An academic job interview gone horribly wrong

I spent a large fraction of last year working out a proposal for a junior group leader positions in my field. Now I was invited for an interview for the one position that I wanted most.

It was a total disaster.

I would like to describe this interview as a warning for other people who are invited to similar interviews.

The interview took place with an inter-disciplinary panel of about 25 natural science professors, of which 24 were male, obviously. I was to give a 15-minute presentation about my project, understandable for non-experts, followed by 15 minutes of questions.

So I travelled to the city in question, slept in a hotel, spent the day waiting and being nervous until it was time  and my interview started. I was led into the room with these 25 professors, who were sitting in a U-shaped configuration — I had professors on both flanks and in front of me, which made me feel really cornered. My presentation was aready on the projector (I had to send it in before), and I was greeted with one sentence, dryly, without a smile, and asked to start.

I launched into my presentation and tried to make eye contact with the audience. To my surprise, almost all faces I saw looked at me with expressions of contempt and boredom. I have given many talks, and not once have I encountered such a negative atmsophere. I felt like I was talking to a wall of negativity.

This had a surprisingly strong effect on me. From other academic presentations and from a few other interviews I was used to faces which are somewhere between neutral and friendly, with always one or two friendly faces that I can use as a source of encouragement during my talk. I should have prepared for it being different; but I did not even consider it.

One professor, who is in a totally different field than me, even started to slowly shake his head while I was looking at him when talking. I started to get very nervous. I thought: “This is going wrong, but it can’t go wrong, it can’t… ”

I somehow managed to finish the talk, knowing that I had not talked well, far worse than my worst talk ever, and that in such an important moment! Then the questions were starting. I had expected some sort of benevolence, critical, but interested questions. This was not the case. The questions seemed to me full of contempt, and accompanied by very bored, very negative faces. Not one question showed interest in my actual project.

Instead, they asked: “And what is your opinion about big open question XY?” (which has nothing to do with my talk and on which I have never done any work). And, probingly, as if I was a first year student: “Do you know what Professor XY has contributed to your field?” (who is a guy that I have heard of only in passing). “You say that you use method P, well anyone can use method P.  What is the point?” or “You say you use method Z to learn about T, but what is there even to learn? Don’t you get out what you put in?” (which is a totally absurd question for someone knowing even the smallest thing about my field…). In all, the questions showed a surprising lack of respect for me. I guess I am just not used to that anymore, with people in my field usually reacting very positively to my talks.

I could have answered these questions well, in principle, if I had a few extra minutes to think, or if I had been calmer and not so confused by the negative atmosphere. Another mistake was that I did not expect that they would question the basic methods in my field which are used by hundreds of groups around the world. I thought I would have to defend my own project, not my field. I started rambling. I noticed that I did not answer the questions well, noticed that I used the wrong verb here, sounded too insecure there. It didn’t help that people were making extremely negative faces, as if I was a total idiot, as if my track record, which is actually very good, had zero influence on them. It did not help to stand as a woman in front of older men who seemed to expect me to fail from the start.

Now why did I fail this interview?

My answer to that is: Because I felt that they expected me to fail. I am unfortunately a social person, instinctively keen on meeting other people’s expectations of me. And that is it; if you are a woman, you cannot, CANNOT be sensitive to these kind of expectations. You need to have a thick skin. I don’t have one, but if I had been warned, I would have prepared differently for the interview, and it would have gone better. So my hope is that maybe someone out there might profit from this warning: Throw away your  need for being liked and harmony if you go into a job interview like that, and be much colder, much calmer than I was. I will write up some more concrete ideas on how I should have done this better soon.

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29 Responses to An academic job interview gone horribly wrong

  1. To the left of centre says:

    Amazing. What country was this? I was on an interview panel late last year for three junior faculty positions and it was completely different to what you describe. The talks were all presented in the same way as any seminar and the interviews were a small panel (5 of us) and the candidate was introduced to all of us at the beginning and we tried (as far as possible) to make them as comfortable as possible. I can’t imagine being involved in what you describe. I can’t see how that could possibly bring out the best in the candidates.

