Jobs in university administration

This man had hair before he started shortlisting.....

The Guardian Higher Education network recently hosted a careers clinic on ‘How to break into university administration‘, and I posted a few thoughts that I thought might be useful.  According to my referral stats for my blog, a number of visitors end up here with similar questions about both recruitment processes and what it’s like to work for a university.  I think it’s mainly my post on Academics vs University Administrators part 94 that gets those hits.  I’ve also been asked by friends and relatives for my very limited wisdom on this topic.

I also think it’s good to share this information, because one of my worries whenever I’m involved in recruiting staff is that we end up employing people who are best at writing applications and being interviewed.  In my particular line of work, that’s fine – if you can’t write a strong job application against set criteria, you probably shouldn’t be helping academics with grant applications.  But that’s the exception.

So what follows is me spilling the beans on my very limited experience of recruiting administrative staff in two institutions, both as panel chair and as an external panel member.  I’m not an HR expert.  I’m not a careers advisor.  But for what it’s worth, what follows is an edited and expanded version of what I posted on the Guardian page.

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When an administrative job is advertised, a document called a ‘person specification’ is drawn up. Formats vary, but usually this is a list of skills, attributes, experiences, and attitudes that are either classed as “essential” or “desirable”. Often it’ll say which part of the recruitment process these will be examined (application, aptitude test, or interview).

In all of the recruitment I’ve been involved in, this is an absolutely vital document. Decisions about who to short list for interview and who not to and ultimately who to appoint will be made on the basis of this person specification and justified on that basis.  And we must be able to justify our decisions if challenged.  As panel chair I was required to (briefly) explain reasons for rejection for everyone we didn’t interview, and then everyone we didn’t appoint.  I’m sure the importance of the person specification isn’t unique to universities.

To get an interview, an applicant needs to show that they meet all of the essential criteria and as many of the desirable ones as possible. My advice to applicants is that if they don’t have some of the desirable criteria, they should make the case for having something equivalent, or a plan to get that skill. For example, if a person spec lists “web design” as desirable and you can’t do it, express willingness to go on a course. For bonus points, find a course that you’d like to go on.  If you’re offered an interview, you can use the person spec to predict the interview questions – they’ll be questions aimed at getting evidence about your fit with the person spec.  You could do worse than to imagine that you’re on the interview panel and think of the questions you’d ask to get evidence about candidates’ fit with those criteria.  Chances are you won’t be a million miles off.

Unfortunately, if you don’t meet the essential criteria, it’s a waste of time applying.  You won’t get an interview.

As an applicant, your job in your application form is to make it as obvious as possible to the panel members that you meet the criteria. Back it up with evidence and at least some detail. If a criterion concerns supporting committees with minute taking and agenda prep, don’t just assert you’ve done it – say a bit about the committee, and what you did exactly, and how you did it.  Culturally, we’re not good at blowing our own trumpets, and a good and effective way round this is to just stick to the facts.  Don’t tell, show.

Panel members really appreciate it when applicants make it easy – they can just look down the person spec, look through the application, and tick, tick, tick, you’re on the potential interviewees pile.  Don’t make panel members guess or try to interpret what you say to measure it against the criteria.  There’s nothing more frustrating than an applicant who might be exactly what we need, but who hasn’t made a strong enough or clear enough case, especially about transferable skills.

Panel members can tell the difference between an application that’s being tweaked slightly and sent to every job vacancy, and one that’s been tailored for that particular vacancy. Do that, put in the effort, and you will stand out, because so many people don’t. Take the application seriously, and you’ll be taken seriously in turn. And spell check and proof read is your friend.  A good admin vacancy in a university in the current climate attract hundreds of applications.  That’s not an exaggeration.

Two other tips. One is always ask for feedback if you’re unsuccessful at interview. In every process I’ve been involved in, there’s useful feedback there for you if you want it. Even if it’s “someone else was better suited, and there’s nothing you could have done differently/better”, you still want to know that. If you were good, chances are that the university in question would like you to apply again in the future. The second is to always take up any offer of an informal conversation in advance of applying.  If you can ask sensible questions that show you’ve read all the documents thoroughly, there’s a chance that you’ll be remembered when you apply. You won’t get special treatment, but it can’t hurt.

