Thursday 10 August 2017

The Importance of Being Flawless: Lectureship Interview Talks Then and Now

Recently my department - the School of Computer Science at the University of St Andrews - has been interviewing candidates for lectureships. Each candidate had to give presentations to the School. It dawned on me during the talks how different things were when I gave my talk which helped me get my lectureship here.

I've been telling everybody two stories about that talk.

The first was that during the talk I said something like: "This is not just an academic question, people all over the world care about this."  And then I thought for a moment and paused before saying "Well now I think about it, they are all academics, so actually it is an academic question."  This wasn't a prepared joke, but apparently I got away with it.

The second relates to the point about things being different now. I didn't have to do a sample teaching talk. Years later, when the School started requiring candidates to do that, I said to my boss (Ron Morrison), "I never would have got my job if I'd had to give that talk."  Quick as a flash, Ron shot back: "Why do you think we brought them in, Ian?" A great line, especially assuming (as I hope) it was a joke.

I went and found my talk - which is still on my computer - and it turns out ... that yes,  things were very different.  

My talk was called "The Importance of Being Flawless". Here it is for your delectation.

Boy, were things different then.  This is basically just a research talk which might have been a research seminar. I'm pretty sure that was standard then: I mean it got me a job, right? And it was my second lectureship, not my first, and the previous one was similar.

So no teaching talk, just a seminar about one small piece of work instead of giving a vision for how I was going to revolutionise the field, not waffle about how perfectly I would fit into the department, no list of grants I was going to apply for, no suggestions for new modules I could introduce, and no suggestions for existing modules that I was desperate to teach (preferably ones that nobody else wants to teach).

In short, this isn't a talk that would get anybody a lectureship now.

That doesn't automatically mean that things are tougher now, just very different. I mean, Computer Science was a smaller discipline then so there were less jobs to go around, although there were also fewer people chasing the jobs.  Though in fact yes, I do think it's tougher now to get a lectureship in CS now than it was then.

The amazing thing that hasn't changed - actually is far more true now than then, was the title of the talk. By coincidence, my talk had maybe the most appropriate possible title for a modern lecturer candidate: "The Importance of Being Flawless".