Recently, amid an aberration of high hopes, I applied for a research position at the University of Cambridge. The project to which the researcher would contribute looked exciting and interesting. It combined several areas of inquiry that related closely to my own academic background and knowledge, and, in a happy rarity, I could actually tick all the boxes on the person specification without having to resort to mental casuistry. Clearly oblivious to the concept of hubris, I concluded that the position was ‘made for me’ and began envisaging all the fine research I would be doing. Then I remembered that I needed to apply for the job first, so I set about the task of making my application heroic and formidable.
The application process presented more than the usual range of hoops to jump through. Cambridge wanted a completed application form and a CV; a sample piece of writing; a 2,000-word statement of research aims; and two references to be submitted by the deadline. Expecting applicants to assume responsibility for chasing up and supplying references seems to be a common characteristic of Oxbridge positions. Presumably it is a tactic to deter applications from chancers and non-entities and general riff-raff. On several occasions in the past I have judged that I probably fell into at least one, and often all three, of those categories and thus had been appropriately discouraged from attempting an application; after all, there is a risk of annoying potential academic supporters by pestering them to write references for applications whose chances of success are long odds against. But this time I assessed my chances as moderate to good (and ‘near dead cert’ in my more deluded moments), and so was reassured that I would not be annoyingly encumbering two busy academics with a pointless addition to their workload. I proceeded to discuss the application with potential referees and thankfully two excellent and eminent scholars agreed to supply references.
Meanwhile I was carefully researching the project and its personnel. I downloaded for a small cost a book by the project’s director, and then read it closely while taking copious notes. I located a few relevant journal articles and read those too. I risked giving myself a hernia by transporting home a dozen weighty library books relevant to the project, all of which I browsed, and some of which I actually read, mining them for ideas. My own bookshelves supplied several more books; and I scoured the internet, looking at images and early books, journal articles and, er, Wikipedia. Eventually, with several pages of notes and plans, I was ready to write the 2,000-word research statement (indeed, I felt capable of writing a 20,000-word statement had Cambridge wanted that). I settled down one early evening to turn the crystalline statement that had formed in my mind into real words on a page; six hours later I had one abandoned statement of 250 words, and a new beginning of about 50 words. And so I had to bed down for the long Easter weekend, toiling for hour after hour over the four days, neglecting to deliver chocolate to my children, until, in a fitting memorial to the risen Christ, I had produced a delicately crafted proposal, exquisitely calibrated to convey my knowledge, experience, enthusiasm and potential. Unfortunately, when I pasted the statement into the relevant text box on the website I discovered that what Cambridge really meant by a 2,000-word limit was in fact a 10,000-character limit. My word count was fine; but crucially my character count was not. So another couple of hours was spent chipping away at the statement while half-wondering whether I was about to have a stroke.
Next I updated and beautified my CV, applying delicate final touches with the loving attention of a High Renaissance sculptor. I completed the standard application form; I located after a convoluted search among memory sticks and email attachments an article I had once written which would serve as my sample of writing; I converted all the files into PDF (which, for some reason, was the only file format Cambridge was prepared to accept) and uploaded them; I irrationally and unnecessarily panicked over whether my referees would upload their references by the deadline; and, at last, I clicked the ‘Submit application’ button. Pondering whether to offer a prayer for divine assistance, I concluded that my lack of belief in God might make such a prayer ineffective; even then I wondered whether to make some sort of divine deal just in case He exists, before finally and forcefully pulling myself together. Evidently the fact that I had probably spent in total two full working weeks on the sundry tasks associated with this application had played havoc with my capacity for rational thought. But not so much that I wasn’t able to take a moment to congratulate myself on having got it all done, which then eased into several hours of daydreaming about all the clever and impressive things I would say in the interview. I performed brilliantly, bringing repeated appreciative nods from the panel; I speculated whether I would choose Prosecco or go all out for Champagne to celebrate being offered the position; I then reminded myself that Cambridge probably hadn’t even got round to shortlisting me yet in the three hours since I submitted my application. So I steeled myself for the weeks of waiting, optimism, uncertainty, dreams and fears to come.