Russell Square, W.C.1
5th September of 1947
I understand that your letter of yesterday’s date applies to Miss P–, who was a student here in the Department of Botany from 1932-1935 and did some part-time teaching work in the same Department from 1938-1939. I have not seen much of her since then, but I believe she has had some business experience, and when I last saw her (January 1945) she told me she was working for an insurance company. During the time she was at the College there was no doubt about her honesty, sobriety and industry and I shall be glad if she is able to take up employment with you.
For those dependent on paid employment, trying to find one’s way in the world can be a long, arduous process, affected by such variables as previous work experience, education, demonstrable skills and the caprices of our interpersonal networks and referees. In today’s world, the academic job hunt can be especially fraught, but perhaps some comfort might be drawn from the knowledge that whatever our anxieties or disadvantages, someone, somewhere has been through it all before.
King’s College London’s personnel files, which include correspondence relating to job applications from the last century, tell us as much. Miss P. had a decent start in life, attending an independent school and Cheltenham Ladies’ College before attaining a second class degree from King’s. Her academic career, however, was limited to two terms as a part time Demonstrator in the Department of Botany, salaried at £35, before drifting into secretarial work and ending up, we presume, at the Imperial Hotel [KA/FPA/1939 P-W].
In today’s tough job-hunting climate, part-time sessional teaching staff commonly bemoan the insecurity of their positions and the brevity of their contracts in a world where permanent, full-time academic tenure becomes rarer each year. Competition for academic posts was arguably less aggressive in the interwar period prior to the mass conversion of colleges to independent universities after 1945, but teaching could still be precarious. Dr C, for example, was hired as a part time Lecturer in Anatomy every year for seven consecutive years between 1930 and 1937, submitting to the circular process of applying and waiting for the formal offer of employment for his own job each time [KA/FPA/1939 A-M]. For successful candidates the turnaround of job offers was nonetheless speedy, even in the pre-Internet age. Acceptances were expedited by telegram when twice-daily snail mail just wasn’t fast enough.
At King’s, standardised application forms were introduced in the late 1920s and have changed very little over the years, except for a brief period from the 1970s when marital status appeared as a category. Today’s forms also allow considerably more space for applicants to write their details.
Prior to the introduction of the form, applicants were expected to supply written references along with covering letters and a CV up front. It would appear that the physical presentation of written references at this early stage in the application process was closely tied to the stature of vacancy. In 1900, applicant Reverend H. C. Beeching went to the considerable trouble of having testimonials type-set and printed in letterpress. Beeching’s five references were presented in the form of an eight page booklet, a one-off prospectus for the applicant designed expressly for the position including Beeching’s covering letter. “My Lords and Gentlemen,” Beeching wrote, “I beg leave to offer myself for the post of Pastoral Theology of King’s College…I could promise that the work of the Professorship, if I were entrusted with it, should have my best care.” Beeching’s supporters concurred, testifying to his “uncommon power of exposition, and his reasonable attitude to matters of controversy in religion.” It was said that Beeching was possessed of “…a strong sympathy with young men, and with their difficulties, and enthusiasms, and aspirations” [KA/ FPA 1900].
Of course, even in less competitive times the interview panel still faced the age-old problem of putting names to faces after meeting applicants in person. King’s applications from the 1960s show that one such interviewer overcame this hurdle by sketching the faces of interviewees onto their forms for reference. Indeed, the pencil-sketch aide memoir seems to have become habitual for this interviewer as miniature portraits appear regularly on application forms from the early 1960s.
For data protection reasons, only older personnel files are available for readers to view in the Archives Reading Room. Scholars researching Organisational History or the History of Human Resources Management will find them a potentially fruitful pathway into understanding the practicalities of the 20thC academic job hunt. For the rest of us, I would venture to say that there is something reassuring about continuities with applying for jobs, academic or otherwise, in the present day.