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In 2013 I was invited to be a member of the interview panel for the NIHR SPCR Launching Fellowship Awards. In this short piece, I will share a few thoughts that I took away from the experience – the things I would say to anyone putting together an application and who is likely to be interviewed.

As an interviewer, there were four distinct stages to the process, which were:
1) reviewing the applications;
2) pre-interview discussion with the panel members (i.e. to discuss expectations, agree on questions and the interview agenda;
3) conducting the interviews; and 4) post-interview discussion with the panel members. Together these stages provided me with an insight into the application, interview, and decision-making process for a funding award.

Here are a few pointers, from my experience of ‘sitting on the other side of the table’, for completing an application and being interviewed:

Completing an application form

  • Be really clear and concise in what you’re trying to say. Space is usually limited on application forms so make sure that you convey the key points, clearly. Do not feel the need to fill a text box for the sake of it nor repeat the same point several times.
  • Make sure you answer the question being asked. Try to avoid going off on tangents and missing the main point altogether.
  • I was surprised to see how very different applications were; some were very concise, laid out well and were ‘easy to read’, which encouraged me to engage with the text in front of me. In contrast, others were confusing, poorly structured, or contained errors, which was very frustrating and distracting. So, I would advise you to always consider your reader and make sure you try to ‘keep them on your side’, rather than giving a reason to be annoyed before the interview has even begun.
  • Read your application as though you were a reviewer. For example ask yourself: What is this person telling me about, and what are they proposing? How have they presented it and how does it compare with the guidance? What are the strengths and weaknesses? What do I want to know more about? What don’t I understand and how could the proposed work be improved?
  • If you’re not sure about any of the above then ask someone to read your application form for you; I’d suggest one layperson and another who is familiar with your line of work. Could your Mother, Grandfather or friend understand what you are saying – if not, then it probably won’t be clear to reviewers either.
  • Finally, double check for errors; you can’t claim to be diligent and pay attention to detail with an array of mistakes throughout your application!

The interview

  • Prepare for your interview. “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success”, Alexander Graham Bell.
  • Know your application inside out; you wrote it, so be prepared to answer questions on, or discuss, any aspect of it, as well as raise any points that you’d like (given the chance).
  • Know the fundamentals about the company/funder that you are applying to; it is highly likely that you will be asked to discuss ‘how your work fits within the aims of the company/funder’, or something similar. It doesn’t show commitment or interest if you don’t know about the organisation that you’re applying too.
  • Where possible, research your interview panel, e.g. what is their expertise / area of research? This could help you prepare for possible questions they might ask, or understand how they might engage with what you are saying.
  • If you have to give a presentation, then practice it. It is not acceptable to come to an interview and show a lack of care, attention to neither detail nor basic presentation skills. Similarly, ensure you stick to allocated presentation times; if you’re given five minutes, make sure you can present it within five – not ten or thereabouts as it is not professional.
  • Arrange to have a practice interview for colleagues (where possible). It is better to face challenging questions from people you know and in advance, so you can find out the answers, get use to discussing your work and presenting yourself.
  • Preparing any of the above would hopefully help increase your confidence, and ability to engage with your interview panel.
  • Try not to be defensive if asked questions. Questions aren’t there to trip you up, rather clarify a point and understand more about what you are proposing. Just because someone is an expert in their field, it doesn’t mean they are in yours and may want to know more – use that opportunity to tell them. If you’re not sure what they are asking, then seek clarification; there is nothing more frustrating than a waffled answer which hasn’t addressed the question.
  • It is refreshing to hear someone be self-reflective and critical of their own work as it shows maturity and that they have a critical thought process. If, since you wrote your application, you’ve reconsidered something or feel you could have improved something, then tell the interview panel. I’d much rather the interviewee highlights an error or limitation of their proposal, than a panel member. It shows strength.
  • One of my biggest top tips is try to be yourself and to see an interview as an opportunity to discuss your skills, work and ambitions, rather than a right and wrong question and answer session. It is disheartening when very good applications are not supported by good interviews. We all get nervous, and I believe a few nerves are positive, however it is difficult as an interviewer to relate to a ‘robot’ or very shy interviewee. Having sat on a few interview panels now, I’ve come to realise that ‘those daunting figures on the other side of the table’ are human and genuinely are not there to see someone fail or to intimidate you. Rather, they want that person to perform well, demonstrate their knowledge and ability and discuss what they have written about in their application.
  • You should try to engage with your interview panel, show them your personality – not in an arrogant way, but so that they can get an insight into who you are, as well as what you can write about on paper. Remember funders, or any organisation, aren’t just investing in a proposal, but also you as an individual. Can you deliver what you’re proposing, what else can you bring to the table, how will you fit within the current team?
  • Finally, put together some questions that you want to ask them, and not just ‘when will I be informed of the outcome’.

Written in 2013 by Dr Amanda Lewis

Amanda is currently Trial Manager for the UPSTREAM trial (Urodynamics forProstate Surgery Trial; Randomised Evaluation of Assessment Methods) in the Bristol Randomised Trials Collaboration, School of Social and Community Medicine at the University of Bristol.

Amanda was a SPCR Postdoctoral Research Fellow, based in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford from October 2010 to September 2013.

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