‘I don’t suppose you’ve read my monograph on cigars and cigar ash?’ A Rough Guide to Academic Publishing for Early Career Researchers in Film and Media Studies

James Chapman, University of Leicester

14 December 2018


OK, so you’ve been awarded your PhD (congratulations, by the way!), and now you’re in a position to start applying for academic posts. One thing you’ll need to do is to build up your publications profile – and that probably means looking to publish your first book. In Science subjects, it’s generally the case that journal articles are the gold standard, and that books are usually textbooks. That’s not so in Arts, Humanities and some Social Science subjects, however, where the scholarly monograph still carries an intellectual premium.

So how do you go about it? In the spirit of my previous IAMHIST advice blog on best practice for publishing journal articles, here are my ‘top ten tips’ for those looking to pitch their first book to a publisher.

1. Do your research

You should have a good sense of who the leading publishers in your field are from your doctoral research – and these are the most likely to be interested in your book. Obviously there’s little point in offering a film or television history monograph to a publisher who does not have a ‘list’ in this area. Also don’t send a proposal for a research monograph to a publisher who specialises in text books. So look at catalogues and websites.  It’s always a good idea to talk to your colleagues and peers: have they had good (or bad) experiences with particular publishers?

The major academic publishers for film and media in the UK include (in no particular order) Palgrave, Routledge, Manchester University Press, Edinburgh University Press, Intellect, Bloomsbury Academic and Exeter University Press. BFI Publishing and I. B. Tauris are now within the orbit of Bloomsbury, while Wallflower Press is part of New-York based Columbia University Press. Amsterdam University Press publishes in English, and there are several dozen US university presses with extensive film and media lists.

One point to consider is that publishers are often less concerned about potential overlap with other titles than authors think they are. In fact they’ll be interested in titles that complement their existing list. If they already have a book on, say, the films of Powell and Pressburger, that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be interested in another if the approach and arguments are different. Another tip is to look for series into which your project might fit. There was a time, for example, when I. B. Tauris had cornered the market in Doctor Who publishing. Palgrave has a series on ‘Adaptation and Visual Culture’, Routledge publishes ‘Remapping World Cinema’, Manchester UP has a long-standing series ‘Studies in Popular Culture’, etc.

THE INSIDE TRACK. Conferences are a good way of making contact with publishers. The lonely-looking person sitting at the stand all day is probably a commissioning editor or assistant editor. They’re at the conference to meet potential authors as well as to publicise their wares. So say hello and have a chat – they’ll be only too happy to talk. And even if the project you’re working on right now isn’t quite their thing, they might be able to suggest other publishers who might be interested, or it might be that the idea you have for your next book is more in their line.

2. Writing the proposal

Once you’ve got your short list of favoured publishers, then you need to write an outline. Have a look on the publishers’ websites for specific guidelines: e.g. do they insist on using their own pro forma, do they specify a word or page length, do they want a sample chapter or not? As with submitting articles to journals, follow the publishers’ guidelines in preparing your outline.

In general, though, book proposals should include the following information:

  • A Title. It’s useful to have one, even if it’s only a working title. The shorter and punchier the better: publishers will want something that’s easily recognisable and will turn up on Google searches. Think of the keywords you would use if you were searching for a book on this subject and make sure they’re in the title or subtitle. Don’t get wedded to ‘clever’ titles or sentence-length subtitles: these are the Kiss of Death. Have you ever wondered why there are so many books called Film and History? I’ve even written one myself! It’s a dull title to be sure – but it does what it says on the cover.
  • Summary. A paragraph stating clearly what the subject of the book is – rather like the abstract of your thesis. This should be up front in the proposal. If it doesn’t ‘grab’ the commissioning editor at the outset, they might not bother reading any further.
  • Rationale. An explanation of why we need this book: what will it contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the subject? This is not the place to write a review of the other books on the same or similar subjects. Instead you should focus on your book and its distinctive characteristics. Some publishers might ask for a list of ‘USPs’ (unique selling points): e.g. the first study of the films of ABC for ten/twenty/however many years, based on new and previously unavailable archival sources, combining both textual and contextual analysis, including case studies that could be adopted for teaching, etc.
  • Contents list and chapter breakdown. The publisher will want some indication of the substantive content. At the very least you should have a provisional list of contents, and preferably a short paragraph outlining each chapter. Think of the sort of structure and chapter length you would look for in recommending reading material to your students. You’ve recently been a student yourself so you know the sort of chapter length that works from a reader’s perspective. As a rule of thumb try to avoid over-long chapters: some e-book sales these days are by chapter (i.e. a particular chapter rather than the whole book is adopted as a set reading for a course).
  • Readership and market. Who (as in which groups) do you expect to read your book? Most monographs will be for upper level undergraduate/postgraduate students and lecturers: it’s useful to be able to identify some courses and modules at different universities where your book might be ‘recommended reading’. Be more specific than ‘the expanding market for film and media studies’ because (a) the market isn’t expanding any more, and (b) most students don’t buy books any more, just libraries. A little bit of time spent looking at degree structures and module outlines online will pay dividends: what are the books that people are recommending for courses on, say, New Hollywood or Chinese cinema or South American women film-makers, and how is yours different?
  • Competitive texts. This is where you can talk about the other work in the field. Focus on how your book builds upon what’s gone before rather than what’s wrong with everyone else’s work. Remember that publishers will commission readers’ reports on your proposal to help assess the value of the proposal and how well you know your stuff, so don’t say anything too rude about someone who might end up acting as a reader for your proposal! You don’t really need to spend much space talking about anything over 20 years old – publishers won’t regard this as current. It’s titles in the last decade or so that are the main competition, so explain how your book is different from those.
  • Length. The usual monograph length is between 80,000 and 100,000 words – and most publishers will probably prefer something towards the lower end of that range. The publisher needs a reasonably accurate estimate of length to work out paper costs and to price your book accordingly. Some publishers are more lenient than others in enforcing word lengths – but if you’re significantly over length, don’t be too surprised if the publisher insists you cut your manuscript down to length. (Anyone who knows me will of course recognise this as a case of ‘Do as I say rather than as I do’!)
  • Delivery date. Give the publisher a REALISTIC delivery date for delivery of the manuscript. Unless you’ve already written the book, the delivery date is likely to be a minimum of twelve months from signature of contract – and in all likelihood more.

Like academic journals, most publishers will stipulate that the proposal should not be under consideration elsewhere. The last thing a commissioning editor wants is to invest time in soliciting (and chasing up) readers’ reports on a proposal, and paying for the same, only to hear back from the author that they’ve accepted an offer from another publisher.

THE INSIDE TRACK. Don’t bother suggesting that in addition to the academic readership, your book will find a secondary market among the ‘interested general reader’. The interested general reader is like the Urban Spaceman – he doesn’t exist. Certainly not for a book that’s going to be published as a £60+ hardback. (Most academic publishers focus on library sales for monographs: there’s a better margin on a couple of hundred hardback sales than on three times as many paperbacks at a lower price.) Nobody expects your study of the films of Ida Lupino or William Beaudine to be a runaway best-seller. That’s why it’s likely to be priced for library sales.

