Our department at Aston University is thrilled to be recruiting up to two posts (at Lecturer or Senior Lecturer level), and this blog is intended to provide a bit of informal advice to prospective applicants, especially for the lecturership positions (though it may be useful background for those interested in other levels), about what we do, who we are, and the sort of things we will be looking for. There is then a short interview with Yaprak Gürsoy, who joined the department as Lecturer in Politics and International Relations last year.
First – a bit about our team. We are a medium-sized department, with 25 current staff (21 are full-time, one is part-time, and one splits her time between the Spanish Department and our own), excluding one colleague who heads our School, and another who is currently on sabbatical at the Foreign Office. Of those 25 staff, thirteen are men, twelve are women, and we are a diverse group in terms of our national backgrounds (with nationals of twelve different countries!). We would welcome greater ethnic diversity in our department. Several colleagues have young families, and all live either in Birmingham or within a sensible commuting distance. We encourage a diverse workforce including representation of staff with disabilities and will provide support and reasonable adjustments as needed. Aston is a ‘two ticks’ employer, which means that it has committed to offering an interview to all disabled applicants who meet the essential criteria for a vacancy. Four news colleagues in the 2016/17 year, six joined us for the 2017/18 year, and two in the course of the current year (2017/18) – this reflects the popularity of our department with students, and the university’s commitment to expanding our discipline.
Second – a bit about our students. Our student body is very diverse (as is the West Midlands region, in which we are based): at the undergraduate level, we attract a good range of students, both on our Single Honours course (Politics and International Relations) and in our joint honours courses (such as Politics and Economics, International Relations and Business, and International Relations and Modern Languages). These students are overwhelmingly from the state sector, and have scored highly in their A-levels. We strongly encourage them to undertake a work or study placement, either in the UK or abroad, in their penultimate year, and find this makes a real difference to their employability, which is very important to us at Aston. At postgraduate level, we have a good mix of students, and many come from continental Europe, often as part of our joint and double degrees with Rennes, Lille, Bamberg, and the Metropolitan University in Prague.
Third – a bit about working here. We are all active researchers, but our areas of specialism vary widely, as you will see from our staff profiles. Our standards are high – at the last REF, we entered under the “umbrella” of the Aston Centre for Europe in the Area Studies section, and were ranked the highest in this field outside London. We have recently become a Jean-Monnet Centre of Excellence. But it is important to remember that ACE, and our department, are “ecumenical”, and that we are not exclusively interested in European Studies. We have noticed that we have a relatively low proportion of staff with expertise in the use of quantitative research methods, and so strengthening this area of work could be valuable; one post is to replace a colleague who is moving to a different role closer to home, who had particular experience in International Relations. The truth is we are open to applications from any interesting sub-field of Politics and International Relations. We have a regular departmental seminar where a colleague presents “work in progress” and discusses it in a supportive environment. We are encouraged to bid for external funding from a variety of sources (and have had success from sources like the European Commission, Leverhulme, the German Academic Exchange Service and the ESRC in recent years), and comment on each other’s bids to give them the best chance of success.
We are also passionate teachers – staff regularly observe each other’s teaching, several colleagues have won prizes in this area, and we often compare notes on ways of teaching and keeping students engaged (for instance, students may do “simulations”, policy reports, role plays, group assignments and produce films as part of their courses). We take our MA students on an annual study visit to Brussels, and have also had regular study visits to London. There is no “typical” teaching load, but a colleague might expect to teach courses for around six hours per week during team time, to a mixture of larger and smaller groups, and in addition offer four hours a week of office hours, as well as time for dissertation supervision and meeting with personal tutees. Every member of staff is normally entitled to a “research day” each week, including during term time, when they would not be expected to teach or be at meetings.
We are all strong believers in keeping our discipline relevant to everyday life. So we hold regular lunchtime seminars for students and staff on current affairs, we often welcome visitors engaged in the practice of Politics and International Relations onto campus to talk with our students, and our team often write blogs aimed at an audience beyond academia. We host numerous events outside Birmingham as well – we have strong partnerships with a number of think tanks and regularly engage with Members of Parliament and other policy-makers. Several colleagues have also given oral evidence to Parliamentary committees, we are commissioned to provide training to British civil servants, and another colleague has recently been involved in providing research expertise to several governments of countries in Central Europe. For us, “impact” is about a lot more than ticking a box for external evaluation of universities!
If you are interested in applying (especially for the lecturership positions), here are some things to consider:
- The key document in shortlisting will be your answers to the questions online application form (which will be scored according to whether you have met our criteria), as well as your CV. Make sure you look carefully at our person specification before applying.
- We are likely to read well over 150 applications, and for that reason we need candidates to have a completed Ph.D., and evidence of “successful research publication”. This will probably involve having published, or at least advanced plans for, a book, and also some articles in peer reviewed journals, and far more weight will be given to publications which are published or accepted for publication than those which have not yet been accepted. Expectations clearly depend on how long you have been in the profession, and career breaks would be taken into account.
