When I got my UKRI Future Leaders Fellow interview notification, I was honestly a) so shocked that I had got an interview and b) so thrilled at the thought of talking about my project idea for 20 minutes that the nerves didn’t set in straight away. But then they did! Prior to my UKRI interview, I had not been shortlisted for a lecturing job in five years. I’d had a couple of job interviews straight out of my PhD but nothing since then and had no experience with academic interviews other than this. Because of this, and because I knew I would be unemployed if I didn’t get this award, I prepared very thoroughly. I also struggle with imposter syndrome and absolutely did not want my nerves to get in the way of this opportunity. I wanted to have prepared as much as I could so I could feel fluent and confident on the day. I was very lucky that I was able to devote so much time to preparation; I am sure you do not need to do this much (especially if you already have interview experience and experience of talking to very senior academics or professionals).
Just a note about my background: I graduated with my PhD in Irish & Transatlantic Literature in 2015 and have held postdoctoral fellowships since then.
The format of the interview:
- I am a Round 4 FLF so my interview was conducted online through Zoom. The UKRI FLF team gave me an opportunity to practice using Zoom and screen sharing etc. in advance of the interview.
- When I logged in for the meeting, I was put in a waiting room for a few minutes.
- Firstly, everyone introduced themselves (it was a very busy Zoom room! I think there were about 9 or so people there) and they were all very friendly, supportive and, importantly, smiley!
- I had to prepare a 5-minute presentation on ‘The Vision for my Future Leaders Fellowship’. The UKRI said: ‘This should cover both research / innovation goals and how the applicant will use the fellowship to establish themselves as a leader in their target area’.
- Then I was asked a series of questions for 15 or so minutes.
To help me prepare:
- UKRI interview questions: the UKRI appreciate how nerve-wracking these interviews can be and that not everyone will have access to the same support when preparing for interview. They release ‘semi-set’ questions for applicants to prepare from (see here) and, in my experience (see below) they follow these very closely.
- Reviewer’s reports: The first thing I did was comb my reviewer’s reports again for flagged weaknesses in the project and areas of concern. (In case you were interested, I got 5 reports back with the following scores: 3, 4, 4, 6, 6). I sourced training that would plug these gaps and did some further research to support the project’s approach.
- Practice questions: I wrote answers out to every single one of the UKRI prompt questions with the question on one side and my answer on the other. I honed and changed these as I prepared and my answers became more streamlined. I practiced these a lot with my very patient partner while cooking, out for a walk etc.
- Presentation: I wrote my presentation very early and trimmed, trimmed and trimmed. I must have practiced this at least 30 times. I was really worried about keeping to time but in the interview itself I not only messed up the very first line (!) but also flew through it. In addition to my opening slide, I had 5 extra slides: ‘Why this project?’; a slide on the project’s research (methodology, interdisciplinarity, outputs); a slide on innovation and engagement; ‘Why me?’; and a concluding slide.
- Practice interviews: I did 7 practice interviews in total, including 2 organised through Queen’s. These were very useful as numerous senior academics took part, offering not only invaluable advice but also giving me a chance to practice when I felt very nervous in front of senior academics! My answers changed enormously from these initial practice interviews (when I hadn’t prepared proper answers) to the final practice interviews when I had key points for every answer. I did an additional one with academic peers (very kind friends at other institutions) and another with friends who work in the museum/gallery/cultural sector. This meant that I got very comprehensive and insightful feedback on all aspects of my proposal. I also did a further two with my partner and family – none of them are academics so this was immensely helpful too, as they could cut straight through any jargon and ask the big ‘so what?’ question. My family also rebelliously refused to stick to the prompt questions from UKRI meaning that I got some very tough and unexpected questions. Again, this is was enormously helpful: talking about your experience and project at length in any way is useful.
- Sought advice: I was very lucky that Dr Victoria Bates, a UKRI FLF and PI on the wonderful project, ‘Sensing Spaces of Healthcare’, was a friend of a friend and kindly offered some advice prior to the interview. She reassured me that it would be friendly and productive (which it was), and that the interviewers would largely stick to the prompt questions or similar (which they did!).
