Preparing for a research fellowship interview part 1

This is a two part piece on preparing for and going through a research fellowship interview. As always these are my own opinions based on experiences as a researcher, PI, supervisor, mentor and grant funding interview panellist!

You have submitted your grant application (see previous blog), you are waiting for the call, you finally hear that you have been invited for interview. What can you do and how should you prepare?

Take it seriously !

In an ideal world everyone who submitted a decent application for funding which met the criteria should be interviewed. In reality, for most funding schemes there are a great many more applications than can be accommodated in terms of interviews and the time it takes. For those who are shortlisted for interview the chances of being awarded a fellowship become much better with a roughly 1:2 chance, rather than the 1:7 or 1:10 chance at the start of the process. For this reason it is essential to take the offer of an interview very seriously and make sure that you are best equipped to succeed.

Advance preparation and practice

Re-read your application over and over. I know that you wrote it (or certainly hope that you did) but read it again. You need to know everything that you have said and be able to defend everything on the application. There is nothing more likely to lose you your fellowship than you looking quizzically and asking “did I really write that?”.

Try to anticipate what the key questions are likely to be and rehearse answers to them. Write your answers down if it helps. Get lots of other people to read your application and find out what questions they would ask. Practice explaining to anyone who can listen what your project is about. You need to be able explain it in appropriate language to everyone from a non-medical friend or acquaintance to the Professor of Molecular Biology.

Presentation

Some fellowship panels ask you to give a formal presentation. This is usually time limited and they may or may not allow you to use visual aids. This needs thought, focus and rehearsal. If you are asked to give a presentation try and be concise and focused. Use the time you are allocated effectively and make sure you cover all the areas you need to.

If you are allowed to use visual aids use them effectively. Most panels won’t let you use Powerpoint because of the set-up time, potential for disaster etc but you may be able to use handout sheets. There is no point in repeating anything on the application, they already have that. Sheets can be useful to put an explanatory cartoon that you couldn’t fit into your application form or to provide evidence of a technically challenging animal model for example. Or you can use this opportunity to show data that you have accrued between sending in the application and the interview which is often several months. Stick to the rules because if you don’t, you run the risk of either not being allowed to use your aids, or annoying someone to the point where it has a negative impact on your chances of success.

Mock Interview

Get someone (often your supervisor will do this) to organise a mock interview. Take it seriously, get people who are good scientists or academic clinicians to ask you to present yourself, your project and to ask you questions. Tell them all the information you have been given about time whether there is a presentation or not. Ask you mock panel to make it as realistic as possible learn to feel what 15 minutes under pressure is like. Listen to their feedback and learn from your mistakes. I can’t emphasise how important it is to have some mock interviews.

Managing the interview itself

Controlling your nerves

  • Be positive remember that you have a great opportunity to sell yourself and have already done the difficult bit by getting to interview.
  • This is your chance to shine
  • Remember the panel don’t want to destroy you they want to get the best out of you – so think positive.
  • Don’t get involved in anything other than superficial chat with other candidates, don’t exchange project details don’t compare degrees, prizes how famous your supervisor is or any of these things.
  • There is nothing you can do about the competition and this is not about them it is about you.
  • Dress appropriately and make sure you feel comfortable not too hot.
  • Plan your journey, you do not want the stress of being late. Make sure you know exactly where you are going and get there early, even if you decide to sit in a coffee shop around the corner rather than in the waiting room.
  • Go to the toilet, look in the mirror make sure you don’t have your breakfast down your front.
  • Make sure you have any paperwork or identification that you might need to present.
  • Manage yourself, Don’t forget to breathe, Don’t forget to smile
  • Try to come across as warm and confident, businesslike but not arrogant.
  • Dont argue with panellists but make sure you do get your point across.
Body Language
When we are placed in stressful situations we tend to adopt defensive body language. In practice this is usually manifest as crossing our arms and legs. If you sit opposite someone who looks uncomfortable and has their arms and legs crossed it makes you feel uncomfortable and you start to either share their anxiety or to feel that they are cold and remote. This is not the impression that you want to give.
Try and relax. Sit up straight. If there is a table, you can cross your legs without the panel seeing them (in fact you could tie them in a knot without being seen). DONT FOLD YOUR ARMS. If you want something to do with your hands put them together. Locking your fingers may go some way to satisfying your natural urges around anxiety and need for defensive posture, but is much less defensive than folding your arms. Smile, this makes you look more relaxed even if you aren’t and some people believe it makes you feel more relaxed too. Try to appear open and make sure you make eye contact (not all the time people will think you are weird) but particularly when people are asking you a question or when you are making an important point. “I want you to know that I am passionate about becoming a successful academic surgeon” sounds so much more impressive with eye contact than if it is directed to your shoes.
Speech
Speak clearly and loudly enough that you will be heard. Medics are some of the worst people in the world for creating interminably long sentences full of subclauses, and conditional statements, split infinities, paraphrases which combined with technical or clinic jargon  conspire to completely obfuscate and confuse the listener to the point where he or she is barely sure what the original purpose of your statement was at all. In fact just like that awful last sentence. So let me try again. Medics are notorious for overcomplicating their language. Short sentences leave no room for confusion. They allow you to make your point. They also give the impression that you have a concise logical mind. So use them.
Speak slowly. Not so slowly that the panel will wonder if you have frontal lobe impediment, but slowly enough that you can be clearly understood. This will have the added bonus of allowing your supercharged brain to work out what you are going to say next and for you to sense check it before you put your foot in your mouth.

