Toby Wise Computational psychiatry | Anxiety and depression Investigating neural & computational mechanisms underlying symptoms of anxiety and depression

How to survive a fellowship interview

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.

Making science with neural networks

As scientists, our primary aim is to publish papers in flashy journals such as Nature and Science (despite some claims that we should instead be focusing on extending human knowledge). In service of this aim, we spend immeasurable numbers of hours attempting to devise novel and exciting experiments that will seduce the editors of such journals and enable us to further our careers.

However, this seems a little inefficient. What if we could instead generate experiments that would be worthy of publication in these top journals instantly and automatically, leaving us to then simply carry out the work safe in the knowledge that the results would be gauranteed to appear in a top-tier publication?

I’ve recently seen many great (and hilarious) examples of neural networks being used to generate samples of text based on training datasets (http://lewisandquark.tumblr.com/ is worth spending several hours reading - she’s used neural networks to generate beer names, recipes, and name cats), and thought this seemed the ideal solution to this problem - can we generate ideas for papers with this new technology?

To try this out I retrieved titles of the most recent 50,000 papers published in Nature and Science, and set to work. I used a Python implementation of a char-rnn, based on Theano and Lasagne (I admit I did this half because I found the idea of writing import lasagne amusing), and trained it on these paper titles. After about 15 hours, it seemed to have a pretty good understanding of the entirity of science, and was producing some exciting, often strikingly inter-disciplinary, papers of its own.

  • The structure of the human gut microbiome in the solar system.
  • An extremely layer regulates biodiversity and the evolution of forest coupling at the centre of the global carbon cycle.
  • The genomic landscape of the electron pairing between the evolution of the southern ocean carbon nanotubes.
  • The genome of the supermassive black hole in an early mammals.
  • Antibody-mediated spindle of a single atoms in the tropical forest haematopoietic stem cell division in a compact density wave in the solar system.
  • Complexity of complex communities.
  • Structural basis for the control of protein activity in macaques.
  • Activation of the endoplasmic reticulum stress in the hippocampus.
  • A microbial genetic discovery of a protein phosphatase 2A and implications for the continental graphene transition.
  • A high-resolution structure of the Amazon deforestation and antibiotic resistance in the solar system.
  • A massive star formation in the abundant microbiota.
  • A progressive insight into the adult neural selection in a mouse model of the human genome.
  • Reconstructing the genome sequence of an extrasolar planet.
  • A resonant liquid from the leaving circulating wave revealed by self-renewing infective reactivity and temporal diversity in a stripped-resourcting the histone modification enhances neural responses to climate change.
  • A strong magnetic field in the hippocampus.
  • An atomic methanol using CO-methylatropospheric during the last deglaciation.
  • Antidepressants in a global clouds from modern human impacts on molecular channels.
  • Plant invasion by a radical proteome.
  • The missing memory in an exceptional patterns in metallic glasses.
  • A general model of the surface of the Southern Ocean deep states by means of interaction with neurotransmitter release.
  • A gene regulatory network states in a superconducting qubits via atomic clock on the contributor of a potassium channel Ca(2+) and PAL1 and toxicity in a tropical forests.
  • Discovery of a three-dimensional transition in the face of rapid warming leads to collapse of the Sun.
  • Complex carbon nanotubes in medial prefrontal cortex.
  • Complex structure of a metatherically stabilized reconstructed by massive mice.

It had even learnt that it was possible to write commentaries (it’s interesting to think about the thoughts such a commentary would contain given the subjects of these papers…):

  • Comment on “A common genetic variants associated with a single component of the mitochondrial calcium uniporter.
  • Comment on “A common genetic variants in the developmental disorder in the active site of the tropical Antarctic ice sheet.
  • Comment on “Density using mitochondrial fibroblastoma stemplling by the supersout restore responses in metal organic matter to ecosystems.

Some are even somewhat believable, if a little vague:

  • Control of the human transcriptome.
  • The structure of the human gut microbiome composition and its regulation.
  • Structure of the mammalian circadian clock.
  • Rapid early microscopic observation of inflammation.
  • Suppression of the southern ocean acidification.

It’s interesting that the neural network appears to believe certain phrases are particularly important to science today; genetic variants, structures, cirdadian clocks, and the southern ocean are frequently mentioned.

In summary, this has worked flawlessly and I will now be radically changing my research direction to focus on understanding complex carbon nanotubes in the medial prefrontal cortex. Expect to the see the results published in Nature soon.

How to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship in ten easy steps

Figuring out what to do after your PhD can be stressful. If you’ve not become disillusioned with the world of academia, you’ll probably be looking at a postdoctoral position. There are two real alternatives here: a job as a postdoc on someone else’s grant, or a fellowship.

Fellowships are an exciting option due to the freedom and opportunities they provide, however many simply aren’t aware of the available schemes or how to actually apply for one. This isn’t surprising given the complexities involved in applying for these positions, especially when you’re still relatively new to academia.