3. Drop the literature review

The literature review is an essential part of most PhD theses: your scholarly overview of the existing critical and historical literature in your field that positions your own work within it. It also shouts loudly: ‘This is a PhD thesis’. You can drop it for your monograph – or at the very least you can do it much more succinctly. Include your thesis in your bibliography and refer readers to your literature review there: academic readers can access your thesis online.

THE INSIDE TRACK. I once dealt with a manuscript that was basically a ‘Book of the PhD Thesis’. It was clearly an excellent thesis. The publisher had commissioned it expecting it to be a study of a particular production cycle. Instead what they got was 30,000 words detailing the critical historiography of the genre and previous production cycles before getting down to the ostensible subject matter. That’s about three-eighths of the book gone before it got to the actual content. Needless to say the publisher sent it back and asked the author to revise it. This meant it took another year for the author to get their book published.

4. Patience is a virtue

Getting from submission of proposal to issue of an offer letter for your book can take a long time. And I mean a L-O-O-O-O-NG time. You thought it took a long enough time to get confirmation of acceptance of your article for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, but that’s nothing compared to the time that a publisher might sit on your book proposal. The main reason is that they’ll have to solicit readers’ reports – usually two, sometimes more. This takes time because the publisher is dealing with human beings, and humans are often not very reliable. They promise a report by the end of next month but Something Else crops up and then they forget … Most academics are very busy, and reading your proposal in return for a packet of peanuts might only be the 27th most urgent thing on their ‘to do’ list this week. After that the publisher will need to work out the ‘costings’ (length, paper cost, print run, price), a mysterious and opaque process which almost always results in the same standard offer.

A polite enquiry after three months is acceptable, but under no circumstances should you chase up a commissioning editor sooner than that. And every three months thereafter. If you email a commissioning editor saying ‘Unless I have a definitive decision by DATE, then I will offer the book elsewhere’, don’t be too surprised if the reply is ‘Okay – thanks and good luck.’

THE INSIDE TRACK. At some point, once you’re a published author, you’ll find that you get asked to act as a reader for book proposals. And that’s when you’ll find yourself on the other end of the process: you’ve agreed in good faith to do it by the end of next month but Something Else crops up and the commissioning editor is now chasing you … Incidentally publishers will usually offer either a cash fee (around £50-60 for reading a proposal, maybe £100 for reading a full manuscript) or twice that amount in kind (i.e. books). The latter is a great way to build up your book collection – and taking the books option means you don’t have to pay income tax.

5. The contract

Most academic publishing contracts are fairly standard. The key points to pay attention to are:

  • Royalty. The remuneration for your book (if any) will be in the form of a royalty paid as a percentage of the publisher’s net receipts (i.e. not a percentage of the actual purchase price per book). The royalty is usually on a sliding scale starting at 5 per cent and increasing incrementally once sales pass a certain mark (typically 2000 copies though it varies). Do not expect to get rich: if you’re lucky the royalty might nearly cover the permission fees you’ve paid for images.
  • Advance. This means an advance against royalties, usually paid either on acceptance of the manuscript and/or on publication. Typically it might be in the region of a couple of hundred pounds for a monograph, more for a text book. Many academic publishers won’t offer one.
  • Subvention Funds. This means ‘pay to publish’: i.e. the publisher is expecting you to contribute towards the production costs of your book. It also means that you’re probably dealing with a smaller publisher who will print about a hundred copies and will not send out many review copies. There are a few funders who will consider applications for subvention grants such as the Paul Mellon Centre (http://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk), which supports research into British art and architecture. But usually you’d need to find the funds yourself: a ballpark figure might be in the region of £300-£500. Needless to say this is generally not a preferred route.
  • Camera Ready Copy. This refers to the final state of the publication before it is sent for printing:  originally it meant that the manuscript was ready to be photographed and turned into printing plates. These days it means printing directly from the electronic version. In essence it means doing your own copy-editing. It’s basically a way in which publishers push some of the costs of production onto authors. Unless you are experienced at this, my advice would be to pay a professional copy editor: your publisher should be able to suggest some. Again £300-£500.
  • Permissions. You’ll be expected to pay fees for any third-party copyrighted materials included in the book (i.e. anything to which neither you nor the publisher owns the copyright). For film-related books, this most often means images, such as frame enlargements or production stills (see Section 6 below).
  • Indemnity Clause. There ain’t no Sanity Clause in a publishing contract but there’s almost certainly an Indemnity Clause. This means that you’ll indemnify the publisher against any complaint or action arising from the contents: i.e. it’s on your head if it breaches copyright or includes libellous or offensive material.
  • Indexing. You’ll usually be expected to compile your own index, or to pay for a professional indexer to compile it for you. Save your money: do the index yourself. And it gives you a second opportunity to proof read the manuscript. Decide at the start whether it’s a basic names, organisations and film titles index, or whether you’re including thematic headings – as it’s your book you should know what these are. I’d say that it takes two full days to compile a names/titles index for a monograph of around 80,000 words: maybe more if you’re doing it for the first time. And I mean ‘full days’ (9 am-9 pm)!

THE INSIDE TRACK. Some publishers will include an option clause in contracts: i.e. that you agree to offer your next (non-fiction) work to the publisher. Some people worry about this and think it’s restrictive. My advice is not to bother about it. Sign the contract and ignore it. It’s probably legally unenforceable anyway. But if the clause bothers you, simply offer them an unpublishable project they’re bound to reject after you’ve submitted your first manuscript and the clause is fulfilled: e.g. your 500,000-word monograph entitled A Formal Analysis of the Reconstruction of the Cricket Match in Ashutosh Gowariker’s ‘Lagaan: (Once Upon a Time in India)’ and its Relationship to the History of Legside-dominant Batting in Northern Subcontinental Conditions. (Actually, I’d be willing to act as a reader for that one …)

6. Illustrative matter

If you’re writing on a visual medium such as film or television, the odds are that you’ll want to include some images from film/television texts. The publisher will expect you to clear the permissions for any illustrative matter. This is something of a grey area. Some publishers will insist on seeing an agreement letter from the copyright holder assigning permission to use the image: the publisher usually has a standard pro forma letter template for requesting permissions. Others (often the smaller publishers) might turn a blind eye to it on the assumption (usually correct) that academic publishing is below the radar of major global media corporations.

A lot of publications use production stills sourced from an archive such as the British Film Institute Stills, Posters and Designs collection (this is a lot less user-friendly than it used to be as you can no longer make an appointment to look at stills yourselves and have to depend on what they have online, which is only a fraction of the actual collection). £50 per still is a ballpark figure for the archive or stills library providing the image but this does not cover permission to reproduce it: this has to be negotiated separately with the copyright holder.

