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Practice makes perfect


Part one of two on the run-up to grant or fellowship interviews

Funders vary in how frequently they use interviews as a means of decision-making. But as a rule of thumb, the larger a grant or more career-defining a fellowship, the more likely a funder is to deploy interviews.

Research funding interviews are therefore serious business. How best to prepare? In this article, I will focus on how to approach interview preparation at an institutional level, for those arranging or assisting with preparation. I will discuss how candidates themselves can best approach interviews in part two, in the next Research Fortnight.

At an institutional level, preparation is all about practice interviews. Whether it’s a solo (single applicant) or team interview, it makes sense to schedule at least three of these. The first is an opportunity for the candidate to experience interview pressure and identify areas to work on. The second is a chance to put lessons from the first into practice. The third is about building confidence.

Here are my seven tips for effective institutional preparation.

1. Plan for success

If the scheme specifies interview dates, applicants should block book those dates in their diary and research office colleagues should start scheduling practice interviews. Get these in the diary even before the applicants know for sure they’ve been invited. It’s better to cancel than scrabble around for dates at short notice. With a team interview, availability will be a challenge even if you start early, and the kinds of people you want on the panel are likely to be busy. There’s significantly less value in a practice interview with absent interviewees, to the extent that I usually wouldn’t bother without the whole team.

2. Spread the workload

With team interviews, if one or more of the interviewees is from another institution, ask that institution to arrange a practice interview. If you’re leading, overall responsibility rests with you, but why not call on the resources of your partners as well? Most universities will find it relatively easy to organise one; it’s finding that second date or second panel that’s often trickier.

3. Follow the format

Stick to the format of the official interview as much as possible. If it’s in person, practise in person. If there’s a presentation, keep it the same length. The only thing I’d vary is to allow more time for questions if it’s a short interview. Brief everyone involved to stay ‘in character’ as interviewer or interviewee. Don’t break the fourth wall.

4. Allow plenty of time

I try to get 90 minutes for a practice interview. It normally takes a practice panel 15 minutes or so to get comfortable and agree lines of questioning. There’s usually a presentation (around 10 minutes) and you should allow at least 20 minutes at the end for feedback and discussion. If you don’t need all of it, you can always finish early. That leaves about 45 minutes for questions. Don’t allow questions to overrun into feedback time; you need time to have a proper, two-way feedback discussion.

5. Don’t overfill the panel

If you have potential panel members with relevant academic expertise, that’s great, but remember this isn’t a viva or a specialist conference session. If you can find academics who know enough to ask challenging questions, that’s good enough to make it a worthwhile exercise. This is a great development opportunity for young researchers; they tend to enjoy the pretend power and take their role very seriously. You should also think about involving non-academics, and research development managers should be able to come up with good questions too, if needed.

6. Brief the panel thoroughly

Practice interviews are effectively batting practice for the interviewees. Panel members need to throw them a variety of pitches to have a swing at. You’re not trying to…catch them out [sound of metaphor collapsing]. The practice interview should finish with confidence enhanced, not diminished.

I normally come up with a list of indicative questions to help panel members. But mostly academics agree among themselves how to parcel up broad areas of enquiry that they’d each like to ask about. I just tell them how long they have for their questions and come to each of them in turn.

7. Question overlap is fine

Not every question at every practice must be new—in fact, it’s often better to ask the same or similar questions at a later interview in the hope of getting a stronger answer. On the other hand, it’s worth thinking about a wildcard question for each practice—something the interviewees won’t have planned for. Questions like “How will you know if you’ve succeeded?”, “What keeps you awake about your proposal?” and “Why would it be a mistake not to fund your project?”

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com