you can help the university. You can mindfully weave your goals and ambitions but it's great to see a presentation or engagement from an interviewee that is really focused on how they will contribute to the university.

Don't irritate HR

So you might have done the interview or be awaiting on an update and yes HR may take longer than expected to reply. However, don't irritate the HR team - always be polite and respectful of their time. This may seem basic but you would be surprised that difficult candidates appear all the time. Be polite, ask for what you need and if in doubt - make a phone call rather than over email. Get to know the HR team, enable them to get to know you, build your relationship. When I worked in marketing full time and interviewed candidates I always used to ask our reception manager and the cleaner what they thought of the candidates waiting in the lobby when they engaged with them. Over and above fulfilling the job criteria, I always want to make sure that any prospective team member will be respectful at all levels of the organisation - whether they are the Chief exec or the part time cleaner. (I worked as a cleaner in a hotel and sometimes the guests were so rude to my colleagues and I. From that day forward I vowed never to employ someone who was rude to the cleaner).

Don't act desperate, act like your future professorial self

Ok, you want the job, you've secured the interview and you're ready to show your best self. While you are eager to please and make a good impression, it is not at all costs. Be amenable but don't be so keen that it makes you an easy recruit. If you're in the interview most likely you have a very strong chance in securing the role. Play the game and know your worth no matter how much the imposter syndrome is kicking in. As a recruiter you know when a candidate is really keen and then when it comes to negotiating salary you can offer the lowest amount. Harsh but true. So be confident not brash, calm and considered. They need to know your worth. It also sets your new role off to the right start should you be successful.

Lengthy cover letters

This is an easy one. While cover letters are welcome for many applications we do not need an epic tome of your life history. Keep it short, keep it compelling and showcase the most important bits the interviewer needs to know. Your cover letter should answer the question, how will you add value to the organisation. We already know how time pressured life is in academia - don't expect someone to have the time to read 3 page cover letters when they are sifting through 50 candidates.

Not answering the questions clearly

Time and time again candidates forget the question they have been asked at interview and spend ages discussing anything and everything in the hope that it might cover what was originally asked. Be up front, ask the team to repeat the question. If it helps make a note, I wouldn't mind a candidate taking the time to collect their thoughts and offer a measured response. If interview nerves get the better of you normally the best thing to do is answer the question in a brief sentence or two. Then you can dive into more discussion after those couple of points, safe in the knowledge that you have answered what they asked you for.

So there you go, a few tips on how not to screw up your next academic job hunt.

If you do, don't sweat it. Just one of those things. Learn from the experience, get feedback where it is available and try, try again. WorkSmarter* offer coaching to help you prepare for your next academic interview or promotion. Find out more at

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