I was fortunate to do my PhD at an institution that actively helped early career researchers figure out their next steps and provided guidance on fellowship applications, but I’m probably in the minority here; many universities simply don’t offer this and I suspect that a lack of post-PhD support results in talented researchers being less successful than they otherwise could be.

For this reason, I’ve attempted to put together everything I’ve learnt about applying for a postdoctoral fellowship in the hope that it might be useful for others considering taking this route. This is based on what I’ve learnt from previous applicants, academics who have sat on panels and sponsored applications, and my own experience (I was recently fortunate enough to be awarded a Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust, and my stress and confusion during the application process inspired this post). As I’m most familiar with Wellcome’s scheme for junior researchers, this is what I’ll focus on, however a lot of this will be common to fellowships from different funders and at different levels. This is also very UK-centric and based on my experiences in biomedical science (specifically neuroscience) - I’m not sure about options elsewhere but hopefully this information might still be useful!

Step 1. Decide whether the fellowship route is for you

Fellowships aren’t for everyone. The idea of a fellowship is that rather than working as a postdoc on someone else’s grant you get funded to carry out a project of your own design, working with people you choose to work with. For the funders, they’re an opportunity to support talented early career researchers, with the aim of propelling them to academic stardom. A strong fellowship application allows a talented person to work on an exciting project at a world-leading place (these three Ps are the three key ingredients of a good application).

Fellowship schemes are typically competitive, so you need to look pretty good on paper. As is unfortunately typical in academia this means having publications. Having one or two first author papers in “decent” journals should be sufficient here, assuming you’re around the end of your PhD. Evidence of having already been awarded funding (e.g. small grants for research or conferences) is also helpful.

Many people probably self-select out of the process because they don’t feel they’re good enough, even if this isn’t true. This is an easy trap to fall into, especially if you compare yourself with previous awardees who often seem to have superhuman levels of scientific talent. So be optimistic, it’s worth at least chatting to your supervisor to see if they think it’s worth applying.

It’s easy to assume you’re not competitive, don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others as I did

Step 2. Think of a rough project idea

You need to propose a project that will lead to high quality research outputs, but which is also feasible in the time limit. At this stage you don’t need a detailed plan, just an idea of what you’d like to look focus on (for example, a couple of broad primary hypotheses you’d like to test). The project is one of the three Ps I mentioned previously - a good project is necessary for a strong application.

It’s important that this isn’t simply a direct continuation of your PhD work - there needs to be a clear training opportunity, for example learning new analysis methods, as fellowships are intended to foster your development as a researcher.

It’s fine to change field a bit, as long as you can show some continuity from your previous work, and at this stage it doesn’t matter whether your subject of interest aligns with funders’ priorities; this only comes into play at the higher levels, so don’t worry if your chosen subject isn’t “cool” right now.

Bearing in mind the time it takes to complete the whole application process, you probably want to have figured this out about 9 months before the deadline you’re aiming for.

Step 3. Find a fellowship scheme

There are a range of fellowships, which vary in terms of the career stage they’re aimed at and what they offer. Some are fairly generous in terms of duration and funding, while others are fairly brief or will cover just basic salary costs.

There’s sometimes a limit on how many years of postdoc experience is required to apply, even if this isn’t explicit (e.g. the MRC Career Development Award has no requirement, but you’re unlikely to be at the necessary level skills-wise without a few years of postdoc experience).

If you’re applying straight out of PhD, the most obvious choice is therefore the Wellcome Trust’s Sir Henry Wellcome fellowship, which is aimed at those of us at this level and doesn’t require any postdoc experience. There are two rounds per year, with deadlines around May and November, and they seem to award about 15-20 per round (you can view lists of previous awardees here).

Step 4. Identify potential sponsors and talk to them

A fairly crucial step is finding a sponsor(s) who will agree to host you. Most academics will be more than happy to chat with you about your ideas, so don’t be afraid to reach out to them!

Your host institution(s) and lab(s) should be the best place in the world to conduct the research, and you should aim to work with researchers who have a strong track record in the field - the place at which you choose to spend the fellowship is another important ingredient of the fellowship application, alongside the person and project. It’s very strongly encouraged to move away from where you did you PhD – staying within the same institution is likely to be criticised, unless this is clearly the best place for the work to be carried out (examples I’ve seen of this are where the candidate wishes to use a particular dataset or cohort which is based at the institute where they did their PhD).

These fellowships are also very flexible in terms of location, and this means you’re free to spend time at other locations (this was actually a requirement for my application). This is a great opportunity to broaden your horizons, gain new skills, and make contacts outside your host institution, so it’s worth speaking to multiple potential sponsors at this point about collaborations.

Speaking to potential sponsors will also help you refine your ideas for the proposal; they will be able to tell you whether your idea is feasible/actually worth looking at, and might point you in interesting new directions.

