the importance of doing your homework

I’ve just been involved in selecting for a postdoctoral bursary and a PhD studentship.

In both instances some of the people who applied had good ideas, the kinds of track records that garnered attention, and wrote well structured applications about researchable topics. So that was enough to get them to the short-list and to an interview.

But also in both instances I was pretty shocked when it quickly become apparent that very few of the hopefuls had done their homework. They hadn’t really checked out who was interviewing them, for what and where – and if they had, they hadn’t thought about what that might mean in terms of what they wanted to do.

Now I wasn’t looking for someone to tell me that they wanted to come to a Russell Group university, or that they wanted to work with me or my colleage because we did fantabulous work. We did hear both those things and it made us embarrassed. Sucking up really doesn’t go down well with most interviewers and it’s definitely to be avoided unless you are really completely and absolutely sure that the people you are talking to like to be flattered.

I was looking for something else. I was looking for connections. Let me explain.

If I am to supervise and/or mentor someone, then I want to know that there is something in what they have to offer that I think is worthwhile and interesting AND that can contribute to and extend the work that I and colleagues already undertake. I’m looking for potential synergies and for the ways in which the proposed research will contribute to the research networks and centre of which I’m part.

So if you are applying for a studentship or postdoc with me then I expect you to persuade me that there are these kinds of connections. And you can only do this if you actually know what it is that I do.

In order to understand what I and my colleagues do you need to do some homework. You need to check out my university webpage. What am I researching? What am I writing about? What can you see which might tell you not only about what I’d find of interest but also what I’d really not be at all interested in? Maybe you need to check out a couple of things I’ve written. Maybe you need to look me up on or researchgate or on twitter. Who am I connected with? What is my research centre doing at present? What seminars does it hold?

This really won’t take long to do and will likely produce two results:

(1) It’ll reduce the possibility of you being seen as being disinterested. Doing this kind of investigation will help you to avoid the kinds of (dumb) questions at interview that can be interpreted as meaning that you haven’t even been bothered to take the time to find out anything about where you are applying to.

(2) It will position you positively. Take some time thinking about me as a reader and as an audience for your work. How can you explain what you want to do, given what you know about me? Rather than flatter me, engage me in a conversation that I will find so interesting that I will be convinced that you will make a great addition to the team.

So don’t think you’ve done enough when you are told that you have an interview. Now is the time to do the homework. It can pay off big time.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in conversation, homework, job interview, postdoc, scholarship, synergies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to the importance of doing your homework

  1. Alessandra says:

    Alternatively, you can do all your homework and then see the post-doc fellowship go the wife of a professor at the department…..


    • pat thomson says:

      Ew, thats nasty… That’s the other homework. The micropolitics. Much harder to do and relies on insider contacts… The stuff we don’t talk about but all know it’s there.


      • Alessandra says:

        That’s homework I refuse to do! I thought it was better in here than in Italy, but I realise that the only difference is that in Italy we are not so sanctimonious about it, and not such hypocrites as to pretend it does not happen. Oh yes, and of course in Italy it is more likely to be the mistress, not the wife…..


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