Wanted – dedicated or alive

In which we ponder the language of advertisements for University science jobs..

I was amused recently to see a Tweet from one of my friends in the scientific blogosphere, Stephen Curry (do check out his excellent Reciprocal Space blog), saying that he was:

‘arguing’ – I presume with his HR Department – ‘to be allowed to ask for someone ‘enthusiastic’ in a job advert’.

Now, this struck me as a little surprising. As I tweeted back:

For, as anyone who regularly scans the academic job ads in (e.g.) the Times Higher will know, language tending to the hyperbolic has become such a regular feature of advertisements for jobs in British Universities that it no longer seems even slightly remarkable. I remembered that I had once written a short satirical piece on this, so I headed off to my archive (the pile of mouldering papers in the corner of my spare room) to try and find it. Turns out it was a full six – yes, six – years ago. I have reproduced it, with minor amendments, updates and hyperlinks, below.

I leave you, dear reader, to judge if you think anything has changed in academic job-ad-speak in the meantime.


You used to know where you were with advertisements for academic jobs in science.

‘The Something-logy department of the University of Grumbleton requires a lecturer. Duties will be teaching, supervision of graduate students, and conducting research in something-ology.’

Of course, these adverts often concealed a whole raft of hidden agendas, and more often than not some research areas would be ‘preferred’, but at least the language in the advertisement was to the point.

Not any more.

Nowadays most academic job advertisements in the UK give the impression of having been written by a committee consisting of a Head of Department with messianic delusions, one or more human resources ‘professionals’ (the inverted commas are mine), and a public relations flack in the grip of a Prozac frenzy. And all of them seem to have been on some special course in mangling English.

These adverts now have a language all of their own. The odd thing, though, is that they are all so similar – despite the hyperbole and obscurantist/coded vocabulary – that they could practically have been written by a computer programme.

The simplest change is the proliferation of superfluous adjectives, or, to be more precise, Obligatory Adjectival Qualifiers (OAQs for short). An OAQ is an adjective that must automatically precede a noun every time that particular noun appears. Some examples:

‘world-class’ (institution, or research)

‘outstanding’ (individual) [also ‘exceptional’, ‘pro-active’, ‘committed’, ‘energetic’]

‘exciting’ (opportunity)

‘state-of-the-art’ (facilities, buildings)

‘leading’ (centre) [also ‘world-leading’]

‘proven’ (ability)

Then there are the phrases that have both a literal and a shorthand, or parallel, meaning. Examples:

The institution:

‘An exciting, vibrant, research-led academic community’: Research-intensive ‘old’ University / Russell Group.

‘Progressive and innovative’ (also ‘modern and innovative’): Former polytechnic / ‘post-92’.

‘High-quality student-centred learning environment’: We have a new building and are desperately trying to enrol enough students to fill it.

‘Committed to anticipating and satisfying students’, employers’ and clients’ needs’: Staff will work for food.

‘One of the countries most popular student destinations’: Nothing stands out about our University, but thank heaven the night-life and the cheap booze still brings in the punters.

‘Offering opportunities to work with leading international academics whose visions are shaping tomorrow’s world’: I don’t think they’ve got my antidepressant dose quite right at the moment.


‘A committed and work-focused individual’: Prepared to work 50+ hrs a week for little money on a fixed-term contract.

‘A high-calibre and driven individual’: You should be unashamed, or at least unaware, of your Borderline Personality Disorder.

The job, and department:

‘We are committed to personal development’: We have a widely loathed staff appraisal scheme.

‘An innovative, challenging work environment’: You might get a desk.

‘We have pursued a focused strategy of appointing world-class researchers’: In: Professors with 5-year (Programme) grant funding; Out: Teaching staff over 50.

‘Staff are integrated into cross-cutting, multi-disciplinary themes’: Our senior management believe strongly in putting their oar in.

‘We aim for the highest levels of research excellence’: Five-star in the next Research Assessment, or early retirements all round.

I should say that all the above examples are real: you couldn’t make this stuff up. And this is only a starter pack. Anyone got any more particularly choice examples?

Finally, to end on a positive note (sort of) – the observant among you will have noticed that, should you ever need to, you can now write your own University job advert simply by selecting the appropriate phrases from the lists above. Think of the time you’ll save!

Assuming, of course, that HR will let you.



6 Responses to “Wanted – dedicated or alive”

  1. alice Says:


    I can’t possibly comment as I ended up in the field I did after replying to this job ad (though I did know about the job before it was advertised, don’t think I would have gone for it under that heading)

  2. Dorothy Bishop Says:

    I’ve been tempted to write something similar about the wording of job applications, but it would perhaps be unfair on applicants. But I can say that an awful lot of them are “passionate”

  3. Sunday at the Lab with Uri Alon « O'Really? Says:

    […] you’re a scientist, that is. This one goes out to all the committed high-calibre, driven scientists [1] who are spending this Sunday working at the bench. This amusing little ditty is written by […]

  4. physicsmum Says:

    Hahaha, yes, perhaps a few of the words have changed, but not significantly :P
    Not restrained by national borders either, sigh…..

  5. Shakemystick Says:

    Brilliant piece, bravo.

  6. draust Says:

    Thanks all for the kind words.

    @Alice: that is definitely an, er, exhortatory sort of advert! I guess the defence would be that for something involving a lot of smiling at the public and being bouncy and enthusiastic you would arguably prefer people hard-wired for same. But of course, the problem is that you actually risk selecting people who strongly BELIEVE they are like that, even if they aren’t – which for me is the Apprentice problem again. Or indeed the problem of many people who work in customer service, see the previous post.

    @Dorothy B: Yes, tempting, but can see why you demurred. My friend Steve Caplan has done something slightly analogous by writing a piece about ‘the most typical lousy job application letters I get and why they are bad’, but that is not particularly about the terminology used, of course. And it did get him some ‘blowback’, as you can read here.

    @PhysicsMum: Yep, don’t have the impression it changes much with the years, and I guess ‘talking things up’ is increasingly endemic everywhere. We just got a high production value, eight page glossy brochure from our daughter’s state (non-fee paying) primary school, sent to every parent. Coincidentally the school has just told us that next year her years group on 7-8 yr olds, numbering just over 70, will be taught in TWO, not three, classes, so 35+ kids in a class. Parents can be heard muttering in the playground about “Why are they wasting money on this PR nonsense?’. They are an oversubscribed state school in a middle class district, so they are not competing desperately for kids.

    Sadly, the next sentence each parent offers is almost always:

    “Oh well, I guess these days it’s all about presentation, isn’t it?”

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