However, you can save money by sourcing the images yourself: most publishers today will accept DVD ‘grabs’. Check with your editor for the technical requirements: 300 dpi is the usual standard required for a half-page black and white illustration (even if the original is in colour). Guidelines on ‘Fair Use’ and ‘Fair Dealing’ conventions in the UK have been published by the Intellectual Property Office: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/exceptions-to-copyright Most publishers now interpret this to mean that you can use DVD grabs/frame enlargements provided that (a) the image is used to demonstrate an analytical point you make in the text rather than being included as visual ‘wallpaper’ and (b) it is included in the book at the point where you are making the point rather than in a separate plates section. There’s no strict ‘rule’ on how many images you can use from an individual film: up to three seems acceptable if it’s a chapter-length case study, just one if you only have a couple of pages on the film.

You should of course always consult your publisher about including images. Again there are some funding sources that support reproduction fees. And universities sometimes have (modest) internal funds for this purpose.

THE INSIDE TRACK.  As dispiriting as it is, your scholarly academic tome probably IS under the radar of big media groups and their rapacious lawyers. The older it is the safer you are: the copyright holders of some British films of the 1930s might not even know they do own the copyright. But I would advise thinking twice about putting the latest Avengers or Spider-Man film on your cover. On the one occasion I’ve had to cough up after the event (for British Comics: A Cultural History) the copyright holder in question proved reasonable in offering a reduced rate and the publisher agreed to go halves. (If I’m wrong about this, I’ll probably see you seeking refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy or on a flight to a country without an extradition treaty …)

 7. Allow more time than you think you need

It ALWAYS takes longer to write than you think it will. Even if you think it won’t, it will. ALWAYS. So add at least six months to the proposed delivery date for your monograph. Then add another six months for safety. It might be that you submit it earlier than the contracted date. It might also be that pigs will fly in formation over the White Cliffs of Dover, that the Green Party will form a majority government, and that I’ll score a Test Match century at Lord’s. Ain’t gonna happen. Because it ALWAYS takes longer to write than you think it will.

A common mistake that early career academics can make (we’ve all been there by the way!) is that they’ll proceed at the same pace as their PhD. And since their book is arising out of their PhD, they don’t have much additional research to do. But it doesn’t work like that. Your PhD was a halcyon period: you had a lot more time for research and writing then than you do now. You weren’t having to spend time writing job applications and you probably weren’t doing nearly as much sessional teaching as you are now just to make ends meet. And if you are in post – because the university took a punt on your forthcoming monograph being published in time for the next REF – you’ll have all those administrative responsibilities that so often (and wrongly in my view) get dumped on new members of staff: the open days, convening the student-staff liaison committee, departmental library representative and social media co-ordinator. And that’s in addition to convening ‘Film History 101’, teaching your options and supervising dissertations. You can all too easily find you’ve gone three months without writing a word of your book. And three soon becomes six which becomes twelve …

THE INSIDE TRACK. You know how quickly, or slowly, you write when you have a clear day. It doesn’t matter whether your average is 500 words a day or 2500 words. Look in your diary and work out how many clear days you have over the next year. Assume that half of those days will get filled up with other stuff.  And work it out from there. So if your average is 1000 words a day and you have 30 clear days which you can ring-fence, that’s 30,000 words. If your contract is for a manuscript of 80,000 words, you’d better suggest a later delivery date than next May.

8. Don’t worry about the competition

You’re a well-connected scholar, you’re involved in numerous professional networks, and you keep your ear to the ground. So at some point you’ll hear – either formally or informally – that Someone Else is writing a book on The Same Subject. I’ve heard stories of people abandoning projects because they’ve heard that Someone Else is writing a book on The Same Subject. Just one word of advice: DON’T!

There are three reasons why you should NEVER worry about the competition: (a) two books on the same subject at the same time significantly increases the likelihood of both books getting reviewed; (b) the other person’s book will be different from yours and yours will be different from theirs; and (c) in any event there’s at least a fifty-fifty chance that the other person either won’t deliver (see Section 9 below) or will deliver later than you (see Section 7 above).

THE INSIDE TRACK. In 1998 I was researching and writing my second book: Licence To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. I was in the BFI Library one day to look at some shooting scripts. I happened to bump into an acquaintance who asked what I was looking at and mentioned that he knew someone who was ‘thinking about writing a book on the Bond movies’. I didn’t ask who (I still don’t know). I wasn’t unduly worried because ‘thinking about writing a book’ didn’t suggest they’d actually started writing it, so I was pretty sure I’d be able to get there first unless I was up against the academic equivalent of Michael Slater on Prozac. Nevertheless it spurred me to get on with the writing … A couple of years later, after Licence had been published, I ran into my acquaintance again: I asked about the Other Book and he told me that ‘they’re still thinking about it’. As far as I know they might still be thinking about it.

9. Keep in touch

Keep your commissioning editor appraised of your progress: no need to send weekly updates but they’ll appreciate a short email every now and again to let them know where you are with the book. In particular let them know as early as possible if you foresee any difficulty in meeting your contracted delivery date. In my experience publishers are generally very tolerant and understand that research plans can change, or that you might have had to pick up additional work that’s left you with less time for research and writing. As long as they know, they’ll be okay with extending the delivery date. But they don’t appreciate authors who drop out of contact: word gets around and you might find it more difficult to get a publisher for your next book.

THE INSIDE TRACK.  Here’s a cautionary tale. There was once a scholar – let’s call them Slartibartfast because they had nothing to do with designing fjords – who had a contract to publish a book entitled Decoding the Semiotics of Diana Rigg: From Mrs Peel to Mrs Bradley. The book was in the publisher’s catalogue listed for ‘next year’ back in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 … Once a year the commissioning editor would write to Slartibartfast and enquire whether the manuscript was going to be delivered this year – and every year Slartibartfast would reply ‘about this time next year’. Of course the book never materialised, so after about a decade the publisher cancelled the contract. This was not very good news for Slartibartfast, who had already been granted two periods of sabbatical leave by their university to write the book but for whatever reason hadn’t quite managed to get around to finishing it. They were due to apply for another sabbatical, but the university committee that approves these things insisted on having a publishing contract. So Slartibartfast offered the book to another publisher. However, the commissioning editor had been at a conference a few years before, where they had sunk a few Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters with Slartibartfast’s previous commissioning editor … Needless to say, Decoding the Semiotics of Diana Rigg remains unpublished to this day.

10. The Next Book

Your first book is special. Rather like a batsman’s first century or an athlete’s first marathon. You might write better books in the future. In theory we should all write better books in the future as we should be improving and maturing as scholars all the time. I guarantee that in twenty years’ time you’ll look back and think you could do it so much better now. Maybe that’s so. But it’s still a great milestone to publish that first book – and hopefully this blog will have provided a few pointers to getting there.

But it’s often the second book that defines you as a scholar. For most (not all – but most) early career academics, your first book will have been closely related to the subject of your PhD thesis. Your second book will be a new project – and probably the first you’ve undertaken without the comfort blanket of a supervisor to offer advice, tea and biscuits, or Château Dillon ’85. The question you’ll have to decide for yourself (there’s no right or wrong answer) is whether to do something that’s similar to and builds upon your first book, or whether to follow the advice of Monty Python (‘And here’s for something completely different …’). I don’t mean that you’ll suddenly switch from Media History to Quantum Physics: but it might mean going from textual analysis to reception studies or from British cinema history to American cinema history.

