In this post, an anonymous contributor discusses their recent experiences at two interviews for Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs), one of which they were turned down for, and the other of which they were successful. The contributor considers how to prepare for JRF interviews, what questions you might be asked, who is on the interview panel, what work you might be asked to submit beforehand, and various other aspects of their experience and the process in general. (For other posts related to this topic, see here and here).
Unlike the speakers on the ‘Life Post-PhD’ Roundtable from the RMA Research Students’ Conference earlier this year, I will not discuss here the process of applying for postdoctoral positions, nor either offer any advice on the various ways in which to carve out a career as a researcher in the aftermath of a PhD (this is something I’m in the early stages of working out myself!). Rather, my intention in this post is to focus upon the academic interview, and in particular, the JRF interview. Having applied for a number of postdoctoral positions upon completing my DPhil, I was shortlisted for two JRFs (hereafter JRF 1 and JRF 2), and was interviewed for both (I was successful the second time around). With this in mind, I share here something of my interview experiences, detailing my preparation strategies, and explaining a little of what happened in each interview, as well as recounting some of the feedback I was offered thereafter. I hope very much this post will be useful to those who will prepare for such interviews during the forthcoming academic year.
First: the shortlisting process. In the case of JRF 1 (open only to Musicologists), I was required to send in my written work with my application. I was called to interview around two months later, and the interview itself was scheduled for some two months after that. For JRF 2 (a competition open to the Arts and Humanities more broadly), the shortlisting process happened in two stages: around six weeks after sending off a short application, I was invited to submit samples of my written work, and shortlisted candidates were invited to interview with around a fortnight’s notice. A point to note here, then, is to be sure that written work is readily available: I was given three days in which to send in a 10,000-word piece of text, so it’s essential that written materials are complete – or at least near completion – upon making JRF applications. As I’d only recently finished my DPhil when I applied for JRF 1, I sent in two chapters of my doctoral thesis at this point (some 20 000 words). By the time I was asked for written work in support of the JRF 2 application, I’d almost finished working up an article from the thesis, so was able to send something a little more polished on this occasion (though the word-limit meant some rapid editing).
Second: information supplied by the panel about the interview. In the case of JRF 1, I was notified that the interview would last around forty-five minutes, and that I would be asked, first of all, to give a ten-minute presentation on my research proposal. The selection committee was named, and I was invited to a dinner on the evening of the interview (a social occasion, it was emphasized, and not a part of the selection process). For the JRF 2 interview, no formal presentation was required of me, though I was informed that I would likely be asked to summarize my work in three or four minutes. Members of the selection committee were not named this time, which made me rather anxious: there’s a sense of security, I found, in looking into the research interests of the various panel members, in order that you are able to anticipate, to some extent, the kinds of questions they may ask about your research proposal, presentation, and written work. If no committee names are disclosed, it’s perhaps an idea to look up any Musicologists employed at the institution to which you are applying (as it’s likely they will be on the panel). There was one Musicologist present at each of my JRF interviews, and in many cases, institutions bring in specialists from outside. These scholars tend to lead the interviews, and ask most of the questions.
Third: preparation. Aside from looking into the research interests of the various panel members (and even reading some of their work), my preparation involved a number of key tasks: writing my presentation/short research summary; formulating answers to questions about the nature and value of my research; and anticipating enquiries about my written work, especially its conceptual and methodological basis. First: the presentation/short summary. Given that these presentations are relatively informal – in the sense that you are presenting to no more than about six or seven people, usually while seated around a table, and without PowerPoint – I wanted either to prepare simply a series of written notes from which I could extemporize, or to memorize a written script, in order that in either case, I could look the various panel members in the eye and communicate with them directly. As I found in the JRF 1 interview, it’s risky to prepare simply a skeleton script, however, and much wiser to write out the presentation, memorizing it in the days before the interview, and taking a printed copy in as a prompt. I timed myself speaking my script numerous before the JRF 2 interview, working on the clarity of my delivery, and trying to avoid reciting by rote. Something I found useful was to rehearse the act of communicating my enthusiasm about my research ideas, trying to get across to a listener how much I genuinely wanted to write the study I was proposing. Before the JRF 2 interview, I also asked an academic friend to hear my presentation, and they fired some questions at me afterwards. I discovered that it’s very important to prepare as thoroughly as possible this part of the interview, as it’s generally where you make your first impressions in person.
As to the presentation itself: something that didn’t occur to me while preparing for the first JRF interview is that the panel will have read the research proposal, and so will know, in essence, what you intend to study, and how. With that in mind, much of what’s being assessed at this point is how articulate you are, and how clearly you can communicate the significance of your research (as was relayed to me in some feedback). The key point is that you will often be addressing scholars from a wide variety of disciplines: a Physicist, Veterinary Scientist, Archeologist, and Classicist were among those on my panels. It’s important, with that in mind, that you pitch the presentation appropriately, avoiding heavily technical language, and explaining the research project simply while demonstrating its potential significance in broad terms at every opportunity.
The interview: having been through the process once before, the second interview was slightly less terrifying than the first, if only because I had some sense of what to expect. After giving my presentations, I was asked in both interviews why my work was important, and in the JRF 1 interview, was asked why my work should be funded above that of others. Thereafter, questions about my research proposal were posed primarily from the Musicologists on the panels, though in the JRF 2 interview, a number of the scholars from other disciplines questioned me extensively. I had anticipated some of their questions, and had rehearsed, out loud, my responses (even writing them down, to aid with revision). When it came to questions I hadn’t expected, I tried to develop my responses from ideas and information I felt confident about, mentioning specific pieces of scholarship, and drawing the discussion around to how I would make a valuable contribution to my field. When asked outright about something I knew nothing about, I said so (JRF 1 interview). In both interviews, I tried to think through not only what I wanted to say, but how I wanted to frame my answers.
Finally, feedback after the interviews: I received no feedback after the unsuccessful interview (my own feedback: I was intensely nervous, rushed my presentation and lost my place among my notes, stumbled over my words, and often became rather defensive when explaining the value of my work – good to avoid all these where possible!). I was given feedback after the successful interview, however, and one panel member emphasized that what was partly being assessed here was how interesting, engaging, and committed a personality each candidate posed. As this scholar put it: by the time you are invited to interview, the committee are convinced of your academic credentials, they broadly understand the scope and nature of your work, and they are confident of your potential to produce high-level research. Thus, what’s important at the interview is to communicate clearly, creatively, and with conviction – and above all, to be yourself. It sounds (and sounded to me) like a cliché, but it makes sense: a community will always take into account the kind of contribution a new member will make to their number, and this seems no less true of academic communities.
So, in a sense, the luck element of the JRF process continues right through to the interview! With that in mind, I conclude with a piece of advice imparted to me while I was trying and miserably failing to get shortlisted for anything. As this senior scholar put it: ‘if you get interviewed for a JRF it means you’re good; if you don’t, it certainly doesn’t mean you’re not.’
Very best of luck!
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