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The science of interviews

by Nik Papageorgiou

Nik Papageorgiou 18 July 2010

He shakes his head and sighs deeply. As far as he’s concerned, I’m already dead meat

So, what d’you want?”

“Uh… sorry?”

That short exchange is apparently enough to wear my interviewer’s patience. With a well-rehearsed shake of the head he runs his hand over his shaved scalp, and he looks ready to rip my guts out.

“Okay. First of all, stop apologising. Your talk – the lines in your slides jumped because the projector’s resolution was off. Don’t keep apologising for every damn slide. It’s annoying.”


“So, one more time: What d’you want?”

I’ve actually been warned about this. It turns out that scientists are born with their career goals imprinted in their genes and are ready at any time, any place and under any circumstances to regurgitate a full-rounded, thoroughly-designed, well-researched and completely plausible plan for their professional future. And it’s not that I haven’t tried; it’s just that it looks like whatever I say will be wrong.

Maybe it’s his eyes – all I can think about when I see them is “blade”.

“My aim is to one day run my own, uh, lab – or to at least be part of a supervising –”

“Stop – stop.” He exhales and I swear steam comes out of his ears. “OK. You want to be an independent researcher. Yes?”


“You have to go abroad.”

“Excuse me?”

“There is no way that you will ever have a lab of your own if you don’t move around.”

“Can I ask why?”

“It’s the way it is. Experience. Adaptability. Management. You did your MSc here – don’t tell me you’re only looking for PhDs in the UK?”

I lie. “Uh, no, no. But I thought I’d start from here and sort of spiral out.”

He shakes his head and sighs deeply. As far as he’s concerned, I’m already dead meat. But then he sighs again, takes a piece of paper and starts scribbling on it. “Ok, if you decide to head out, there are three big ones for cancer: McGill, Toronto and Hopkins. It’s hard to get in, so be prepared for disappointment.”

I’m interviewing for a PhD in cancer biology and my potential boss is listing institutes across the Atlantic. I feel many things, but optimistic ain’t one of them.

“… after my postdoc I applied there, but I didn’t get it. Was close though. Then I got sick of the Darwinian politics of US academics and pushed to get my lab here. So, do you have any questions?”

Not at all – no point in wasting our time. But the conditioned part of my brain tells me to leave a good impression because you never know, so it flips through its rolodex and under the file labelled GENERIC QUESTIONS THAT CONVEY INTEREST it pulls out a card with STRUCTURE written on top.

“Could you tell me a little about the structure of the institute here?”


“Uh, the structure? How does it work” – relationship! – “what is the relationship between lab heads and their superiors?”

He just glares at me, so I have to play either the “I didn’t phrase that well” or the “will I be able to use the system to promote my career?” card.

“What I meant was, is there, um, interaction between those above you –”

Yeah. That was the “dig a little deeper” card.

“Let me explain something to you: I don’t have superiors. I don’t consider anyone as being above me. Okay? I get my grants, I produce data, I get more grants. I expect those who work for me to do the same, so I have a contract with them: they work hard and I push to get their work published in top-tier journals. Clear?”

I’m too scared to catch most of that and there is no parallel universe where I even remotely hint at my lapse. Instead, I stare at him with my curved right index over my mouth and nod intensely at regular intervals as I wonder if I should change my cover letter.


This lady seems nice. She smiles and nods and jokes a bit and chats about the weather. She has a foreign accent that I can’t place. When we sit, she offers me all kinds of tea and tells me about her kids.

This could be the beginning of something –

“So, what d’you want?” Softer, but still the same.

“My aim is to become an independent researcher in the field. I am particularly interested in understanding the common signalling pathways behind the development of cancer pathology.” I sit back, chuffed, my little spiel that I practised and optimised fifty-nine times yesterday in front of the mirror. Like rehearing a marriage proposal, but without the love.

She smiles, scratches her nose, and finally laughs.

I went too fast – that’s it. Or too intense. Should’ve softened the eye contact.

“Okay. First things first. You don’t want to ‘become an independent researcher’. Save that for after your PhD. At this stage your script should be ‘I want to develop a track record in cancer pathology in order to determine my exact career in research’. Got it?”

“Track record.”

“Next, you mention in your CV that you’ve got a ‘manuscript in development’. Well done for an MSc, but it’s pointless. If it’s not published, no-one cares.”


“So let’s see… you did your MSc project in something neuro… here it is: Molecular neuropathology. Industry placement – good, good. So why are you here now?”

I want to say because you shortlisted me, but I think I might still have a chance. “I thought I should diversify a little and I’m interested in canc –”

She laughs again. “Diversify? That’s a good one! Ah...look, the sooner you learn this, the better. You diversify when you’ve won the Nobel or something, ok? Like Francis Crick. Until then, you stick to one field.”

“Well, I thought that with just an MSc –”

“What? That it’s still early? I don’t believe that. You need to appear grounded. In research, you stick to your strengths – otherwise you won’t get past being a technician. Now, let’s talk about your seminar.”

For twenty-three minutes she proceeds to dissect the interview presentation I gave earlier, telling me how I can improve my oral communication skills. She then spends seven minutes on the phone with her back to me and finally continues with another twelve minutes of explaining that my CV needs to have a bigger font, that my cover letter needs more ‘energy’ to jump out of the page (“jobs in research are like pitching a movie”) and how when I interview for PhDs I should dress less formally.

When I get up to leave, I ask her, jokingly, if I could come to interview again after I practise my skills as per her instructions.

She says no, but doesn’t laugh.