How to (not quite) succeed at Fellowship interviews

 

At the start of last year I wrote a bloggy thing about Fellowships, with particular emphasis on which ones I (or you!) might apply for. I applied for two different schemes last October, with two utterly different projects. It was a lot of work, but my reasoning was to buy as many tickets to the Fellowship lottery as possible.

And it (sort of) worked: I got interviews for both of them (I’m not saying which just yet…). However, I recently found out that I didn’t get the first, and that I’m way down the reserve list for the other. Despite this, I got favourable comments overall: I just wasn’t quite good enough. So, I present:

 

A Guide To Not Doing Too Badly At Fellowship Interviews

 

This guide consists of advice that came out of the three mock interviews I had, with a large number of different people. I cannot recommend a mock enough. In fact, two mocks are better than one: before my NERC interview, I had one mock with people who could grill me about the science and one with people who had sat on panels before and knew what panels are after. These people provided some excellent advice, and the only reason they haven’t yet written a blog post is probably because they’re too busy doing the research they’ve been funded to do…

 

(14) Interview panel
Don’t worry, your panel won’t be like this: unless your funding body is stuck in the Stone Age, there’ll be women on it too. And probably fewer cannibals.

 

THE TALK

 Generally a fellowship interview will start with a short presentation by the candidate. The aim is to make yourself and the project sound great. This is kind of the easy bit, because you can practice it and say what you want. Obviously you want it to be as awesome as possible, but the impression I got is that this is unlikely to make-or-break your chances, unless you completely fuck it up by not being able to remember who you are or why on Earth you’re in Swindon.

The advice I got was to practice it to death, and then back to life again. I wrote a script, which I wouldn’t do for a normal conference talk. After a moderate amount of practice, it was absolutely shit: I was clearly trying to remember everything and it was incredibly wooden. After an insane amount of practice, it was good: because the words were seared on the inside of my skull, I didn’t need to remember them, which meant I could pretend to be relaxed by moving, breathing, changing the tone of my voice and looking the audience in the eye.

Style

 You’ve done a talk before. The same rules apply. Make nice slides. Don’t use Comic Sans. Every single picture and figure has to be doing something: no putting up figures and not explaining what they are. LABEL YOUR FUCKING AXES. This is a rule for life.

 

(14) Label your axes

 

My body language came in for a bit of a hammering during all my mocks. I was told to make eye contact with the audience more, particularly when saying something important (if you say ‘I will be the best scientist ever…’ while looking at the floor, it lacks conviction). Don’t forget to look at everyone in the room though: everyone wants to feel loved and important.

As a shy sort, this kind of showmanship doesn’t come easily, and it seems incredible that a fantastic proposal/candidate would be rejected because they didn’t give it the full Liberace. The key thing I was reminded is that competition is exceptionally tight. You’re a great person, but there’ll be more great people interviewed than there are awards to be made. So every little helps. Also, I was told in my mock that my face lights up when I smile more. Which was weird.

 

(14) Liberace
That won’t be necessary.

 

Substance

 The impression I get is that people are looking for the same qualities in a research scientists as they are in a politician. They want great ideas, yes. But they also want you to show ‘leadership’, whatever that is. This turned out to be the main advice I was given throughout my interview prep: the panel want to see a future research leader.

Therefore, as well as outlining the coolness/novelty/impact of the project, I was encouraged to spend as much talk time as possible on why I was the right person for the job. In this case ‘the job’ wasn’t the fellowship, but taking a whole field of research forward in the future (more of this below). I therefore had an entire slide devoted essentially to ‘why me’, emphasizing the skills I’ve picked up, my track record and my ideas for the future, but I was also advised to lace my talk with additional references to how great I am (again, not an easy thing to do without feeling like an arse).

There are a zillion ways to structure a talk. If you want to see how I did mine, get in touch and I’ll happily send on my slides and script.

