How to succeed at research fellowship interviewsBMJ 2017; 356 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j77 (Published 12 January 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;356:j77
- 1Faculty of epidemiology and population health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London
- 2Cambridge Institute of Public Health, Cambridge
Research fellowship interviews can be challenging experiences. Charlotte Warren-Gash and Angelique Mavrodaris discuss strategies for effective preparation.
Research fellowships can be a gateway to fantastic opportunities. But interviews for these posts can be stressful and only a minority of applicants are successful: Medical Research Council data show that only 25% of applications for clinical research training fellowship posts were successful in 2015/16, along with 19% of clinician scientist fellowship posts. Being shortlisted for interview is an achievement in itself, as around 50% of those interviewed gain posts. But how can you maximise your chances of interview success?
Proposal, presentation, interview
First, re-read your application and main references several times. Your goal is to identify weaknesses or points that need clarification. No research is free from limitations, but being aware of these is essential.
Send your proposal to supervisors, collaborators, and colleagues to critique. Then prepare a list of practice questions. Some will be specific to your research and others generic, such as how the fellowship will advance your career. Consulting with existing fellowship holders will help to refine your list. Try to construct answers as two or three key messages, rather than writing out paragraphs to memorise.
Most funders ask for a short presentation. You need to convey your research clearly and powerfully to a multidisciplinary audience and impress upon them your commitment.
Hannah Whiteman, strategic research manager from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says: “You are in complete control of your presentation. You can ace it.”
Show how the project engages with health priorities and aligns with the funder’s strategic focus. Give an overview rather than detail, and highlight your big achievements. Follow the rules on timing, slide number, and format. The final slide will stay on screen behind, so use it wisely to maximise impact.
Mock interviews are useful for gaining confidence and experience of delivering under pressure. The more formal the better, so panels are preferable to interviews with individuals. A diverse panel of mentors can give feedback from a range of perspectives. They need not be subject experts but should understand the process—they could be successful grant holders or used to adjudicating funding applications. Make sure that those you choose are experienced and will comment in a constructive way. Aim to have several mock interviews, leaving time to incorporate feedback in between.
Many universities employ people to support research funding applications. Job titles for people doing this kind of work vary but may be something like “research facilitation officer,” they could be organised centrally or within departments, and their remit also varies. Nevertheless, they will know the funders well, and may be able to comment on your application or obtain internal peer reviews. They might also organise or take notes during mock interviews. Crucially, they will have access to a network of successful fellowship recipients and know who sits on existing funding panels. These people are gold dust for mock interviews.
Panels have a list of questions that must be addressed to reassure them that a proposal is fundable. Before answering, pause and think, then make two or three concise points.
If you cannot answer a question, shut it down politely, acknowledging uncertainty and move on. Avoid being defensive or argumentative. Try to look confident, use positive body language, and maintain eye contact with the questioner. Consider media training or acting coaching if you struggle with this.
Being nervous on the interview day is completely normal but by this stage you will be well prepared. Plan transport to the venue carefully and arrive early. Clothing should be smart and business-like to make you look and feel like an aspiring clinical academic leader.
When you enter the room, smile and express your enthusiasm. Aim to put the panel at ease. Two main interviewers who have read your proposal in detail will lead the questions.
Take time to formulate answers, recognising that many panel members will not be subject experts. Focus on conveying your key messages, authenticity, and passion for your topic. The panel needs to know that you have the capability, drive, and resilience to succeed in research.
Afterwards, stay positive and record all questions that you can remember for future reference.
Competing interests: We have read and understood BMJ’s policy on declaration of interests and declare that we have no competing interests.