Aled’s fellowship story…at a glance

Dr Aled Parry is a Welcome Trust Sir Henry Wellcome fellow at the Babraham Institute.  In his short podcast with the Postdoc Careers Service, Aled talks about his journey from PhD to fellowship holder.  Although Aled’s PhD is from CRUK-CI, his first degree was at Bath.  Aled describes the process of finding a suitable idea to work on, identifying funders who might be prepared to back it and the time and commitment  it took to finally secure his fellowship

Dr Aled Parry describes his journey from PhD to fellowship holder

Aled’s podcast is one in a series making up The Fellowship Sessions – a mix of on-demand content, virtual live panels with fellowship holders and senior academics, and a virtual Funders’ Fair which only happens every 2 years.  To hear more, visit the playlist on the Careers Service’s YouTube channel.

Aled is a guest panellist at a live virtual panel on 14th January on early career postdoc fellows, book now to join him and fellow panellists.

Academic Recruitment: Tricky interview questions


Academic recruitment: tricky interview quesitons

Interviewing for group leader/faculty positions – what are your selectors’ concerns?

At a recent workshop on interviews for group leader/faculty positions, STEM postdocs were asked to share any tricky interview questions they had been asked or had heard about.

Participants came up with the following questions. For the ones that had most interest, I have tried to address why an interviewer might ask this, and what preparation you could do to be ready for something similar.

How will you contribute to the university outside of your research?

UK higher education is a marketplace. What are the university’s priorities right now and how can you help them achieve them? Get insights by looking at how the university presents itself (on its website) to prospective students.  Are they still trying to fill places?  Are they keen to increase diversity or to support students with mental health difficulties?  For UK universities, find out more about their students’ typical educational backgrounds and what they like/dislike about their course (for example, whether they feel they get timely feedback) from the Discover Uni website.  Once you know the context, you can come up with examples to show how you could engage with the university’s top concerns.

What is your mentoring approach for Master or PhD students?

They are asking this because they want you to be able to support your students and for them to submit on time and pass (important for future funding).  Think about any mentoring you have done to date – what worked and what didn’t.  If you have never mentored others, what has your experience (and your peers’) been as mentees?

What are your plans for attracting research funding in this role?

They want to know you have already thought about this.  Know what your first (and second) grant application would be and where (and when) you would apply.

If you have been shortlisted, they must have seen something in you

How will you ensure that your research will be impactful?

Recognise what impactful might mean to them – refer to the job advertisement.  In the UK, familiarise yourself with the REF definition and look at a range of REF case studies in this institution and others who may be doing related work in your field.

Who are your main competitors?

They want to know that you are familiar with the field but have a niche.  You should be able to say something like: my current supervisor’s focus is on x and Dr B at 1111 is also working in my field but with an interest in y, but my own work will address z (which needs to be sufficiently distinct from x and y to attract additional funding).

New lecturers often struggle with the load of teaching in their first year. How will you manage this?

Try to find out before (or in) interview what the expectation is (often reduced for appointees new to lecturing).  The key word is ‘manage’ – how do you manage conflicting pressures currently?  Is there anything you could drop to focus on grant applications and teaching?

You have not published many original articles in the last year. Why are you a strong candidate?

If you have been shortlisted, they must have seen something in you.  Your answer should reflect your value to them – are you bringing new methodology, can you generate lots of undergraduate projects?  You may be able to point to exciting unpublished results that are waiting on further experiments/collaborators/patent applications – update the panel on any new outputs since you applied.

Interviewers will be impressed if you are up to speed with the latest challenges facing them

What do you understand by leadership?

They are asking this because they want to recruit someone with leadership potential.  Think about people you admire for their leadership.  What qualities have they shown? (use traits that you can also demonstrate in yourself!)  If you have had leadership roles beyond the lab, think about how you could transfer the skills, for example, if you have experience of coming up with a strategy for an outreach activity, or motivating and encouraging sports team members, you may be better placed to lead your research group.

Would you encourage a student to pursue a formal complaint of sexual harassment?