THE INSIDE TRACK. My first book (The British at War) was the book of my PhD: expanded and broadened out but essentially based on the same research. (Yes, I do think I could do a much better job of it now …). Towards the end of the writing process I’d started sketching out a book that would explore the representation of national identity in the British historical film: something that grew out of the first book but expanded the time period. Over lunch with my commissioning editor we happened to get chatting about the James Bond movies and she persuaded me to put aside what became Past and Present and write Licence To Thrill next instead. For some time I’d had in mind writing a book on the Bond movies but I was saving it for when I was ‘ready’ (whatever that means). Anyway, this was the best publishing advice I ever had, and I’m thankful I took it, as it meant that Licence was published before the expansion of Bond scholarship a decade later and became a point of reference leading to other offers, keynote invitations, media commissions, etc. I duly published the historical films book a few years later: total sales are a fraction of those for the Bond book. The moral of the story is to listen to publishers: they know the market better than you do.

James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

How to prepare for your viva: 8 useful tips

Agata Frymus

21 June 2018


1: Read your thesis

No matter how many times you have done it before, reading your thesis a week or two before the viva is always a good idea. Although I have proofread my thesis several times before the submission, this time my focus shifted: rather than looking for spelling mistakes, typos and missing references, I concentrated on the quality of my argument. What are the research questions posed in each chapter? What are the main findings? And, most importantly, how could this work be improved?

To make sure I actively engaged with the ideas developed by the thesis, I highlighted some parts of the texts and made notes. I also produced a rather short document in which I summarised each of my eight chapters (as well as the introduction and conclusion) according to the following criteria:

  • Key arguments and findings
  • Methodology and scholarship used
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses

Thinking about my work in those fairly broad terms helped me to understand how to explain it to those who might not be familiar with the specificity of my subject. Additionally, it enabled me to reflect on the potential shortcomings of the research I conducted, which proved instructive during the viva discussion. Although this might sound like a laborious process, let me assure you that it was not. I have spent about a week (if not less) reading the thesis and making notes, and it wasn’t even the only thing I was occupied by (which brings me to my next point).

Part of the table/ document I produced as I was re-reading my thesis

2: Don’t over prepare 

How long is one supposed to spend on viva preparation? Given the importance of the examination, you might be tempted to think that the longer the better, right? Well…not exactly. After all, everyone I talked to (see point 4) admitted they regretted spending too much time on the prep. Even though I have heard stories of PhDs devoting a month – or more –  solely to viva-related study, I decided to be sensible and spend no longer than two weeks on preparations. Two weeks in which my mind won’t be occupied by anything else but the viva. When I shared my plan with my supervisor, he deemed it extravagant. ‘How long do you need to read something?’, he asked, and I’m glad he did. The thing is, as a PhD student you have spent at least three years researching your topic. At this point, you are the expert in your chosen field; it is probably fair to assume that you do not need weeks and weeks of additional study. You have already done the groundwork. Be confident in your knowledge.

3: Think about the potential questions

One of the best things you can do to maximize your chances of a confident viva performance is to consider the potential viva questions and the way in which you could approach them. There are plenty of websites that provide you with sample discussion points that are likely to be raised by your examiners and most of them are broad enough to be applicable to your thesis, regardless of the specificity of your topic. I used these and these as starting points. Considering the questions in advance will add to your confidence as you will be less likely to be taken by surprise. If you do, however, end up being mildly shocked by the question asked by the examiner, do not panic. It is perfectly fine to take some time to gather your thoughts, or even write main points down on a piece of paper if the question is more complex.

Some of the questions I have been asked at the beginning of my viva included:

  1. Why have you chosen these particular stars as your case studies? What sparked your interest in them?
  2. How did you go about conducting your research?
  3. What are the differences between researching print copies of fan magazines and the online/ digitised versions?

Most of the questions, however, related to specific paragraphs and passages from my thesis. The worksheet I produced as part of the prep process (see point 1), enabled me to anticipate criticism and answer such questions without feeling like I’m losing my ground.

You don’t necessarily need to write your answers down either: one of my friends told me they went on long walks during which their pondered the potential discussion points and subsequent responses.

4: Talk to people who have passed their viva

The views expressed by those who have successfully passed their viva seemed to share a similar tone: it’s nothing to worry about, it’s nowhere as scary as you think it will be, it will be fine, and so on. This, in itself, is quite reassuring. Talking to friends and colleagues about their experiences, however, might give you some interesting insights too. I really dreaded questions relating to the critical choices I made in the process of compiling my thesis: why have I chosen this star/ fan magazine, and not a different one? How should I explain something that was, in many respects, not only an analytical, but also a personal choice? What I understood as a result of those conversations was that simple, honest answers (‘these specific fan magazines are easily available in the digital form and are searchable’/ ‘Pola Negri has something of a cult status in Poland, where I come from’) are often the best ones.

5: Arrange a mock viva

It’s a truism, I know, but confidence is key. Even if you have conducted high quality research, your points will not come across particularly strong if you mumble or are not able to express yourself clearly. Before presenting any paper or a lecture I always, always make sure I practice my presentation in front of friends, family members or anyone who is willing to listen. This gives me a better understanding of how I will behave under pressure, because a certain amount of stress is always there, no matter if I present in front of my boyfriend or an academic audience of 30.

Therefore, I think it is crucial to run a mock viva as part of one’s preparation. It will not always increase your confidence at the actual thing, but it will also give you some useful feedback regarding your answers and performance. For example, my mock viva – which I organised with a fellow PhD student and my supervisor as examiners – made me realise that I need to be more explicit when talking about my methodology, starting with more general terms. Although I have explained the importance of post-colonialism, critical race studies and feminism in structuring my approach, I failed to mention gender and film studies, which are much broader and probably more important categories. Secondly, the feedback I received as the result of this exercise boosted my confidence. Despite the fact my heart was racing/ my hands were shaking/ I felt very anxious, neither of my mock examiners noticed any of it. At the end, the mock examination turned out to be much more stressful than the real one!

Alternatively, you can arrange a mock viva with friends, or even video record your answers on your phone. Whilst watching yourself might sound painful, it could show you that you never come across as bad as you think you do. It’s scientifically proven.

6: Know your examiners

I find interviews/ examinations/ any form of discussion less threatening if I have met the person doing the questioning. This might not work as effectively for everyone, but somehow meeting one of the examiners in person beforehand – even if that meant simply knowing their tone of voice and general demeanour – made me feel much more confident in myself. If you feel the same way, I would suggest you try to meet your examiners in an informal setting. They will probably be fine with a coffee sometime before the viva, as long as you explain your reasoning and stay away from discussing your PhD and the viva itself.