Jobs will be advertised in a variety of places, depending on the grade and the degree of specialism needed.  Universities will have a list of current vacancies on their websites, and often use local papers for non-specialist roles.  Jobs.ac.uk is also widely used, and has customisable searches/vacancy emails, as well as some more good advice on job seeking.

Finally….. every job interview process that I’ve been involved with has attracted outstanding candidates. Some with little work experience, some with NHS or local authority admin experience, many from the private sector too. Universities are generally good employers and good places to work. It’s competitive at the best of times, and will be doubly so now.

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The fact that most of you reading this not only (a) already have university jobs; and (b) know perfectly well how the recruitment process works isn’t lost on me.  But this one’s for my random google visitors.  Normal service will be resuming shortly.

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4 Responses to Jobs in university administration

  1. I’d endorse much of this (the main exception being ‘if [you] don’t have some of the desirable criteria, [you] should make the case for having something equivalent, or a plan to get that skill. For example, if a person spec lists “web design” as desirable and you can’t do it, express willingness to go on a course.’ In my experience, expressions of willingness to learn are useless: find an example of when you have learned, or a related or similar bit of experience to talk about).

    The other thing I would say is that person specifications are often highly specialised. If the role doesn’t require specific experience, then there are likely to be literally hundreds of applicants and competition will be very fierce; but often excessively specialised roles are created and highly specific experience of HESA, or Research Councils or what have you) is ‘required’ on the person spec, even if it isn’t really required to do the job. Use this to your advantage. A summer job or placement opportunity can make a big difference if it enables you to say ‘I have direct experience of X’.

  2. Adam says:

    Hi Andrew, thanks for your comments. I’d agree about giving an example of skills learnt in the past that would give confidence that the applicant could learn new skills here, and I think I made the point about making arguments for equivalence. But I guess I quite like to see an applicant coming up with a plan to get the ‘desirable’ skills that they don’t have – to me it shows awareness that they’re not yet the finished article as regards that post. But the plan has to be realistic and sensible, and actually be thought through. And you’re certainly right about giving the panel reasons to think that the applicant is capable of picking up those skills.

    Interesting what you say about excessively specialised person specs. Most of my recruitment experience has been of generalist administrators or finance administrators, but I’ve seen a number of examples of what look to me like unrealistic person specifications where the field is narrowed to a ridiculous degree. A few years ago I was keeping an eye on the job market and a number of person specifications in research management were very optimistic indeed. Add in other restrictions (fractional post, fixed term contract) and it looked like either they had someone in mind or were setting themselves up to fail to recruit. But then career structures in my field are quite badly broken, and no-one wants to be the one to someone in and let them learn in post.

  3. Great post!

    I’m a big fan of taking a folio to the interview, as part of the “Don’t tell, show” mantra. When they ask about committee minutes, I think it makes more of an impression if you can pull out a set of minutes and pass them around. It also gives you a minute to clear your head and compose an answer.

    And on the other side of the fence, I’m a big fan of setting up a small questionnaire that people have to fill out before you will consider their application. It cuts out all the people who are spamming you with their resume.

  4. Adam says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. It’s always interesting to get a perspective on this from outside the UK. I’m not sure what I think about bringing printed materials along to interviews. It used to be standard advice in the UK in some quarters to turn up with extra copies of your CV to give to panel members, but I always found that slightly insulting – the implied assumption being that I might not be prepared. I think examples of minutes and other kinds of work might be different, though I must admit it would make me a bit nervous if we’d not asked for them, and therefore not everyone had the opportunity. But maybe I worry unnecessarily.

    A questionnaire sounds like a good idea, and I might ask if we can do something like that next time I’m recruiting, which hopefully won’t be for a while yet. One problem we have with application spam is that I suspect our unemployment benefits system encourages it. In order to receive benefits, I think that jobseekers are required to prove that they’ve made a certain number of applications, whether realistic or not. I might be wrong about this, but this seems the most charitable explanation for some of the applications I’ve seen over the years!

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