They may have had a recent issue and be testing whether you are aware that policies should exist and need to be followed.  You need to show appreciation that this is a serious matter, that you would listen to the student but also seek advice from senior staff and/or HR and refer the student for appropriate support for example, student union, counselling.

Keep up to date with topical issues to impress at interview

Interviewers will be impressed if you are up to speed with the latest challenges facing them. Cambridge University postdocs can use the University’s subscription to the Times Higher Education magazine to keep abreast of issues in Higher Education.  New, topical, concerns for academics include:


I’ve posted some other popular questions below. Why not use the Comments box below to share why you think an interviewer might ask this, and what preparation you could do?

Have you had any conflict in your last position? How did you manage it?

If offered, would you accept this position?

Given that you lack formal management experience, how would you approach managing and motivating a research team?

What would you do on your first day in the job?

How would you motivate first year undergraduate students in your discipline?

By Sally Todd, Postdoc Careers Adviser

Academic Recruitment: Chalk Talks

Academic Recruitment - Chalk Talks

You’ve been asked to give a chalk talk as part of the interview process for a long term academic role.  Your mind is probably buzzing with questions – how do I structure it? what should I include? how long should it be? and what is the point of including it anyway?

To help answer these questions, Prof. Jason Carroll, a speaker at a postdoc event, gave a talk addressing these common concerns.

Why a chalk talk?

Although the chalk-talk isn’t always required, it is an important part of the recruitment process in many institutions.  You need to prepare for it as fully as the research seminar and other parts of the interview.

The panel will be observing how you respond to getting your work pulled apart constructively.  When you are interrupted, do you get flustered?  Can you think on your feet?

It is a chalk talk, not a Powerpoint presentation

Don’t turn up with a slide deck – you will be using a whiteboard and marker pens or a blackboard and chalk. It might sound informal or an afterthought but it’s not. Jason said it’s tough, even for group leaders, referring to it as: ‘The dreaded chalk talk’. He was careful to stress, though, that no one does it perfectly. So, If you are feeling nervous, you are not alone.

Talk about your future plans…

Don’t dwell on your story to date, the panel want to know about your future project and how you will carry it out.  Outline your five year plan clearly and succinctly.

Ensure that you get your key messages up front

Knowing that you will be interrupted means that you need to stay at a high level.  Ignore the specifics, such as details of the experiments that you intend to run.

Jason suggests an opening such as ‘I am going to be looking at x in the context of y, and here are my three goals.’  He suggests that the three goals should be broken down into safe, medium and higher risk objectives.  These goals should not be interdependent – if one goal fails you should show that  plans will be flexible enough for your research to continue.

Don’t dwell on your story to date, the panel want to know about your future project and how you will carry it out.

Make sure that these aims are realistic within the timeframe. Also, ensure that the plan fits with the remit or goals of the institute/department.

Don’t come across as dogmatic.  As the project progresses and the scientific landscape changes you need to be able to show to the panel, through contingency planning, that you will be able to adapt to these inevitable changes.

Worried about forgetting information?  You can use a cheat sheet to remember key figures.  Just don’t copy it out onto the whiteboard.

Remember that you are going to be leading projects for multiple people

Make sure you can justify the composition of your lab.  Why do you need a clinical fellow, technicians or a lab comprised solely of postdocs?  How will this change during your research?

Think about the questions you might be asked and practice answering them

These may include:

What is you first project going to be?

Why you?

Why this institute?

Who are you going to work with from within the institute?

How will you measure success?

Where are you going to get grants from?

What differentiates you from your Postdoc supervisor?

Can you bring your research with you or will you be starting from scratch?

Be excited

Be enthusiastic about your work and what you can offer the institute.  Understand your audience.  Also think about what the institute can offer you.

You need to come across as a good fit.  In addition to good research, the panel want to select the best colleague – you will probably be spending a lot of time together.

Chalk talks are not just for interviews

In fact, the chalk talk in front of peers is often a regular and important exercise for group leaders at an institution even though, as Jason says, it doesn’t feel like it at the time!  You’ll get brilliant minds offering you input on your work,  So, it is a useful skill to have if you are planning an academic career.

For more info on academic careers

By Heather Smith

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