7: Relax

My viva took place on Tuesday. I spent the last couple of days leading too it doing absolutely nothing in terms of preparation, assuming, rather correctly, that it will achieve little more than stress me out.  I went to see a friend over the weekend (we made vegan burritos) and stayed at another friends’ house the night before, watching First Dates. I know that people deal with stress differently, but for me, preparing earlier and then taking my mind off the viva was the best thing I could do. Have a bath/ go on a hike/ exercise the night before; whatever works.

Source: phdcomics.com

8: And finally… Enjoy it!

The viva is a rare opportunity to discuss your research with two people who not only have read your thesis in its entirety, but who are also likely to be specialists in your field. Make the most of the opportunity it offers, and enjoy yourself as you do; after all, you produced a valuable piece of work and there is no reason why you should not feel happy about it.

Agata Frymus is a Marie Skłodowska Curie post-doctoral fellow at University of Ghent, Belgium, where she works on black cinemagoing in the 1920s and 1930s.​ Her main research interests include silent film, classical Hollywood and the history of gender and race representations in American culture. Agata’s work has been published in Celebrity Studies JournalEarly Popular Visual Culture and the ​Historical Journal of  Radio, Film and Television.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

‘Mr Bond, the Doctor will see you now …’ Applying for academic posts in film and media

James Chapman, University of Leicester

30August 2017


We all know it’s a competitive environment for academic posts at the moment – especially for early career scholars. It’s not unusual to have over a hundred applications for a new lectureship. This might lead people to think that the odds are stacked against them. But there’s a lot you can do to reduce those odds very significantly in your favour.

This blog offers a few tips from the ‘other side’, so to speak, in preparing your job applications for university posts. My aim is to explain how university appointment panels go about assessing applicants.  It’s particularly focused towards early career scholars in film and media applying for academic positions in the United Kingdom. There’ll be later blogs with similar advice focusing on the European and North American contexts.

Developing your CV

Your CV – curriculum vitae (or in American parlance your resumé) – is a document that lists your academic qualifications, employment history, teaching experience, skills and competences, research and publications, and other relevant information. It should be a purely factual document: the discursive stuff comes in your letter of application or personal statement.

Your CV should include the following information:

  • Your personal details: full name, contact details, and nationality (for the UK you do not need to include your age/date of birth as this is not relevant under UK employment law).
  • Your academic qualifications in an unambiguous manner: i.e. title of qualification, level where appropriate, awarding institution, date of award in reverse chronological order.
  • Your previous employment history listing positions, institutions and dates of employment in reverse chronological order.
  • Your teaching experience: a list of modules/subjects you’ve taught and the nature of the teaching (lectures, seminars, tutorials, workshops, dissertation supervision, etc).
  • Any administrative experience: e.g. programme leader, year tutor, exams officer, accessibility tutor, etc.
  • Any publications and/or conference papers.

Obviously your CV needs to be accurate and up to date: for that reason it’s a good idea to develop it as you go along rather than writing it from scratch the day before the application deadline.

It’s important to understand that appointment panels do not expect applicants for lectureships to be the ‘complete article’: we are more interested in what you do have to offer rather than what you don’t. One person will have more teaching experience, another may have more publications. We won’t expect anyone who has not yet held a full-time academic post to have any experience of administration, for example.

Sometimes early career scholars are concerned that their CV doesn’t have much on it, and so they flesh it out with extra stuff that’s either discursive or not so relevant. Believe me, though, from the appointment panel’s point of view, when you have 150 of these to read, a concise two-page document is very welcome!

When it comes to your teaching experience, differentiate between modules that you have designed and convened, and those where you have been a lecturer and/or seminar tutor on an existing module convened by someone else. Experience of curriculum design is a particularly helpful asset – as is experience of supervising undergraduate or postgraduate dissertations – though appointment panels understand that early career scholars might not have such experience. Generally speaking, breadth of teaching experience – whether convening modules or teaching on existing modules – is an advantage.

When it comes to publications, I’m going to be more interested in quality than quantity. One or two articles in highly-respected peer-reviewed journals are worth as much or more than half a dozen chapters in edited collections. And an authored monograph (or a co-authored monograph) – or a contract for a monograph – generally carries more weight than an edited collection.

Some common mistakes on CVs

Your CV will be the first thing I look at in your application, so it’s worth while taking some trouble to present it clearly and accurately. And by ‘accurately’, I mean ACCURATELY.

If I encounter any of the following I’m probably not going to proceed much further with your application:

  • Weird and wonderful fonts: Times New Roman 12-point is the default standard unless there is a specific reason (e.g. dyslexia) for using another font. If you use a tiny font to squeeze more into a proscribed length, don’t expect me to bother reading it.
  • Any font colour other than black: ditto.
  • Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors: these do not impress in a job where written communication is a key skill. (I’ve seen CVs where the candidate has misspelled the name of an awarding institution or a publisher, for example: I’ve even seen CVs where the candidate has spelled their name differently from the application form.)
  • Ambiguity: e.g. ‘I have an article with the Journal of ABC’ – but what does this mean? Does it mean that you have submitted an article to the journal, that the editor has confirmed it has been sent for review, that it’s been accepted subject to amendments, that you’re awaiting proofs, or that it’s in production? BE SPECIFIC! Otherwise – schlock! (that’s the sound your CV makes as it hits the inside of the waste paper basket).
  • Writing about yourself in the third person (e.g. ‘Michael Vaughan is a former England captain and Test batsman who once attracted ridicule for referring to himself in the third person in a newspaper interview …’)
  • A list of ‘publications’ that turns out to be a list of the 27 book reviews you’ve written. Include the names of journals for which you’ve written book reviews by all means: please don’t list all the books you’ve reviewed.
  • Listing the same conference paper six times from different conferences: once will suffice.
  • Photographs: do not include a photograph on an academic CV. Even if you are fortunate enough to look like Cary Grant or Grace Kelly, we’re not appointing you for your stunning good looks but for your all-round excellence in teaching and research. (And if you don’t look like Cary Grant or Grace Kelly, I don’t want nightmares!)

Surveying the field

OK, so you’ve got your CV ready, now you need posts for which to apply. Most academic jobs in the UK are now advertised on www.jobs.ac.uk rather than in traditional print sources such as the Times Higher Education Supplement. Check it regularly or sign up for new post alerts. You can set the filters according to subject area, level and teaching and/or research posts. It’s also worthwhile subscribing to mailing lists such as BAFTSS and MeCCSA.

Given the time needed to prepare a good application, you need to be selective – but not too selective so that you limit your opportunities. Obviously there is no point in applying for senior academic positions such as Chairs or even Senior Lectureships if you’ve only recently been awarded your PhD.

Read job specifications carefully – especially what’s designated as ‘essential’ and what’s ‘desirable’. Usually a PhD is essential – particularly if the post involves research – though often the specification might say ‘PhD or equivalent’ which means relevant professional experience (e.g. if you’re a film-maker) or publications (a research monograph). It’s generally okay to apply if you’ve submitted your PhD or are very close to submitting it, but ensure that your CV is specific: e.g. ‘PhD thesis due to be submitted at the end of September 2017’ or ‘PhD thesis submitted – awaiting viva’ or ‘PhD examined and passed subject to major/minor amendments’.