    • zinemin says:

      Maybe the reason is that they did not want to bring out the best in the candidates? It certainly seems this way to me… I am not sure if they wanted to see how we react to pressure, or maybe there was some reason they wanted to decline my application from the start. But I think a panel of 5 people is so much nicer than of 25. It would just have felt less threatening and more personal. The country was Switzerland.

      • To the left of centre says:

        As someone has mentioned below, this wouldn’t be allowed in the UK. I don’t know if it is technically illegal but all the universities I’ve ever been associated with have fairly strict rules about how interviews should be undertaken. You need to treat everyone the same and to have essentially the same set of questions. The questions don’t have to be identical, but they do have to be similar. I don’t think you would ever encounter anything like what you’ve described here in the UK.

  2. Ok, that sounds horrifying. The only thing I can think that is potentially positive, though, that is if this was the department you were working in, it would probably be just as caustic form a day-to-day standpoint… so perhaps it is a good thing?

    Thank you for writing about this! I’ve still got several years before I start thinking about academic job interviews, but still, definitely something on my radar.

    • zinemin says:

      Very true, if these would have been people from the department I was going to work with, I would have immediately withdrawn my application! For sure! And it does worry me that professors behave like this and makes me wonder if I want to become one of them.
      However, this is money coming directly from the government to support young researchers starting their own group. So the panel consisted of professors from various universities and departments, not actually including anyone from my chosen host institute. I would probably never have seen them again in case my application had worked out.
      I guess this might be part of the reason that they were so unfriendly.
      Here in Europe the tenure-track system is unfortunately not common, so it is pretty normal at this career stage that one has to apply for government/EU money instead of with a specific department… which makes the entire process a bit “colder” and maybe more difficult for people like myself.

  3. Nicola Elam says:

    Thanks for your helpful article forewarning that audiences are not always receptive. I think your situation would leave a bitter taste with me because so many in the room seemed to rally against you. It’s almost odd. I am a Toast Master, part of Toast Masters international and I would like to share this article with fellow members if you don’t mind? You say you would have dealt with the situation differently had you known what to expect and perhaps a political speech would receive similar or spontaneous disdain. I know my fellow Toasties somewhere will have experience of this and may provide you with insight to balance your feelings. I’m going to request feedback of tactical tools to deal with a hostile audience that I can share with you if you are interested. I am becoming politically vocal in my field as well as soon to be a research student. I admit that I do have a thick skin and am rather self-absorbed, helpful traits I may no longer supress! Failing that I won’t wear my glasses and tell my story with vigour to a room full of blurs!

    • zinemin says:

      Sure, please share. I would be extremely interested in hearing about tools about how to deal with a hostile audience. You are right, there must be techniques for that! I was thinking exactly the same thing — I really wish I would have not brought my glasses to this interview, that would have helped so much!

  4. ailsahaxell says:

    What a horrid experience. I had hoped you were going to say you woke up Nonetheless it is a salutary lesson for women especially: when you swim with sharks, dont bleed. Connecting with the audience in this instance is dangerous, playing with them longterm perhaps even more so.

    • zinemin says:

      So true. On the long term, I think it must be very tiring to be surrounded and evaluated by people like that, who will constantly be suspicious of me because I don’t “look like a professor”/”talk like a professor”. I don’t think I can handle this until retirement anyway.

  5. Wow. What a utterly awful experience for you. Being an early career researcher myself, I know I have these sorts of situations ahead of me, and I know I am exactly the same regarding my desire to be liked, accepted and encouraged. Perhaps failing the interview was a blessing, saving you from further exposure to the impenetrable negative attitudes of these otherwise would-be colleagues. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  6. In the UK this would be seriously illegal as an interviewing process to fill an employment vacancy. Interviewing panels must have (broadly speaking) roughly equal numbers of men and women. Trick questions are forbidden. All candidates interviewed must be asked broadly similar open questions. The panel members have to record their scores for candidates. These scores can later be used in any appeal.

