When I look at my diary from this time last year- January 2021, I realise I met with a number of wonderful NIHR advanced fellowship award holders 12 months ago. They generously paid their time and knowledge forward to discuss how they had compiled their applications. I then spent months and months preparing, meeting with seasoned researchers to put my research plans together. I was also working my mentors to finalise my training plans and navigating the finance department at my university. I finally submitted my application at the start of July 2021. At the end of December 2021 I received a wonderful email inviting me to interview. Thus began the interview preparation.
The first thing I did was celebrate – for around 5 minutes. Then I panicked. And then I got stuck in. Preparing for an interview is surprisingly time consuming. That brief 30-minute period could bring up anything, and I needed to feel prepared. Having ecstatically informed my husband, my mum and my main mentor of the exciting news during the initial phases, I managed to gather myself and started to identify possible sources of advice to help me hone and polish my interview skills. I re-emailed all those generous people who ahd helped me in the first instance, many of whom I have continued to bump into along the way. I collated a little list of the types of questions I might be asked. I didn’t know any other speech and language therapy researcher who has held this award. The people I sought advice from were those as close as possible to me- the psychologists, the nurses, the physiotherapists and the speech and language therapists who hold other, similar awards within the NIHR. Some of these people offered to meet with me again to talk over their experiences.
I also started arranging mock interviews with everyone I could think of. I started with the Research Design Service at UCL. I knew it would be helpful to get some dates in the diary. My neurology professor colleagues were also extremely generous in this regard. I arranged three different mock interviews with professors and doctors of neurology and psychology with whom I work clinically and in the Dementia Research Centre. I also arranged a mock interview with the head of my department and a number of supportive professors in language sciences. Finally I scheduled meetings – or semi-mock interviews with all my others mentors and collaborators who were available and able. These were all blocked into the week prior to my interview.
Next I scrutinised the guidance. I needed to prepare a 6-minute presentation. I produced an initial version. This process allowed me to immerse myself in my proposal. I then shredded it. I tore each slide apart and re-wrote them numerous times over the next three weeks. I was given previous successful candidates slides. I was given advice on images, wording, timing and the script. And I rehearsed it to within an inch of its life. This included making my mum, my children and my husband listen to it until they knew it as well as I did. And importantly, I rehearsed it on the video platform I’d be using. I timed it, I scripted myself pauses and marked the infection. I believe that presentation was a work of art. I had 6 minutes and I refine it to 5 minutes and 57 seconds. It was personal, professional, scientific and passionate.
So then the questions. This was trickier. I found that everyone had a slightly different view on the types of questions I would be asked. But this was also helpful. I started gathering a list of all the possible questions and all the possible answers. I grouped them into categories and practiced my scripted answers in different formats so that I felt comfortable and confident in what I was saying. I referred back to my proposal to so I knew it inside out again, and I thought about what was important to the project, my career and my training so I could emphasise these points in the interview. I needed nice succinct answers, but equally adequate detail. For some I planned the structure e.g. an opening statement, three key points and a summary. For others just a single line would do. I had been given a list of the interview panel. So I did a little research on the panel, to understand their background and likely interests. This was helpful not only in anticipating who might ask what, but also in terms of trying to consider “how to make them happy” (in the words of one of my mentors).
I also thought quite deeply about questions I feared. The dreaded statistics. I sought advice on how to phrase my answers- and rephrased them a number of times. I also practiced all my answer aloud until even the people who knew me best felt I sounds confident and knowledgeable.
Finally, I thought about the set. I decided to wear the same dress I wore at my successful NIHR Doctoral Research Fellowship interview AND at my PhD viva. It made me feel professional, but also lucky AND has a good collar so looks smart on zoom. I also planned which room I’d have the interview in. I set myself up in that room 90 minutes before the interview, and just rehearsed repetitively until the interview. So by the time the interview came around I was feeling comfortable and it felt quite automatic to do another presentation- just with a zoom full of faces this time. I find that if I practice enough I can ‘act the part’. And that made me feel less anxious.
Now the waiting commences. My personal post-interview analysis tells me it could go either way. I am pleased I did it, I invested time and effort and I know this will be extremely helpful no matter whether I get it. I do also have my fingers crossed. I know the project proposal is important and worthwhile and I’d really like to get on and do the research and ultimately improve the lives of people with dementia and their families.
Dr Anna Volkmer is a Speech and Language Therapist and researcher in Language and Cognition, Department of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London. Anna is researching Speech and language therapy interventions in language led dementia and was once voted scariest speech and language therapist (even her children agree).