Don’t be too concerned if you don’t tick all the boxes on the person specification: no applicant ever will. The person specification is a fairly general guideline.

Generally speaking there are several different kinds of posts:

  • Lectureships: usually involving both teaching and research. You will be expected to do both – but don’t be too surprised if teaching is more of a priority.
  • Teaching fellowships: usually focused on delivering lectures and seminars, including existing core modules, options or special subjects and dissertation supervision.
  • Postdoctoral research fellowships: often attached to grant-funded projects and usually for a fixed term (three years) which privilege research and publication.

Bear in mind that if you only want to do research, you will significantly limit your opportunities.

There might be an email contact for preliminary enquiries: don’t be afraid to use if you have a sensible question (e.g. something that isn’t covered in the job description or an ambiguity) as that will stick in my mind when it comes to shortlisting.

Finally, it’s a fact of academic life today that many posts are fixed-term contracts, often as teaching cover for maternity leave or to take over someone’s modules when they have secured a research grant. The peripatetic lifestyle can be frustrating and the situation is far from ideal. But bear in mind that once you are in post, the experience of teaching and administration that you gain makes it much easier to get onto shortlists for permanent posts when they come available.

Making an application

The first thing to understand is the purpose of the application. It is not to get you the job – that comes at the interview stage. The purpose of the application is to get you to the interview stage.

Let’s say that I have 150 applications for a lectureship: from those I need a shortlist of four or five to call for interview. My first job is to narrow those 150 applications down to a ‘long list’ of around a dozen. This means that in effect I am looking for reasons to reject most applications.

Here are a few examples of a fast-track to the reject pile:

  • Spelling or grammatical errors: if you can’t be bothered to take the trouble to proof read your application, I will assume that your approach to teaching will be similarly sloppy. And therefore I have no interest in interviewing you. Goodbye.
  • Generic applications: a good application will always be tailored specifically to the post and institution. I’m not interested in an application that more or less amounts to ‘here is a list of reasons why I’m so brilliant’. No: I want to know what you can offer to my school or department. I expect you to have to have done your homework by looking at our curriculum, noting where your teaching and research complement ours, and identifying what you offer that we don’t do. Specify which of our existing programmes and modules you could contribute to, and what new modules and options you could offer.
  • The same applies to applications that are mostly generic, topped and tailed with a couple of specific paragraphs. I wasn’t born yesterday!
  • Ditto cut-and-paste applications: if your application to the University of Peladon says that you would appreciate the opportunity of working at the University of Skaro, don’t be too surprised if the University of Peladon throws your application straight into Aggedor’s pit!

  • Discussing your research in an application for a teaching post: if we’re appointing a teaching fellow then research is not part of the job description. (However, you can cleverly slip this in by talking about how your teaching is informed by research: e.g. how you would design an optional module or special subject.)
  • Lack of familiarity with our curriculum: you should be able to look up degree programmes and module titles online. There’s not much point in offering an option or special subject that duplicates one we already have.
  • Repetition: your CV should list all the modules you’ve taught, so there’s no need to repeat this information in your personal statement or letter of application. Instead use this space to talk about your approach to teaching, how you seek to engage students, what type of assessment methods you use, etc.
  • Broken rubric: if the application form says ‘attach a separate curriculum vitae’ then a candidate who does not attach a separate curriculum vitae will be binned. If you can’t follow the rubric on an application form, what chance do you have of securing a research grant?
  • Bullshit: ‘I am a world-renowned scholar with a reputation for the highest levels of excellence in teaching and an unparalleled research profile that includes a visiting professorship at the University of Gallifrey …’ No: you’re a recently qualified PhD student. (Remember that I’m an academic too: I can smell bullshit from three miles downwind. After all, I’ve spouted plenty of it in my time …)
  • Sycophancy: ‘I humbly beseech you to consider my application for your most esteemed institution as I know that I will benefit from the intellectual guidance of your scholarly excellence Professor Dr Jones …’ Oh puh-lease. Goodbye-ee!

At this point I have probably whittled down my 150 applications to around a quarter …

So what am I looking for in a good application?

  • A candidate who has done their homework and whose application reads as if they’ve read the job description (you’d be surprised how many don’t!) and has done some basic research into the nature of the department and our degree programmes.
  • An applicant who explains what they can offer to us (rather than just talking about themselves with little or no reference to the post).
  • Someone who has ideas: e.g. about additions to our curriculum, innovations in teaching and assessment strategy, potential research collaborations, etc. (Note that they don’t necessarily have to be original ideas – in all likelihood we’ve already thought of these things ourselves – but we want to see evidence of independent critical thinking.)

An unsuccessful applicant once complained to me that it was not possible to tailor an application to a particular institution because it took too much time to do the research and write a covering letter: I pointed out in response that he was competing against people who were willing to take the time and effort to do so – and they were the people who were going to get shortlisted.

When writing a letter of application or a personal statement, you should take your lead from the job description. For example, if it mentions ‘teaching and research’ then you should discuss your teaching first; vice versa if it mentions ‘research and teaching’. (As a rule of thumb most lectureships in the UK – unless they are specifically designated as ‘teaching-only’ or ‘teaching-dominant’ posts – are teaching and research. But bear in mind that unless you are fortunate enough to be holding a research grant, then your salary will be funded from tuition fee income: for this reason it tends to be that teaching is often prioritised in short listing applicants. Another way of thinking about it is thus: we’re going to take it for granted that all applicants are excellent research scholars who will be publishing and making grant applications: what I’m often looking for in a lecturer is someone who can do all the first-year teaching that I don’t want to do …)

The more effort you take in your application, the better chance you have of getting onto the long list. And once you’re on the long list, you’re only one ‘sorry I can’t attend for interview on that day’ away from being on the shortlist.

At the interview itself

There are a few obvious things that are de rigeur, such as turning up on time for the interview and bringing any documents (e.g. passport) that you’ve been asked to provide.

Practical basics:

  • Dress appropriately. Generally there is no dress code in academia – we’re (mostly) a quite liberal and tolerant bunch. But leave behind the fancy dress, and no plunging necklines or microskirts please. You’re looking to impress as a scholar: your ‘I dig the Pope, he smokes dope’ tee-shirt doesn’t necessarily create the right impression.
  • Nod politely and make eye contact as each member of the interview panel is introduced: we don’t expect you to remember who we all are while your heart is pumping at 130 beats a minute.
  • As a rule of thumb, wait to see if the interviewer/s offer their hands to shake: whatever you do, don’t walk around the table to offer to shake hands with someone.
  • Each member of the panel will ask you questions: focus your reply to the individual while occasionally turning your head to include the other panel members.
  • If you’re stumped by a question, it’s okay to say ‘Do you mind if I collect my thoughts on that for a moment?’ before answering. (Obviously keep the moment as brief as possible – 20 seconds is about the maximum before it becomes uncomfortable. And don’t use that line for any ‘predictable’ questions you should have thought about in advance.)
  • You need to find a balance between monosyllabic yes/no answers and verbal diarrhoea: interview panels don’t want applicants who clam up but nor do we want to sit listening to the same point being made three times in a slightly different way. As a rule of thumb: if you’re still talking after two minutes, it’s probably a good idea to conclude.
  • Avoid ‘funny’ jokes. You think they’re funny. The interview panel do not.
  • Sometimes candidates want to leave a copy of something (their seminar plan or lecture slides or something) with the panel at the end of the interview. We will nod politely and let you leave it – but we’re not going to look at it. Save your printer ink.
  • DO NOT PLACE RESTRICTIONS ON YOUR AVAILABILITY: The candidate who says they don’t teach on Fridays or can’t make meetings on Wednesday afternoons or who has to leave campus by three o’clock in the afternoon is not going to be appointed.

