Preparing for a research fellowship interview part 2

This follows on directly from Preparing for a research fellowship interview part 1

Introducing your project

There are a number of different ways to do this and you may need to take a lead from the chair or interviewer who leads on your project.

Just as an example let us say that my project is to be about regulation of hemeoxygenase-1 expression in primary liver cancer and the role of a promoter polymorphism on transcriptional activation and growth of liver tumours. The formal title is “Hemeoygenase-1 poly GT promoter polymorphisms as a regulator of growth in hepatocellular carcinoma”.

Here are a couple of lead ins that I have previously experienced or heard my fellows having been asked.

“We have a panel today which includes a number of lay members and people who are not expert in your field, please explain your project to us”

In this situation if you start talking about subunit stability of some transcription factor or zDNA you are going to immediately lose the majority of your audience and they will not thank you for it. So you may be better saying something which is very broad brush stroke.

You may just be asked ” tell us about your project in your own words”. So you may not get such a strong steer but it is equally likely that the panel is made up of public health scientists, rheumatologists, virologists etc basically people who are not expert in your field and so starting with a lay summary is never a bad thing.

“Liver cancer is a serious disease which is a major killer in the developing World and is increasingly common in the UK. I am interested in trying to understand the control of a gene, called hemeoxygenase-1, that we believe to be of key importance in this disease.  We have identified that there is a natural variation in the structure of a piece of DNA which switches this gene on and off. We think that variations in this switch may explain differences in behaviour of tumours in different patients and so we will research this subject with the hope of identifying an abnormality which will lend itself to therapeutic intervention.”

So this introduction explains the clinical relevance of the disease you are studying. You simplify what is potentially a very difficult concept by putting the explanation of gene regulation in lay terms. You then bring it back to clinical relevance by telling the panel what the relevance would be if you were to find something interesting in your research.

Notice that I havent explained my methodology or the detail of the research proposal. You can either go on to this now or wait for that to come as you don’t want to answer all of the questions straight away. What you must do is attempt to engage the whole panel. You cannot underestimate what a killer comment or throwaway remark from a panellist can be like “I didn’t have a clue what he/she was talking about, he obviously doesn’t understand public engagement.” Or how beneficial a panellist statement like ” I am not an expert in that area at all, but felt like he/she explained it in a way that I could really understand the issues” can be.

Project specific questions

One or more of the panel will inevitably ask you about specific details of your project. Despite the accumulated expertise of the panel it is still quite possible that you are the most knowledgeable person at the table about your project. This should give you some confidence. Remember the core message or messages that you want to bring across and if you feel you are being taken out of your comfort zone or that the discussion is going off track bring it back to these core messages.

For example “I fully understand that there may be an evolutionary advantage for having this polymorphism based on susceptibility to malaria, but what I am really interested in is how this polymorphism affects transcription of this gene in liver cancer and how this affects tumour cell growth.”

So you acknowledge the questioners point and its validity but firmly steer the discussion back to your project in a non-confrontational way.

Getting to the point

Some questioners (and examiners) have a rather long and circuitous way of asking questions. It can sometimes be difficult to understand the question itself. You can always ask for clarification before you answer or if you have started and you are getting strange looks ask whether you have answered the question.  If you have not answered the question you can always try again. It is better to leave things said, in an open manner, than run the risk of being criticised for not answering or even avoiding a question.


Very occasionally you will get thrown a question from left field which has the potential to be an interview-ending event. An example might be something like “I am sure that I have read a paper in the last 6 months which has already published the data which you are going to be looking at.”

Faced with this kind of thing it would be easy to be flat-footed and crumple in a heap. It is likely that the panellist is wrong (or thinking about something else) and it is likely to be accidental and not malicious. In this situation I would ask for details and rebut the question by saying. “I have continuously monitored the World literature on this subject and can assure the panel that there has been no publication  addressing this specific question.” You could back yourself up by saying something like “Our laboratory is one of only 3 in the World capable of addressing this specific question and since we collaborate with the other 2 laboratories I am certain that this work has not been done already.”

It is important to defend yourself but equally important not to appear overly defensive. In the same way it is important to robustly rebut assertions from panel members which are incorrect or may lead the rest of the panel to consider your work redundant, but equally this must be done politely with good grace and preferably with a smile.

Pregnant pauses

Some questioners deliberately leave a big pause after you have finished speaking and this can be quite uncomfortable. Don’t feel the need to add anything else if you are confident that you have answered the previous question. I personally think that this is a very unfair strategy but I have witnessed it before and it does encourage the under-confident to gabble on and dig themselves into a hole. A simple and direct strategy for dealing with this is to ask “would you like to ask me anything else?”, by doing this you put the ball firmly back in the questioner’s court and make the panel aware that you recognise the pause.