Step 5. Write the proposal

Writing a proposal is challenging, and a skill you will most likely not have much experience of at this early stage of your career. I’m not going to go into detail about how exactly this should be done as it could take up thousands of words, but I’ll provide some basic pointers.

It’s virtually impossible to outline a 4 year project in 1500 words. I spent a depressing number of hours rewriting and removing words to get it under the word limit. It’s also tricky to figure out how the proposal should be written – do you go for detail, or keep it more basic so that it makes sense to non-experts? Mine ended up being fairly detail-free, focusing on higher-level aims and hypotheses, but I’ve seen examples of both approaches that have been successful.

You’ll need to cover the background to the project, explain why your research question is important, and provide details of how you’re going to answer the question you’ve set. You’re not expected to have any pilot data, however make sure to reference any relevant work you’ve published already!

Your proposal should leave nothing to the reader’s imagination – make it obvious what question you’re asking and how you’re going to answer it. Make sure it’s clear how you’re going to spend your time, as it’s crucial that your project is obviously achievable in the timeframe – it can be helpful to include a timeline to illustrate this.

Try to contact previous applicants and ask to look at their applications – this is incredibly helpful when you’re figuring out how to structure your own.

Step 6. Rewrite the proposal

As with any piece of writing, getting feedback is invaluable. Your sponsors should be happy to look over the proposal – listen to their feedback, as they most likely have a great deal of experience in grant writing and have almost certainly reviewed grant applications themselves! Ask colleagues/supervisors/anyone who owes you a favour to take a look; Given how short the proposal is, it really needs to be as close to perfect as possible.

It’s also worth pointing out here that the proposal needs to represent your own ideas. Getting feedback from your sponsor is vital, but this shouldn’t be along the lines of “I don’t like your ideas, you should do X, Y, & Z instead”. Not only is this a pretty bad omen for your working relationship, it will also become apparent at interview that the proposal wasn’t your idea.

Getting feedback is crucial. However sometimes it turns out your friends are all too happy to be brutally honest

Step 7. Complete the application

The application requires various other details, such as statements of support from your supervisors/sponsors/mentor. Make sure you ask for these in plenty of time so you’re not left in a last minute panic!

You’ll also need to write a statement about your career to date and how the fellowship would further your career - this is how you address the third key part of the application, the person (you!). This is rather painful as you have to explain why you’re the greatest scientist ever to have lived, despite the fact that most of us seem to suffer from at least some degree of imposter syndrome. The key here is to use your achievements as evidence that you’d be successful if awarded the fellowship and make it clear how the fellowship would put you on the path towards an independent research career. Don’t worry if you’ve not received every award possible, published papers in Science/Nature, and cured cancer by the time you’re finishing your PhD – you might see people who’ve done this, but they’re the exception.

The application form will also ask for publications and awards. It’s fine to include submitted papers here (it’s fairly typical to not have all your PhD work published at this stage), but it’s not worth including work that’s “in preparation”.

Step 8. Submit the application

Eventually it’ll be time to undertake the terrifying task of submitting the application. Press the submit button and celebrate your hard work with a drink and sudden and terrifying realisation that you’ve not done any actual work for the past month.

Most anxiety-provoking button click of my life

Step 9. Submit the application again

The preliminary application will be reviewed and if you’re lucky you’ll be invited to submit a full application. Roughly half of the applications will be rejected at this stage.

The full application is largely the same as the preliminary application, with various extra bits of information (importantly, the proposal is largely the same at this stage so you don’t need to rewrite this).

You’ll need to speak to the people responsible for research grants at your host institution at this stage as they need to sign off on the submission, and they will probably expect you to do some sort of costing (nothing detailed, this is largely just a formality). Get this done sooner rather than later as you’ll typically only have about a month between hearing back and having to submit the full application.

After you submit the full application it will be sent to about three reviewers, who will provide feedback to the funder. The interview panel will judge whether or not to invite you to interview based on these reviews.

Step 10. Interview

If you’re lucky, you’ll be invited to interview. About half of the full applications will be selected for interview, so well done if you get this far!

The interview is where you’ll be quizzed on your proposal, and if you manage to wow the panel you’ll be awarded the fellowship! Roughly half the candidates interviewed will be offered the money, although this varies year on year.

The interview is worth a guide in itself, so I’ll leave this for now and hopefully address this in the future!

It’s probably pretty obvious now that the whole process is fairly involved. It’s a huge amount of work, and can be pretty stressful. There were multiple occasions where I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, and by the time I got to the interview I was adamant that I would never do this again. However, now I’m free from interview-related stress and panic, it’s obvious that it was 100% worth it.

Even if you’re unsuccessful, it’s a great way to get some experience of grant writing, which will serve you well in any academic career. It also enables you to build relationships with other researchers – if you don’t get awarded the fellowship, you’ve made strong links with your sponsors which could lead to other opportunities (note – these arguments seem entirely unconvincing when you’ve just come out of the interview feeling as though you’ve failed miserably).

I hope this has been helpful to anyone thinking of applying for a fellowship, and good luck!