Sometimes there might be a separate presentation and interview – on other occasions you might be asked to prepare a presentation as part of the interview. The presentation might ask you to talk about your research, it might want you to discuss your approach to teaching, or it might ask both. The real purpose of the presentation is to assess your skills of oral communication: i.e. how good a lecturer will you be? This is the case even if you are asked to talk about your research: bear in mind that you will probably be speaking to a ‘lay’ audience including students and staff from other disciplines than your own. Your ability to communicate clearly and to explain complex ideas and concepts in an accessible way is what is being tested.

DO NOT READ OUT POWERPOINT SLIDES. THE PEOPLE ON THE INTERVIEW PANEL CAN ALL READ. WE DO NOT NEED AN INTERLOCUTOR. (If you do this in an interview, we will assume that your lectures will be the same …)

Whether or not the presentation is separate from the interview, you will be given a time limit, which you should observe. If you overrun your time – don’t expect to get the job. (Why is this? Remember that the real purpose of the presentation is to assess your lecturing ability. You will be expected to plan and structure your lectures so that you can deliver them in a specific time slot. You might think that your discussion of the aesthetics of American horror cinema of the 1980s is the most fascinating subject in the world – but your colleague waiting outside the door to deliver their lecture on the constitutional law of seventeenth-century England does not …)

It’s often said that interviewers make up their minds about candidates within the first 30 seconds/two minutes of the interview. This is not strictly true. But first impressions do matter. You might not necessarily know after two minutes if you do want to employ someone – but you sure know if you don’t.

The sort of questions you might expect

No two interviews are ever the same – different institutions and different departments will have different priorities at different times. Do your research in advance by reading the job description and familiarising yourself with the department. You’re unlikely to know in advance who will be on the interview panel but – in the UK at any rate – you can reasonably predict that there will be a mixture of academics in the field (in this case film and media studies) and others from related subjects in the Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences.

That said there are some general areas where you can reasonably predict the sort of questions you’ll be asked: these are likely to focus on your skills and competences, your teaching experience and your research.

Avoid having what seem like ‘pat’ answers by the way: always seem as if you are thinking through the issues as you speak even if you are reciting them from your memory card.

The following list assumes a teaching and research post (and with apologies in advance to specialists in the field of contemporary Argentinian women film directors …).

Q. Tell me about your research.

This is what in cricketing parlance is known as a gentle long hop: it’s an easy question to put the candidate at their ease and get them talking. Any decent candidate ought to be able to speak with authority, clarity and enthusiasm about their own research. You should be able to summarise the topic, research questions, methodology and conclusions of your PhD in around two minutes.

That said bear in mind that sometimes batsmen do get out to long hops: if your answer is unfocused or rambling or doesn’t demonstrate intellectual engagement with the subject, then I’m already wondering whether you are the right person to engage students in your teaching. (In other words – a question ostensibly your research might also be assessing your teaching skills.)

The real purpose of this question is not for me to learn about your research but rather to test your ability to answer clearly and concisely for a lay audience (the panel member who asks a general research-related question might not be a subject specialist).

Q. Why have you applied for this post?

In contrast this is a fast bouncer on leg stump directed at your head – in other words it’s the killer question. It’s the academic equivalent of the ‘Kobayashi Maru’ test in Star Trek (the ‘Kobayashi Maru’ is a no-win situation that’s used to test the character and mettle of potential starship captains). The panel can’t answer the question either. But we want to see how you respond to it.

That said there are good and bad answers to the question. Obviously ‘Because I need the job’ or ‘I need the money’ are bad answers (believe it or not, that hasn’t prevented candidates from using them in interviews – DON’T!!!) So too – for those who are already holding academic posts – is ‘I want to get out of my current department because I’ve been overlooked for promotion/my colleagues don’t appreciate me’. The interview panel wants to know the reasons that are pulling you to us – not the reasons that are pushing you out of your current employment.

Good answers will take it as an opportunity to explain what you offer to us: how your teaching and research fit the department’s strategic objectives (these will be outlined in the blurb that accompanies the job description). It’s an opportunity for you to show that you’ve done your homework about the university and the school/department. Demonstrate that you know something about the institution and its objectives. It’s good if there’s a particular thing we do that corresponds with your interests – it might be our schools outreach programme or our film and media history research group – then explain how you can contribute to it.

In other words this is not a question about you: it’s about what you can do for us.

Q. Why do you think you are qualified for this post?

This is a more benign version of the previous question though it invites you to focus more on your skills, competences, knowledge and interests. What it’s really testing is whether you have familiarised yourself with the job description and have thought how your skills match it.

Q. Why do you want to become an academic?

This is one of my favourites because it gives interview panels an insight into what sort of person you are beyond your CV. What is it about this profession that attracts you? What do you want to contribute to your field? A commitment to intellectual endeavour and the dissemination of knowledge is a good answer. Long summer holidays and expenses-paid foreign travel are not. (The long summer holidays are a myth, by the way, and any travel you are lucky enough to get reimbursed, if at all, will be in cattle class by the ‘most economical route’ …)

Q. How do you go about engaging students in your teaching?

This is more or less a carte blanche to talk about your teaching – and you should certainly use it as an opportunity to discuss your approach to the classroom and all the exciting new innovations that you will bring. I’m going to expect you to wax lyrical about how enthusiastic you are about the world’s most exciting subject of contemporary Argentinian women film directors. But realistically I want you to acknowledge that not all your students will necessarily think the same. You need to strike a balance between an idealistic and a cynical view of students.

Q. How does your research inform your teaching?

This is your opportunity to pitch your option module on contemporary Argentinian women film directors.

Q. What other subjects can you offer?

Basically I want to know that you can teach an ‘Introduction to Film History’ or an ‘Approaches to Textual Analysis’ module without making every week about contemporary Argentinian women film directors.

Q. Can you do a first-year lecture on Citizen Kane?

If you can’t, then you’re not employable. Never mind if your PhD is on contemporary Argentinian women film directors – or for that matter on new media or online fandom or digital special effects – and has no connection to Citizen Kane whatsoever: if you can’t put together a first-year lecture on Citizen Kane, then you have no business applying for a lectureship in film.

We’re probably looking for someone who can teach the core topics of film history. Whatever the subject of your own research, you need to be able to teach the core stuff.