 

THE QUESTIONS

 Having finished your talk, wiped the sweat/blood from your brow and taken a sip of water to wash the taste of sick in your mouth, you’ll be invited to sit down and answer some questions.

 Style

 Style tips for answering questions seems a bit ridiculous, because you are basically just having a conversation with a bunch of people. However, I did get some tips during my mocks on how I can come across better, which probably need to be carried forward into everyday life.

Quite an important point I got was to make sure answers are punchy: quick answers mean more chance to explore more questions. I got into problems in my mock when I was answering technical questions, and not because I couldn’t, but because I started at the beginning. The tip I got was to assume some knowledge, get to the important bit, and then ask if I answered the question at the end of my answer: clarification can then follow. The same is true if you find yourself rambling– try and cut to the chase.

On the flip side, when I got an easy question in my mock, I was apparently just batting it aside with a bit too much efficiency. This was especially the case with some of the potentially difficult questions which I’d pre-empted (e.g. ‘This method is better because- next’). It was suggested I make the questioner feel clever with phrases like ‘that’s a good question/interesting point’, ‘I’ve thought a great deal about this’, although doing this in response to every question will get a bit tiresome.

 

(14) Easy question
‘Obviously I’ll control for that with a random effect of subject ID. Next.’

 

One final style tip I got was to come across more personably. It was suggested I smile more (because my face lights up, remember), make eye contact more (especially when answering a toughie) and have more open body language (no hunching or crossed arms). The thought that this might sway a decision depresses me beyond belief (stupid extroverts), but it’s probably worth bearing in mind, mainly because by pretending to more relaxed and confident, I felt it.

 Substance

The list of questions you can ask is basically infinite. If you want to know what I was asked, get in touch.

A great many of the questions will be about the project itself, which you should be able to answer because you’ll be aware of the pros and cons of the project. However, one of the best reasons to have a mock is to be prepared for the scenario where someone asks a question where it’s clear they haven’t understood something fundamental. There’s nothing to be done here apart from staying calm. Similarly, it’s good to practice for the scenario when someone hasn’t read the proposal and asks why you haven’t done something when you DEFINITELY HAVE DONE IT. Take a minute to breathe and gently correct them.

 

(14) It's on page 5
‘IT’S ON PAGE FIVE, YOU DI- I mean, um, sorry…’

 

People on my mock panel(s) were keen to get me to build the case for, in particular, two things: the host institution and my future. Of these, I think the latter is WAY more important, unless you’re basing yourself somewhere you’ve been for the last five years (expect questions about independence).

Building the case about yourself, I was told, is all about leadership. Doing exciting work which leads the field BUT ALSO getting lots of money so other people can do exciting work in your group AND ALSO mentoring people AND heading large collaborative grants. Being able to say exactly what grants you’re going to apply for in the next five years, how many people will be in your group, and what they’ll be working on will be key to showing that you have lots of potential to be funded for years to come. Another key part of this is deciding what makes you different from your collaborators and your competitors (or potential collaborators, in my book!): why can you do this project and no-one else can?

 

EPILOGUE

At the end of a very rapid 20-30 minutes, there’ll be an opportunity to ask a question yourself, which seems only fair. Forget about having to ask a question to look clever: that may well apply in a faculty or post-doc interview, but it doesn’t here. I’d make sure you got across everything you wanted to, perhaps by re-iterating all the strong parts of you application, or returning to a question you didn’t nail the first time.

Now- time to run for the train, pausing only to grab the largest tea/beer/cake you can lay your hands on. You’ve bloody well earned it.

 

CHEERS

Most of the above is excellent advice from many people who have names which can be sorted by the order of the first letter of their last name, including Stuart Auld, Lynsey Bunnefeld, Luc Bussière, Maggie Cusack, Elena Gheorghiu, Al Jump, Phyllis Lee, Fiona Millar, Matt Tinsley and Andrew Tyler. They are in no way responsible for the swearing or GIFs.

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