How to survive a fellowship interview

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Fellowship interviews are generally terrifying affairs that few escape without some degree of psychological distress. But it’s totally worth it, honest.

Having been through this and survived, I thought it might be helpful to write down some of the advice I’ve been given when preparing and given to other prospective interviewees. I’ve only interviewed for Wellcome’s Sir Henry Wellcome fellowship, so this post is based on this, but all early-career interviews share a vaguely similar procedure so hopefully this advice should be at least partially applicable to other schemes too.

The setup

You’ll be interviewed by a panel of 15-20 people, including academics and a few administrative staff. All at the same time. In one room. This is obviously pretty scary. They all sit at U-shaped tables, while you sit at a separate table in front of the panel. Thankfully only two or three of these people will be asking you most of your questions (the questioning is opened up to any panel members, but they often don’t ask many, if any) – these will be the people on the panel who work in fields most closely related to yours.

The procedure

Before the interview, you’ll be welcomed by your grant manager who will try their utmost to distract you from the upcoming horror. Soon enough you will be led into the room and sat down at your small table in front of the panel. The chair will introduce themselves and the two panel members who will be leading your interview. You’ll attempt to look around and smile at the entire panel, while in my case nervously drinking almost all of the water provided for you. Some of the panel may seem entirely disinterested, choosing to look at laptops rather than you – this isn’t a bad sign, they’re likely just preparing for questioning the next candidate.

The chair will then ask you to update the panel on any progress since you submitted the application and to give the panel a summary of your proposed project. In some cases, you are asked to prepare slides for your summary, to be sent one or two weeks before your interview date. The slides should be very effective, simple and visually oriented – think of TED talks. You want panel members to watch you, not to start reading lots of text – you are the main thing they are assessing once you get in there, so make sure their attention is on you and don’t feel shy to be at the centre of the attention. You’ll then rattle you well-rehearsed presentation off at about twice your normal speaking pace.

The first of your interviewers will then spend about 10 minutes (I think, honestly it feels like an hour but unless clocks don’t work properly in the interview room it isn’t actually) asking you questions, before handing over to the second interviewer who will ask questions for roughly 10 more minutes. The panel members will be sitting quite far away from you, so it is OK to ask to repeat a question if you are not sure you heard well. Once they’ve finished asking questions, the chair will ask if any other panel members wish to ask any questions. After this you’ll be asked whether you wish to ask any questions (most people don’t). They will then thank you for your time and you’ll nervously stumble out of the room and run straight to the nearest place glass of wine (handy tip – the Wellcome Collection is next door to the Wellcome building and serves alcohol, or there’s the Euston Tap across the road if you can make it that far).

You’ll then endure what feels like a year of worrying about how you missed a word out of one of your answers and having a recurring nightmare that involves being relentlessly quizzed by a panel of twenty people, before finally being informed of the outcome. If it’s good news, this is usually by phone.

The questions

It’s impossible to predict exactly what you’ll be asked, but you can generally guess some of the major ones. These will be things that you’ve identified as potential issues yourself, or that you weren’t entirely sure about when writing the proposal. If you’re given reviewers’ comments beforehand, this will help you identify potential weaknesses, but don’t rely on them – the questions I was asked weren’t too closely related to the reviews. Keep an open mind when preparing though and prepare for anything – both ‘bigger picture’ questions and more technical questions on your methods and hypotheses. The chair of the panel usually may ask a few more general questions on the strengths/weaknesses of the project or training plan.

The questions will mostly focus on the project itself, but it’s possible that you’ll get questions about what makes you a good candidate and why your proposed host institution is appropriate. Remember to focus on the 3 ‘P’s, you need to justify the person (you!), the project, and the place (including your sponsors). This inevitably risks putting you in the awkward position (at least if you’re British) of having to explain why you’re the greatest researcher to ever have graced the interview room, so get used to ignoring your self-doubt and focusing on your achievements – you wouldn’t be at the interview if you didn’t have a few.

The panel members tend to be friendly and genuinely interested in what you’re proposing and won’t be trying to catch you out. I have to admit that I found my interview fairly stressful – I got some unexpected questions that I wasn’t sure how to answer, and one of my interviewers was quite hard with their questioning. However, I expect I was being pushed; I’ve heard from previous applicants and panel members that sometimes they will attempt to push you to the edge of your knowledge, so don’t necessarily expect an easy ride.

When answering questions, remember to be concise. Nobody wants to hear you waffle for 5 minutes, so try to answer the question as clearly and succinctly as possible. Don’t try to be overly defensive in your answers; you don’t want to try to argue with the panel. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t defend yourself against critique, but it should be along the lines of “that is a valid point, but here is how I will address the issue” rather than “this is not a problem and you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about”.

How to prepare

  • Have mock interviews – this is the most important thing you can do. Mocks will get you used to being interviewed, make you aware of weaknesses in your project and your interviewing skills, and give you a rough idea of some of the questions you might get asked. It’s good to try to get interviews with more senior academics (the kind of people who will be on the panel), but I personally found mocks with my peers equally helpful. You will come out of every one of them feeling completely destroyed, but they are honestly the best prep you can do. Essentially, the more mocks the better.
  • Prepare answers to questions – mocks will help you get an idea of questions you might be asked, but it’s good to really spend time thinking about any weaknesses in your application and coming up with questions you think you may get related to these. Once you have an idea of what you might be asked, you can think about how best to answer these. I ended up with a ~7500 word document full of potential questions and answers, as I’d tried to cover everything I could possibly think of. You don’t need to memorise answers to 100 questions, but the practice of thinking about them will mean you get to know your proposal and its weaknesses intimately, making it easier to think on your feet on the day. I would however recommend trying to roughly memorise (not word for word) answers to any questions you’re fairly certain you will get asked.
  • Talk to previous interviewees/interviewers – if you’re lucky enough to know people who’ve either interviewed for fellowships or even been on the panel, chat to them! Most people who’ve done this will be happy to help. You can generally find the names of people that were awarded the fellowship you’re going for on the funder’s website.
  • Do some research on the panel - it’s worth looking at who is on the panel beforehand (they are often, although not always, listed online) to get a feel for who might be questioning you and what they might want to ask. For example if there’s someone on the panel who is an expert in the methods you’re planning to use, you might get some questions about your methods!
  • Rehearse your presentation – you need to know your three minute presentation off by heart. You want this to be clear and to the point, explaining exactly why you, the project, and the place you’re doing it are worth funding. Get as much feedback as you can on this, most people will be happy to listen to a three minute long speech! It’s also important to get feedback from people outside your immediate research area, as many of the panel members won’t have an intimate understanding of what you’re proposing.
  • Know your arsenal – Ultimately, any funding body just wants to make sure you will have the resources and support you need to carry out your work. Look in to courses you can take or people you can turn to (who may or may not have been listed on your application) for specific areas of your project – particularly those that you might not have much prior experience with. It’s handy to have these little tools in your arsenal during the interview to show the funders that you’ll be in good hands.
  • Read your application – this might sound obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of your original application amidst all your interview prepping. Do give your full application a once over before the interview, keeping in mind this is the only information (other than the reviews) your panel has to go on.

Hopefully this is somewhat helpful. The interview is a stressful situation and very few people come out feeling entirely happy, even if they end up being successful, but I think it’s a worthwhile experience regardless of the outcome – if you intend to stay in research (and you likely do if you’re applying for a fellowship), you’ll have to do this sort of thing again (and again) in your career so it’s worth getting some practice in early!

I’d like to thank fellow interview survivors Giorgia Michelini and Christina Carlisi for their help writing this post.