Q. How do you think can we address the learning needs of different types of students?

You can interpret ‘different types of students’ however you want – International students for whom English is not their first language, for example, or students from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds – but what we’re looking for is an understanding that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching generally does not work well in the classroom. It’s also an opportunity for you to show that you are aware of issues around access and equal opportunities in HE.

Q. How would you differentiate between undergraduate and postgraduate teaching?

Bear in mind that appointment panels probably don’t expect you to have any experience of postgraduate teaching if you haven’t held a full-time academic post. But you’ve almost certainly taken a taught postgraduate degree yourself, so think about the differences in teaching strategy from your undergraduate degree. Good answers tend to include points such as a greater emphasis on independent learning, the ability to plan and write a research-based dissertation, etc.

Q. How do you want to develop your research beyond your PhD?

This is not actually a question about your research – it’s testing your ability to think strategically. I want to know that you are able to move beyond the very narrow focus of your PhD in order to develop your research career. So, if your PhD was on three contemporary Argentinian women film directors, I’m not going to be very impressed if your next project is looking at another three contemporary Argentinian women film directors – this suggests no intellectual imagination. But I would be interested in, say, a historical study of women film directors in South America, or a comparative study between contemporary women film directors in Argentina and other countries and/or continents, as this is the sort of project that has potential for collaborative work with other scholars, other institutions, and might lead to research network grants, for example.

In other words show that you are looking to develop your research beyond your PhD, rather than setting out on a topic that sounds like just another PhD.

Q. What are your plans for publication over the next five years?

In the UK this sort of question will probably be related to planning for the REF (Research Excellence Framework). It’s reasonable to expect applicants to have realistic publication plans that have some basis in actuality. Don’t be vague: e.g. ‘I’m looking to publish my PhD as a monograph and a couple of journal articles.’ Be specific: e.g. ‘I’m developing a monograph proposal based on my PhD which I intend to submit in the first instance to this publisher for their series on women film-makers. I am also writing an article to submit to this particular journal.’

Q. Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

This is about your career aspirations: I want to know that you are ambitious and that your ambitions will fit the strategic plan of the department/school. I don’t really want to appoint anyone who will be content to stand still. Most people will answer in relation to their research: it’s a good idea to show that you are thinking of the other projects you will move onto once you’ve exhausted the possibilities of South American women film-makers. But don’t forget your teaching: interview panels generally like to hear candidates saying there are looking to improve as scholars and to expand the range and nature of their teaching. It’s also a good opportunity for you to talk about any ‘special pidgeons’ (Brief Encounter reference!) of yours: e.g. are you interested in developing distance learning initiatives or in outreach activities with schools, are you interested in leading ‘improvement projects’ or ‘task and finish groups’ relating to recruitment, teaching and assessment strategies, curriculum development, etc?

Do NOT say ‘I want to be a Senior Lecturer in five years and hold a Chair in ten’. You might – if you’re very, very good – achieve this: but if you do, it will as a result of doing the sort of things described above.

Q. Why does film/media studies or film/media history matter?

This is asking whether you can be an advocate for your subject. Or even better an evangelist.

We all understand that the social and economic benefits of Arts and Humanities subjects are less tangible than the hard sciences (we’re never going to discover a cure for cancer or solve the problem of climate change) but you do need to show that you can speak for your subject – which will come in useful in applying for research grants (remember the current emphasis on research ‘impact’) or persuading students (and moreover their parents) that this is a subject that can lead to a satisfying career.

Q. How would you pitch film studies or film/media history to potential students at an Open Day?

The same question but specifically geared to recruitment (and bear in mind that as a new member of staff you are likely to be expected to participate in recruitment activities). A good point here is to bear in mind that Open Days that your audience is not just potential students but also their parents. Expect questions (from the parents) on how studying a ‘soft’ subject will help get a job.

Q. How do you see the future of your discipline?

I’m interested in whether you can spot wider subject trends and developments: i.e. that you have a broad-based knowledge of the field beyond your own narrow bubble. And that you can identify potential opportunities and challenges in the future: e.g. relating to student recruitment or securing research funding. There are no ‘right or wrong’ answers here – I want to know how you see the subject developing over the coming years, and how you might help to shape it.

Q. If you were offered the post, do you think you would accept it?

There is only one answer you should give here: YES! (with an audible exclamation mark). If you show any equivocation, the panel will assume that you are applying for the post as leverage in your current position – and that means our interest in you as a candidate diminishes severely.

You can possibly get away with bartering once in an academic career, but bear in mind that word gets around … and once you’ve done it, you’ll probably never get shortlisted again.

Sometimes people say ‘Well, I’ll need to discuss it with my partner/family.’ Still the wrong answer. If you’ve been shortlisted, you should have had that conversation before the interview.

It’s perfectly acceptable to say that you are currently contracted until such-and-such a date, or that your current contract requires you to give so many months notice. If you’re the right person for the job, we’re not going to worry about a couple of months on the start date.

Q. Finally, are there any questions you would like to ask us?

This is the best-disguised googlie (or maybe it’s a doosra?) in the history of cricket. It seems so benign. But many a candidate has come unstuck at this stage. Do not ask me basic questions that you could have answered by looking at our website. (There’s a story – possibly apocryphal – that an applicant to the University of Oxford asked which bus he should catch for the rail station.)

AND UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES ASK: ‘How many days a week would I need to be on campus?’ This question translates as: ‘I have no intention of moving to your crummy town or city and I think I can commute from Timbuktu and be there for just half the week.’

So what are good questions to ask? Anything that’s about the ambitions of the university or school/department that isn’t very specific in the general blurb.

And finally …

Believe it or not, there are instances of candidates who have managed to talk themselves out of a post AFTER being offered the job.

I’m writing here from the interviewer’s perspective. The first thing we do after the interview is decide whether any candidates are not appointable. That will take individuals out of the equation if they’ve had a real car crash of an interview. But it might be that we have three or four perfectly appointable candidates. So we rank the remaining candidates in order of preference. It’s quite unusual that an interview panel of five or six people all have the same ranking – and quite often the differences between individual candidates will be marginal. So we will discuss all the appointable candidates and agree on a first choice; but in all likelihood we’ll have a second and maybe a third choice as well.

So you get the phone call to offer you the job. This is not the moment to be equivocal about accepting it: your conversations with your family about relocating should have taken place before the interview. Nor is it the time to say that you can’t teach Citizen Kane after all or you don’t work Fridays or your care responsibilities mean that you can’t attend meetings after 3 p.m. The time to tell us this was during the interview (indeed preferably on the application).

You WERE our first choice. But we have a second choice and the decision might have been very marginal. If you start laying down conditions after the interview, then we might just decide to take the chance that our second choice won’t be such a royal pain in the arse.


James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. He reckons he has applied for around a dozen academic posts in his lifetime, has been interviewed five times and got the job twice. He regularly sits on interview panels across a range of subjects and has seen some excellent candidates, many good ones, and a few who were so diabolically awful that he thought he was taking part in a Candid Camera experiment.



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