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Academic Job Market: Tell us what you REALLY want

I receive a lot of job alerts every day. I receive some alerts from specific universities and others from mailing lists and general boards. I also receive job information from my former departments/universities and now from my current department. I also scan facebook and twitter for news of jobs. I probably read in detail four or five job adverts every week, which I duly forward to friends and colleagues.

Although I currently have a (lovely) job, I have lots and lots of friends that are still searching and I know how exhausting the search can be. Each application usually requires a full day to a week’s work, filling out the form, writing the cover letter, coming up with declarations about teaching, research and plans for the future. In each case, you have to search the department website, figuring out what kinds of things might interest them, what research groups, what seminars, what kind of teaching, and where you might fit in.  It is exhausting and often seemingly unrewarding. When you don’t hear back, you think ‘That was a waste of time. I could have spent that time writing articles or reading books’. You start to lose hope and reconsider the number of applications you make, wanting to concentrate your effort and time on things that matter.

A good friend of mine gave me some advice a couple years ago. I was applying to mainly US jobs with a British PhD and not having much luck. She told me that although she had done a Politics PhD in a specific African country, her first job had been in a Development Studies department, then a History department and then finally a job in Comparative Politics (she doesn’t do Comparative Politics, just one country!). Her advice was therefore, that you don’t really know what departments are looking for, so you should apply to everything. I have often passed on this advice to friends, urging them to keep applying. I have heard this advice from others too- that their final job was often not the one that they had expected getting.

This advice is probably correct. I have heard that getting a job often depends on the internal politics of departments- what specific people want from a candidate- but this internal politics often does not make it into the job advertisements. Instead, you have to know someone in the department to really know what they are looking for, or just apply to everything you see. This is depressing. Why should departments give such poor information to candidates? Why waste everyone’s time?

I wanted to write a post drawing attention to the nice approach of University of Stirling’s Politics Department in regards to its recruitment of two new lecturers. Please see: here.

This is a great post because it gives applicants frank and open advice about what the department is like, what they are looking for and what kinds of materials they want to see from applicants. It also encourages applicants to ask questions in a transparent way (that does not privilege ‘insiders’). Specifically, they write (I have bolded the really useful bits):

  • At this stage, the main documents are the CV and the cover letter.
  • I think you should keep the cover letter short (1 or 2 pages), if only to show an ability for concise writing. Also remember that we are likely to read over 100 applications.
  • Shortlisted candidates will almost certainly have a PhD and a promising publication record. ‘Promising’ is hard to define at this early stage of your career, but things like publication in recognisable journals (perhaps with a mix between single and co-authored) may stand out.
  • My preference is to focus on what people have already done, rather than what they promise to do over the next five years. I find those plans more realistic if there is already some sort of track record.
  • Although research has a tendency to dominate University life, we take teaching very seriously. We plan an overall curriculum together, discuss regularly if it is working, and come to agreements about how to teach and assess work. We pride ourselves on being a small and friendly bunch of people, open to regular student contact and, for example, committed to meaningful and regular feedback. You might think about how you would contribute in that context.
  • The presentation and interview will be on separate dates. So, although the interview date is the 17th July, note that we will ask you to make a presentation to divisional staff on the 16th (and, if you are not local, stay in the nice campus hotel).
  • Again, I recommend keeping the presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in research and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University.
  • The interview panel will be five people: me, the Head of Division of History and Politics, the Head of School of Arts and Humanities, a senior manager of the University (in the chair), and a senior academic in another School. It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well.
  • ‘Why Stirling?’ or ‘Why this division?’ is usually the first question in an interview, so you should have a think about it in advance. I recommend doing some research on Stirling and the division/ school, to show in some detail that you have a considered reply (beyond ‘it is a beautiful campus’). You might also check, for example, who you might develop links with beyond the division (such as the new Centre for Gender & Feminist Studies in our school) or school (such as the School of Applied Social Science) – since this is likely to be a featured question too. Then you might think about what you would bring to the University in a wider sense, such as through well-established (domestic and international) links with other scholars in academic networks. Further, since ‘impact’ is of rising importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

I really wish other departments took this approach. So this is a post aimed at all those departments about to advertise a vacancy. Please take some time to explain what kind of candidate you really want and what kinds of things people can do to strengthen their application materials. You will probably get better candidates and you will be making life easier for all my friends on the job market.

New Blogpost on Oii’s Policy and Internet Blog: Big Data and Informal Economies in Africa

Hello everyone, I don’t want to double blog myself but I wrote a blogpost on the Oxford Internet Institute’s Policy and Internet Blog on the implications of big data on measuring African informal economies. I will be researching this topic from my new post at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University from January.

I am very keen to get feedback on the project so please get in touch if you have ideas or comments! I am very excited by this new phase.

Image by Nicki Kindersley. http://internallydisplaced.wordpress.com/

Are information services ‘disintermediated’ and ‘disembedded’ from place and social relations? Part Two

In this two-part blog, I am asking to what extent information based services are disintermediated and disembedded from social relations and place. In other words, are these kinds of services, by virtue of their ‘digital’ nature and mobility, more easy to transfer across space and people?

Last week, I wrote about how Kenyan BPO companies try to get international work from clients overseas. Today, I am focusing on Rwandan companies trying to get work from local clients.