  7. Paul Spencer says:

    I’ve had similar interview experiences! I think one of the reasons that some interview panels behave so appallingly is that they already have a preferred candidate in mind and that interviewing other candidates is seen merely as going through the motions. I also think that egos are such that they must demonstrate why a candidate couldn’t cut it in the particular academic environment.

    I’ve attended interviews at research intensive institutions where I have felt derided for having a PhD from a post ’92 institution, that I couldn’t possibly contribute anything of substance to a research intensive environment.

    I think the only way to view those interviews is to realise that it is as much about finding out what it would be like to work at that place as it is about your competency. I should view at as lucky escape to not be offered a position there.

    • zinemin says:

      Thanks! I am sorry that the same happened to you but it is nice not to feel alone with this!

      It is well possible that the same happened at my interview. I had such a strong feeling that they wanted to reject me from the start. Maybe my feeling was correct and there was something political going on in the background. I was applying for money from the government, so the panel was made of people from other Universities. Maybe they simply did not want to give my chosen department another position.

      I also think that maybe they mistreat us in the interview so that we will feel as if we deserved not to get the position and we will not complain. I know my qualifications are in principle more than good enough for this kind of position, and they say they really want more women. So they really needed me to fail the interview, if I think about it…

  8. John says:

    Hi Zinemin,
    I actually felt quite angry reading your post because the way you were treated seems cruel and mean-spirited to me. I’m no expert on academia and how things are done (I’m just starting out), but don’t people remember what it feels like to be in your position?! Maybe they had similar experiences in their younger days and believe that others should have to go through the same – who knows, but that’s no excuse in my opinion. I’m not surprised you had a difficult time in the face of that ordeal and I really do think most people would have found it incredibly tough under those circumstances. And let me tell you that I have messed up interviews in far more benign conditions than you experienced there!

    I’ve only just started my PhD, but in my former life I saw recruitment from both sides of the fence and I think that the way recruitment/interviews are dealt with can tell you a lot about an employer. I don’t suppose it feels like it, but, from a complete outsiders perspective, it seems like you’ve had a lucky escape. I realise that’s easy for me to say, because you obviously wanted the position, worked hard on it, and deserved the opportunity to present.

    As far as I can tell, there are plenty of nice people in academia, and I’m sure you are one too, so I hope a good opportunity comes your way soon.
    All the best,

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you very much for your kind words and understanding, John! It cheers me up that other people understand why this was so difficult for me. This helps me to deal with the fact that I did not handle the situation so well….
      Indeed, there are nicer people in academia than this. Some of my past job interviews were totally pleasant, actually.
      All the best with your PhD!

  9. Camilla Rose says:

    Really sorry to hear about your experience! Perhaps there’s another path which you must take and if this opportunity didn’t lead to fruition, maybe it’s for the better. As to women in research being treated same like men, I have seen otherwise too. We have to constantly prove ourselves and if we’re assertive than we quickly get a badge of “being bossy or arrogant”, however don’t get discouraged and perhaps use your network to investigate your options.

    All the best,

  10. It is really strange they put you through this. Are you going to give us a hint of what institution put together this kind of panel? From the mention of “junior group leader” I’m guessing MPI, but I don’t know?

    Do you know how you did? Maybe they were like that to everyone & it went OK really?

    Probably years from now you will find out what actually happened — I say this, because I’m guessing you will get a good position somwhere anyway. Good luck!

  11. I’m appalled by what you describe. As several commenters have said, it almost certainly couldn’t happen quite this way in the UK. You’ve prompted me to write my own post on your experiences and what I have seen myself from the other side. It’s here . I’m glad you’re finding a supportive readership to restore your confidence.

