Friday, 11 July 2014

Applying for a job: what to do, and what not to do

Firstly, apologies for the massive gap between this post and the last one. I don't have any real excuse except that, well, there's not been much to blog about until now. May mostly consisted of me being on holiday, and whilst June was much busier library-wise, I haven't really been able to talk about it until now.

This is becasue a large chunk of June was taken up with advertising, shortlisting, and interviewing for the post of Library Information Administrator for the Research Repository (known in other circles with less long-winded titles as "Repository Administrators").

Now, I have been involved in the interview process before. Indeed, when we last advertised for a Repository Administrator back in 2010, I designed and assessed the test for it (at UWE, interviews for posts at this grade tend to involve an interview and a test, once you get past the application stage). I've also sat on interview panels for posts in other areas of the university in the past. But this is the first time I've played a part in the entire process, right through from designing the application questions to being on the interview panel.

So, what can I tell you about the process that's helpful if you're thinking of applying for a job? Well, for starters we had over 50 applicants, so that's a lot of job application forms to get through. And we were lucky (or perhaps unlucky, depending upon your view) that almost none of those applications were joke ones. Almost everybody was serious, and had experience that they could apply to the post being advertised. So we really did have to consider 50+ applications. So, considering that, what were the common mistakes people made when applying?
  • Simply repeating the job description/ person spec in their application. We wrote it, we know what it says. Good applicants used their understanding of the job and their skills to explain why they would be good at the job, and why they wanted the job.
  • Only giving one word-answers in order to demonstrate skills and assuming this meant we knew what they were talking about. If we ask for experience learning a new piece of software, "SPSS" doesn't tell us anything. Except that you can't write in sentences.
  • Conversely, giving us one-page answers to demonstrate every skill on the person specification. You don't need to do a brain-dump of everything you've ever learnt - with this many applications, we haven't got time to read it and pick out the salient points. Focus in on the particular skill you want to promote, give us a short one or two-paragraph answer with examples, and demonstrate how you have acquired that skill.
  • Using a load of acronyms and then failing to explain what they mean. The library world especially is terrible for acronyms, and whilst most of us might understand the obvious ones (OA, CPD, VLE etc) don't assume this is the case. I know I'm guilty of it, but if I'm applying for a job outside of UWE (or even within it) I won't assume everybody knows what RBI stands for.
  • Not being concise when telling us about their current post. It's great to know approximately what somebody currently does, especially if it's relevant, but we don't need a full job description. Anything particularly relevant should be referred to when you promote your specific skills to us.
  • Now, this may be UWE-specific, but the UWE application form asks you a number of questions relevant to the person spec that you need to respond to. It then has a section where you can supply additional information. There's nothing wrong with using the additional info box, but don't need to repeat what you've already said. Good things to include in here are things like why you want the job and what you understand about the job and its context. A couple of short paragraphs should suffice.
  • Supplying unnecessary CVs. Don't supply your CV unless it is a requirement, or you honestly believe there are a number of things on your CV that you haven't been able to include anywhere on the application form. The UWE application form is pretty extensive as it is, and not once did I then read a CV that changed my mind one way or the other. It's not wrong to include a CV, but it's extra work for the shortlisters that they don't really need.
So, you've taken all that advice on board and been offered an interview. Giving advice on what to do during interviews is harder - mostly because, generally, the people who make it to this stage have done a pretty good job and therefore make fewer obvious mistakes. A couple of points worth thinking about though:
  • Know a bit of background about the job and the organisation/ company. I guarantee you at least one other candidate will have done some research, so if you know nothing, it'll become obvious pretty quickly.
  • Don't assume you're in with a good chance just because you have experience (either by doing a similar role before, or because you're an internal candidate). Everybody we interviewed had experience. The stand-out applicants were the ones that had experience, enthusiasm, and up-to-date knowledge not just of the job, but also of the area surrounding the job (in this case, open access more generally).
  • If you have already answered a question and don't really have anything else to say, keep your mouth shut. This one comes from personal experience when attending interviews as well as being on interview panels. Good interviewers will leave a pause, so if you do think of something worth saying, you'll have time to do so. If you don't think of anything additional, then a brief, concise answer is better than a general ramble with no end-point in sight. Equally, if you haven't gotten anywhere close to the question the interviewer is trying to ask (and remember, they're human too - they can word questions incorrectly or incomprehensibly sometimes), they will do their best to rephrase the question to help you. With a good interviewer, you might not even realise it's meant to be the same question.
One final point that might help with the nerves (and this doesn't come from previous interviewing experience, but from some wise words my mum told me a long time ago): remember, you're judging them as much as they're judging you. You might find the job doesn't sound like what you thought it was going to be, or you don't like the atmosphere, or the attitude of the people you're going to be working with. It might just not feel 'right'. And that's fine; far better for everybody that you find out now than a month into the job. You'll probably find that if you do feel this way you won't get offered the job anyway - it's happened to me in the past and, looking back, I'm incredibly grateful that it did.

Now hopefully that'll advice will help both you and me out if/ when you or I apply for jobs in the future. If I take it on board, apply for jobs and don't get them, I'll let you know so you can ignore the advice above!

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