In our focus groups in Kigali, I asked Rwandan participants (primarily in the software development field) to reflect on the key barriers stopping them from getting work. They gave the following suggestions:

  • “Lack of transparency in offering jobs”
  • “Lack of references”
  • “Lack of information”
  • “Lack of enough information and finances to get in the track”
  • “Lack of access to capital”
  • “People don’t understand/awareness (of local clients)”
  • “Fake Materials (in terms of software and hardware)”
  • “Lack of standardized skills”
  • “Skills gap”

The first four suggestions speak to a lack of information and transparency about work opportunities and clients. Despite the proliferation of fibre optic internet and mobile internet connections, information does not appear to have completely ‘moved online’. This reflects the social embeddedness of information about work opportunities in the local market; in order to find out about an opportunity, one must be connected to the right kinds of social networks. Within the ICT sector, we may presume that all players are computer literate and speak English or French, so it is not a lack of access to internet connectivity or a lack of awareness about how to use the internet; but rather that the information itself is not available online.

Interestingly, this contrasted with our discussion with players from the Rwandan tea sector. When I asked Rwandan tea farmers what kind of information they needed to improve their positions in value chains, they wanted auction price information, production cost information and information about the prevailing conversion ratios (the ratio of green tea leaf needed to produce processed black tea). Most of this information is already available online either from the East Africa Tea Trader’s Association website, Rwanda’s National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB) or through the reports of factory boards (different factories may publish such material differently but tea farming unions are usually minor shareholders). The tea farmers were surprised to learn it was already available, emphasizing that such information was incredibly important to them in bargaining with factories for better prices.

It might be the case that more powerful players currently feel comfortable publishing information online because they do not expect weaker players to be able to access it. In other words, the internet might allow for the free flow of information between players in the chain who have incentives to share information (stronger players with shared interests), while the ‘digital divide’ that currently prevails prevents weaker players from tapping into that same flow of information in order to collectively bargain and change the underlying power relations within the sector. It will be fascinating to examine how changing information structure may or may not change these bargaining relations over time. Will stronger players try to ‘hide’ or restrict access to information once weaker players tap into online information? Will they move information out of public forums into private emails and paid-subscription/member-only websites? Or will online information allow farmers to negotiate better prices and shareholding arrangements with factories? It may be too early to answer these questions so further research should be conducted in future. Our project can provide that incredibly important ‘baseline’ to look at change over time.

Overall, we might say that there are two kinds of ‘information divides’: cases where information is not online because players do not publish information (work opportunities within the ICT sector) and cases where information is available online but there is a lack of awareness, a lack of computer literacy or a lack of English literacy (tea information). These two problems have different policy implications.

In the case of the tea sector, government bodies can extend infrastructure, carry out English and technical training, conduct awareness campaigns and make internet and hardware/software more affordable. But even once they have done all this, the second kind of problem can kick in- the fact that some players may not want to share information online. It is much harder to proscribe policy recommendations here.

How do you encourage players who have a reluctance or even a disincentive to share information more widely? They may benefit from information asymmetries. They may not trust other players to carry out contracts successfully. They may have wider commercial, social or political networks of dependence/redistribution that might prevent them from engaging with new players. This issue really strikes at the heart of many e-governance and other ICT interventions- it is not just about technology, but about trying to change the fundamental governance relations on the ground.

When it comes to work opportunities within the ICT sector of East Africa, there is this balance between:

  • choosing foreign players whose systems, skills and experience allow one to easy ‘check boxes’ on tendering documents,
  • choosing local players who skills and experiences one knows intimately or finally,
  • choosing unknown local players who do not have neither the right documentation or social knowledge to prove themselves worthy and rewarding of opportunity.

Numerous interviewees stressed that the software sector is notoriously hard to standardize. A good developer is often judged by his last project, so in order ‘to know’ if someone is good, one must have social knowledge about the relevant players. This social/domain nature of knowledge and expertise means that the software sector is incredibly difficult to ‘certify’ and standardize. Foreign players get around this lack of ‘social or domain knowledge’ by being able to draw on huge amounts of systemized and regularized experience and documentation from other domains, but it is much harder for new entrants in the local domain who do not have this wider network of knowledge.

Places like kLab and iHub are good spaces for ‘becoming known’ by key information brokers (those who may have privileged access to information about opportunities) but there is a danger that such spaces can become biased towards certain groups (in-groups over out-groups) over time. Again this is an area that needs more research- how these inherently social spaces became ‘gateways’ for fresh talent to enter into circles of expertise and opportunity. These spaces always begin as ‘open places’ but over time, they become popular and the institutions themselves begin to realise how they too must filter and act as gatekeepers. This process is already happening in the iHub in Nairobi; initially the space was completely open. Now they are developing a revised membership policy and a board to judge who can and cannot have access. Spaces like kLab also need to think about how they will manage this transition.

In other words, this problem of information access really conveys an important message- information is about power and for that reason, one cannot assume that having the right information infrastructure is necessarily going to lead to more openness and equality. Information brokers and ‘infomediaries’ have strong incentives to keep information to themselves and only share it with others when they feel they share interests or can really trust those individuals.

Attention needs to be paid to how and why information gets stuck and when it does not filter down to other groups. Is it a matter of trust and social knowledge/standardization or is it a matter of power relations? Both these problems can be approached by policy-makers, but their policy interventions will ultimately be about brokering power, and not just about making hardware, connectivity or ‘open spaces’ more available. How do you really open up a space to new participants when existing players (both local and international) have incentives to close that space either to protect their own value and profits or to protect the wider environment or reputation of the place as a whole?

This research is being carried out by Laura Mann and Mark Graham from the University of Oxford, Timothy Waema and Charles Katua from the University of Nairobi and Felix Akorli, Grace Magamno and Claude Bizimana from the National University of Rwanda. If you would like a fuller summary of these meetings or more information about the project, please do get in touch!