  12. Imoamo says:

    The worst interview I have ever had was not dissimilar to this. 14 professors and the University Vice Chancellor, as you say in a U formation. Made worse by two of my potential colleagues sitting in as observers (it felt more like spying). A presentation to give that was well outside my comfort zone and not an iota of positive body language in the audience of men. They gave the job to another colleague (also female but only genotypically) who was interviewed BY PHONE as she was on holiday at the time. Just to complete the story, I was offered (and took) a lesser role in the same academic institute. The appointee walked out after 5 weeks, leaving such disaster and demoralisation in her wake that the entire Directorate was abolished not long afterwards. Do interviews work? Not these.

    • zinemin says:

      Wow! This is an incredible story! Seems clear to me that the decision was made before the interview — and the decision was as wrong as it can be. 🙂

  13. Rob Townley says:

    I have spent the last half hour or more reading some of your older blog posts. They’re brilliant. I was particularly impressed by the “Doing difficult…” and “Culture class…” posts. I look forward to reading more of your stuff, old and new. You have a talent for seeing, interpreting and writing about your world. I hope your talents and your interests will help you find what you are looking for.

  14. Vena Ray says:

    To be honest, this doesn’t sound so bad to me… I suspect you did better than you think you did.

    This is how I see it. At the bigger, more famous academic institutions, the entire goal of the search committee will be to rip you to shreds. They want to see you break. Rather, they want to see if you are unbreakable. The reason: the scientists that will bring in the prestige and $$ are the ones who will persevere under pressure. No one on these committees gives a damn about the science. They likely have no idea about your area, because it isn’t their area, which is why you might get some ridiculous questions. I believe the bad interviews are the ones where people are nice to you. Niceties mean you’ve failed. It means they think you are weak and don’t want to damage you.

    I had a very similar interview to yours recently. However, I came in with the expectation that they would be really, really harsh (I was given prior warning by several people). In fact, when I was picked up by my host, he told me, “They’re going to destroy you tomorrow!” Knowing that this would be the challenge made it much less of a soul-crushing experience. I knew that I was doing well as the questions become more and more abrasive. At one point, one of the professors even got up and walked out of the room! I had a good time with it overall because I understood the nature of what they were trying to discern. I got the offer. I’m not a cold robot like most of the female scientists I know either – quite the opposite. I’m warm, energetic, happy, and waaayyy too feminine. Don’t change who you are just to win the game but get the rulebook before you go in!

    • zinemin says:

      I agree with you that I went into this way too naive for sure, also because a former member of the committee beforehand told us that “they were going to be nice and they would be on our side”. This stupid comment really stuck with me throughout the preparation phase, and influenced the way I approached the interview, unfortunately. I think a serious warning could have really helped me… I think your approach is the right one: one has to see it as a sort of a game.

      A colleague of mine also said he had several interviews, and they were totally mean to him at one of them, and that is where he got the offer.

  15. kolytyi says:

    I have the strong feeling that this position was filled in advance by someone, and the whole process was only a long, boring and pointless stage show. I think all candidates were treated in a similar way as you (with one exception, of course). In my country, there are small universities, and only a few research institutes. As a consequence, practically all positions are given to relatives or acolytes. Decisions on applications for leading a research group, for example, are often made by 70-75 year old people who haven’t produced anything valuable during their careers, have no idea about current research topics and methods and are clearly guided by their personal likes or dislikes. This is strongly counterproductive: the best researchers and lots of young and middle-aged physicians went abroad and did not come back. Thus, the main reaction is exodus.

  16. j says:

    I had almost the same experience at a uk school for a post doc position. I came 20 minutes early, they started 15 minutes late, all negative facial expressions, hostile questions, and no oppertunity at the end to ask questions about the position. It was weird but this seems to be how some institutions act. They had their secretary send me an email the next day saying i was out of the running. I recieved this on the train back home. My view is this; if the school is creating professors who behave this way do you want to work there if thats what you will become?

    I do believe when institutions do this, theres an inside candidate, and they are fishing for any reason to reduce the applicants. Other serious institutions are much more respectful when they like your work.

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