- Research the panel: I got given the names of the interview panel a few weeks in advance so made sure to do my research on everyone.
Other sources of advice on UKRI/Fellowship interview:
Like all good researchers, if in doubt, I research! I found these while preparing and they were very helpful:
- From the Institute of Academic Develop at the University of Edinburgh, there’s a video here and a blog post here.
- The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM website, guest post by Kirsty Grainger Director of the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships scheme.
- Research Professional have a series of 4 blog posts on ‘My winning proposal: Becoming a future leader’, all with a question on the interview. See one (and links to the others) here.
- Dr Izzy Jayasinghe, ‘How I got my UKRI Future Leader Fellowship: lessons I learned from being a new PI’.
- Dr Franciska de Vries, ‘How I got my fellowship – and how you might get yours’.
- Dr Sarah Lewthwaite, https://threader.app/thread/1173527511776583680
- Dr Asaf Karagila, ‘Yes! Future Leaders Fellowship!’.
The exact questions I was asked:
- Interviewer 1: Your reviewers flagged that the quantitative aspect might be a problem. You addressed this well in your rebuttal but could you go into more detail about this?
- Interviewer 2: Describe how you have demonstrated leadership so far and how have you developed your leadership attributes?
- Interviewer 2: What role will your Co-I play in this project?
- Interviewer 2: Imagine you were describing the project to a person on the street. Why will your work have a major impact on the field or sector?
- Interviewer 3: By the end of your fellowship, what difference will this award have made to your career and how will your career development be supported throughout the fellowship by your host institution?
- Interviewer 3: How will you support the professional and career development of the staff you will be responsible for, and ensure that you uphold the values of equality and diversity?
- The chair (I think!): Is there anything else that you’d like to tell us in support of your application?
If you’ve looked at the questions prompts given by UKRI, you’ll see how closely these map onto the examples they give. I had prepared a full and confident answer to Question 1 – the only one that UKRI had not primed me for – because I knew this was an area likely to come up. The final question is a brilliant opportunity to address or discuss anything that hasn’t come up in the interview that you think is vitally important. It’s always good to have something up your sleeve for this that will leave a positive final impression!
Final thoughts and tips:
- One of the panel members in my group came from the museum sector. If you have planned public engagement activities or programmes with museums, galleries, public/cultural institutions, make sure you have fully thought through how to embed this into your project. Don’t just add this as a cynical last-minute attempt to tick off ‘impact’. It is very transparent.
- Make sure that you have really thought about the transformative potential of this project for research, society, your team and, of course, for you. You should be able to articulate very clearly how your project will impact on all of these areas.
- If it’s online: think about your background! My computer doesn’t have the capacity to enable a Zoom background so I had to find an appropriate place in my house. I know this can be really tough, especially if you live in a busy house. I decided to perch on my dining table and clear the background of as much stuff as possible.
- Someone asked me about the balance between using the necessarily specific (and exclusive) language of your academic expertise and the need to communicate to diverse audiences. The advice I was given by a someone who had successfully been through the FLF process before me was to remember that your academic/scientific/scholarly credentials have already been assessed in peer review. The interview is a chance for the team to learn more about you as a person, a communicator and a ‘future leader’ (whatever that means to you). So definitely do use the right academic language where you need to but also try to relay the ‘transformative impact’ in a way that is really accessible. Perhaps you could conclude your presentation with a line that addresses this directly?
- The UKRI FLF team are really, really committed to building a more inclusive and supportive academic culture. Make sure you have really thought about how to support and develop the members of your team. You should be familiar with the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers.
- It might seem obvious but I sometimes think there is a lot of assumed knowledge around academia, especially around clothes. I think going online might make this more pronounced? Anyway, I wore a brightly coloured blazer and a navy blouse. I can’t remember exactly what my interviewers were wearing but I felt I had dressed appropriately.
- These are just my observations and thoughts so please feel free to disregard anything that doesn’t work for you. I don’t have any children or caring responsibilities, and was on a research contract so was able to dedicate a good amount of time to prepare.