The Panel

The panels of most funding agencies are not subject specific. Wellcome Trust and MRC who are the two largest funding organisations in the UK usually have many different areas of medicine or science represented. A panel will typically comprise a Chair who is often there to perform the introductions and administration and will chair the meeting that follows the interviews to decide who is awarded a grant. He or she may not do much more than welcome you and introduce you to the panel. The panel itself may be composed of 8 – 10 individuals who are all usually expert in some area of research. There tends to be a mix of medical subspecialties from any discipline of medicine and there are often one or more scientists on the panel. Some panels are thematic so for example “Molecular medicine” and some may be disease specific or process specific for example “inflammation & Immunity”. Some organisations like to have either a psychiatrist or behavioural psychologist on the panel.

The chair will usually have decided before the interview which of the panellists will lead questions on your proposal and who act as a second questioner. These individuals will have studied your application in very fine detail and will conduct the majority of the interview. The other panellists will have read your application and may be invited to ask you questions time permitting. These later questions may be more about you or other aspects rather than the project itself.

Introductions

If the interview is happening around a long table with you on one side it is not going to be practical to shake hands with all of the panel. What you should do is look around the room, look positive, smile and make eye contact with each of the panellists. If they are introduced individually this is very easy to do. Otherwise do try to remember to look up, smile and make eye contact. If no one else you will impress the psychologist/psychiatrist in the room that you don’t have a major personality disorder. Not looking at the panel is officially odd behaviour and won’t win you any friends.

Ice breakers

Panels understand that people get incredibly nervous during interviews and so it is highly likely that you will be asked an ice breaker along the lines of “welcome to the MRC training fellowships panel please introduce yourself to the committee” or  “Thank you for coming along today would you please summarise the key points of your project in your own words for the panel”.  This is in interview terms an open goal. The panel have asked you a question which you absolutely must be able to answer. The purpose of them asking you this is to warm you up, to relax you and to try and get the best out of you. If you can’t introduce yourself or your project turn around and go out because you shouldn’t be there!

Prepare an introduction to yourself and rehearse this.

Your personal introduction might be something along the lines of “My name is Joe Bloggs,  I have just completed my Core training in surgery in South East Scotland and I am planning a period of research leading to a PhD at the University of Edinburgh. My career ambition is to be an academic transplant surgeon and I am particularly interested in the liver. I was awarded a 1st in my BSc in immunoparasitologyand so I have some previous lab experience. I have a number of technical skills which I think will make me a success in the lab and I am really excited about the prospect of getting to grips with the research project that I have submitted.”

So in the example above I can be very relaxed because I am talking about myself and all of it is true, there is nothing controversial and nothing which I can get shot down over. I tell them that I want to do a higher degree and what my long term game plan is. I tell them that I have some previous experience that will help this application and I can even slip in a little boast about how well I did. Perhaps most importantly I then do two things. Firstly I tell them that I am really excited about the prospect of doing research (that is, I am not doing this because I have to, I am doing because I want to and you should fund me because I have energy and enthusiasm). Secondly, I tell them to ask me the next question and I even tell them what the next question should be! If you are in any doubt the next question should be “That’s great so tell us about the research project that you are proposing to do?”

In essence you have taken control of the interview and if you are really good you can keep this up the whole time so that you end up interviewing the panel rather than them interviewing you. This may sound farcical but it is actually possible and the likelihood is that because you steer the questions you will be very happy with the answers and you will come across as being very clear and incredibly impressive.

Part 2 to follow very soon.

© 2012 SJ Wigmore

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