- Remember that we all regard our teaching as really important, as well as our research, and think about how you would ensure Aston students are really engaged in and excited about what they are learning.
- When thinking about income generation, by all means include good ideas for research grants (including those with collaborators outside Aston), but also think about whether there might be any new incomes streams you could develop for the department or ACE.
- We will involve the all staff and several students in recruitment, as shortlisted applicants will give a presentation to the whole department in the morning (including student representatives), and will then have an interview in the afternoon. In both these settings, you would want to show how you can get your message across clearly and succinctly, how you would engage students and colleagues, and how you would see yourself fitting in with our department (and possibly the Aston Centre for Europe). Normally the first question will be about why you want to work at Aston, so you’d want to give this some serious thought in advance. Since we pride ourselves on our practical, relevant research you can expect to be asked about this.
Two short practical notes: first, you may wonder why we require a completed Ph.D. (that is, viva passed and corrections if necessary accepted and signed off). In our experience, competition for these positions is quite fierce, and realistically it would not be possible for someone without a completed doctorate to be shortlisted. We know that these applications take a lot of time and energy, and it would not be fair to raise expectations with no realistic prospect of success. Secondly, for roles at Lecturer level, appointments tend to be made for five years in the first instance, with the expectation of renewal – this is a standard Aston University policy.
If you have any questions, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can catch up on the telephone or Skype if necessary afterwards.
Interview with Yaprak Gürsoy, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations
Why did you apply for the job at Aston?
I was looking for a position in the UK, and when I saw the post at Aston, I was particularly interested in it and motivated to apply. Politics and International Relations (PIR) was an expanding department at Aston. It had recruited colleagues in the past few years, and was looking to expand even more. This suggested to me that PIR was valued as a discipline within the university. Research and teaching in the department is not only focused on PIR, but also area studies. As someone who has done work on comparative politics with qualitative methods, I have always valued in-depth regional and country-specific knowledge. I knew that I would be among kindred spirits and my work would be appreciated at Aston. Finally, I thought that the application information documents, as well as the department chair’s blog, were very clear and detailed, giving me a good sense of the department, the research environment and the expectations. I already felt like I was a part of the university even before I started working!
What were your first impressions?
My first impressions of the PIR colleagues were very positive. It was astonishing to see such a warm welcome. Being in a new institution can be frustrating sometimes, especially when you are trying to settle in and understand how administrative processes work. The new challenges get compounded when you are also moving into a new city with your family (as I had to do). PIR colleagues were exceptionally supportive in all aspects of the transition process. From teaching related questions to private matters, I could always find someone patiently listening, giving advice and making helpful suggestions.
The department has a reputation for being quite focused on European politics, particularly the EU. Is that a fair assessment?
It is fair to say that the department is quite strong on European politics, but it would not be fair to say that we are focused only on European or EU politics. There are many colleagues who work on European countries, for instance on regional and local politics, but not necessarily the EU. Undergraduate students are offered modules on North American, South Asian and East Asian politics, which testifies to our diversity. We have at least three lecturers who work on Asian politics and everyone’s research touches upon broader questions of our discipline and is relevant for other regions as well.
How do you find the students?
I would say that Aston students are distinguished by their enthusiasm. Especially final year undergraduate students are eager to learn and take their studies, including their dissertations, seriously. It has also been a great experience to see that many students do not shy away from selecting difficult questions and focusing on parts of the world not covered in their classes in detail (such as Africa) for their dissertation projects. Postgraduate students have diverse national backgrounds, coming to Aston via exchange or joint programs. This diversity enhances the classroom experience for everyone involved. Aston University appreciates its students and the students know that they would always find someone to assist them with their studies. This mutual understanding creates an environment of respect and goodwill.
How do you juggle teaching and research commitments?
In academia, teaching and research are always difficult to juggle. In a new post, it might be particularly challenging in the first years to strike the right balance. But my experience is that Aston is an institution that makes research possible with its reasonable teaching loads. The department is fairly large and everyone has the opportunity to teach on subjects related to their areas of expertise. Colleagues give feedback to each other’s work in regular departmental seminars. Whether you are writing a new article or applying for a grant, you can be sure to have the support of staff, reading and commenting on your work. The School is also great in this respect. There are, for instance, writing retreats and School seminar series, which are great for multidisciplinary works. I have also observed that Aston is quite generous when it comes to research leave and taking time off to write monographs.
What’s it like being based in Birmingham?
As the second largest city in the UK, Birmingham is vibrant. Whatever you are looking for, whether it is international cuisine or plays, you can find in Birmingham. The surrounding areas of Birmingham are also beautiful and calm, if you are interested in living in a suburban area or taking a stroll in a leafy park. It is also commuting distance to many other urban centres and with its international airport, provides easy access to many international destinations. You will not get bored in this city!