Methodology questions

It is highly likely that you will be asked about your experimental model or details of techniques that you plan to use. You must be familiar with these and ideally you should have done them all. I usually insist on my research fellows doing the techniques themselves even if on a visiting basis to the lab (if they haven’t actually started their research). There is no substitute for having done a Western blot or some flow cytometry yourself and a theoretical knowledge is easy to see through.  The majority of techniques cited in your project should be already up and running in the lab. If there is something that is more contentious it is OK to acknowledge this and say something like:- “We have done parts of this model but never the whole thing and recognise that it is higher risk than the rest of the project. If it works, the pay off will be enormous and this will be an incredibly exciting result, if it doesn’t work, then that will be disappointing, but it will not impact on the other 90% of the project about which I am very confident.”

Panels understand risk in research but it must be “managed risk” that is there should always be a plan B and the whole project must not rest on the risky component.

Any questions

At the end of your interview it is likely that the Chair will say something along the lines of “We have asked you lots of questions is there anything you would like to ask us. ” 

Very occasionally there will be some important question that has not been answered by the administrators, by the grant web site, or by your supervisor. More often than not you will not have a question.

This is an opportunity, not to ask anything about the assessment process, your salary or anything like that which you could find out from an administrator. The opportunity is for you to leave a parting shot either to correct something that was unclear e.g. “No I don’t have any questions thank you but I would just like to clarify that we have already created a number of stable plasmid vectors expressing the promoter constructs in which we are interested and so the part of the project which the panellist expressed concern over is much less risky than I perhaps explained earlier.”

Or you can you use it to leave a different parting shot for example “I want to thank the panel for inviting me to present my project, I am really excited about the potential to investigate liver cancer and I think that your support would be a huge help in meeting my objective to becoming an academic transplant surgeon.” 

Or if you consider that to cheesy you could say something along the lines of “I think I am an ideal candidate for this fellowship and have the necessary skills to make this project a real success. I will be working in a lab with a good track record in this field and with excellent support and the question that I am asking is one with real importance and relevance to clinical disease.”

It doesn’t actually matter what you say exactly provided that it is extremely brief, no more than 2 sentences and leaves an impression with the panel that you want them to have, i.e. you are committed and capable and that the project is good.

After the storm

People often come out of fellowship interviews and say “That was terrible! They didnt ask me anything nice, in fact they hardly asked any questions at all. They only seemed to pick on problems with the project and they didn’t really give me any impression of whether they though the liked me or the project.”

Ok so lets stop and analyse this. A fellowship interview typically lasts 15-20 minutes. That is not a very long time particularly if you are giving a 3 minute presentation or are given the opportunity to introduce yourself or your project. So why do you think the panel will waste time telling you the good bits of your project or asking you nice questions? They will have the comments and criticisms from expert reviewers on your project and are beholden to interrogate the weak points and potential failings of the project to make sure that these are not “mission critical”. In the same way they won’t ask you questions about techniques that you clearly know or that they think are safe. They won’t tell you that it is great that you won a prize or got a 1st class honours degree, but it doesn’t mean that these things haven’t been noticed. The bit about “they hardly asked any questions at all” reflects the speed which these interviews pass at when you are under pressure and people often forget more questions than they remember.

In the same way it would not be appropriate for the panel to comment on whether your project was good or bad or whether they liked you or not. There may be a future Nobel Laureate about to walk in after you and it is not fair on you or other candidates for them to be anything other than completely impartial.

Taking stock

Write down the questions that you were asked and try to remember what you said in answering them. It is good to talk interviews over with your supervisor and lab mates. It is possible that you won’t be successful first time around but the experience is usually a very valuable learning experience and should make you better at subsequent interviews. If you are unsuccessful make sure you ask for feedback. Some organisations will arrange for someone to call you but more normally you will be sent a transcript of key points around your performance in interview and the panel opinion of the project. You may also be sent the external peer review reports which can be particularly helpful if there is considered to be a specific weakness in your project design or supervisory team.

© 2012 SJ Wigmore

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10 Responses to Preparing for a research fellowship interview part 2

  1. Fiona Marshall says:

    Thank you so much; I have 4 days to prepare for a fellowship interview and so have found this helpful in planning and feeling confident in my responses.

    • You are very welcome, best of luck in your interview!

    • Sophie Doran says:

      May I ask if it was Wellcome that you had an interview for? I applied to the September round and it was stated that we would be told the outcome 2 weeks prior to the planned interview date (which has now passed). I just thought I would see if by any chance it was Wellcome that gave you short notice for the interview?

  2. Si Quang Le says:

    Thanks very much.
    “tell us about your project in your own words” section is extremely useful.

  3. I am really glad I found this post! Thank you so much

  4. Stephen C says:

    I was successful in my recent Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship application and found this blog to be very helpful in my interview preparation. In particular, your advice on using “have you got any questions” to leave a final positive impression seemed to go down well (lots of smiles from the panel). Thanks!

  5. Shafqat M Khan says:

    Absolutely very useful post,, thank you very much. i have an interview for research fellow on coming Wednesday. i hope these interview tips would be quite useful.

  6. Diana says:

    Thank you so much! These are very useful tips and suggestions!

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