My ERC interview: the full story
It seems more and more research funding is awarded in a two-step process, where applicants who make it to the second round are interviewed by the panel before the final decisions are made. I had never done this kind of interview before I went to Brussels last October, and was quite nervous. I must have done OK, because I was awarded the grant, and my ERC Consolidator project, Machine Vision in Everyday Life: Playful Interactions with Visual Technologies in Digital Art, Games, Narratives and Social Media, officially started on August 1! Hooray!
I was on sabbatical at MIT last autumn, so had a long flight back to Boston after the interview, and I spent a few hours of the flight home writing out my recollections and thoughts about the interview. Only 40% of candidates who get to the interviews win a grant, so I figured there was a good chance I would need to apply again and do another interview, and I wanted to remember the details. If you have a similar interview coming up, maybe my experiences will be useful for you too. I made a Snapchat story about the trip as well, which I just uploaded to YouTube, if you’re curious as to what things actually looked like. Like most Snapchat stories, the really juicy bits aren’t in there because you can’t film the important bits.
I stayed at Thon Brussels City Centre, on Berg-Hansen’s recommendation, which was great because it is just a few minutes walk from Covent Garden. The room was fine, and it’s very close to Brussel Nord, where the airport train stops, and even closer to the Rogiers stop on the metro.
The ERC building, Covent Garden, is big, and formal, but security was not as extreme as I had expected. I was a little worried they would have airport style security and not let me bring in my coffee (which I bought at the Starbucks between the hotel and Covent Garden, and which I was very glad to have in the waiting room.) There was no bag check or anything though. A man simply checked my passport and invitation letter and then walked me to a space with a couple of chairs and a sign saying it was the ERC candidate waiting area. Within a couple of minutes, a friendly man came over and said welcome, and walked me to a room with a few computers where I signed a list of names to confirm I was present, and then he helped me upload the presentation to their server. He gave me a card with the exact time of my interview (14:00, right at the start of the slot I had been given in advance, which was nice) and explained that I should go to the 24th floor. He also gave me a sheet with information about compensation for my travel costs. I took the lift upstairs, where there was a woman behind a desk in the corridor by the lift. I signed my name on a list of names again and then she walked me to the candidate waiting room, which was a meeting room the same as the room the interview was held in, with six men also waiting. Everyone was silent. More people came in as i waited, all men, and all wearing suits except one who wore a woollen sweater and a checkered shirt underneath. About half the men wore ties. There was wifi access, and the code was written on the whiteboard in the waiting room.
At 14:00 a woman came and called my name. She introduced herself as the coordinator of the panel, and said we would walk slowly down the corridor while she explained what would happen. She explained that my presentation would already be on the projector, that I would have a clicker and that I should check it worked at the start, and that she would hold up a blue folder after four minutes. An alarm would sound after five minutes, letting me know to finish my sentence but no more, and then a second alarm would sound “for the panel”, which I assume would mean I couldn’t speak more.
There were about 25 people or maybe even more in the room. The long table was full, and two or three people sat on chairs by the wall. There was a lectern at one end of the table where I was supposed to stand. There was a microphone fixed to the lectern, so I couldn’t move freely in front of the screen as I am used to doing, but it was fine for such a short speech. I did feel slightly odd standing behind a high lectern, as it was between my body and the audience, whereas when I speak I usually like not having anything between me and the audience. Also it seemed a little odd to be standing during the questions while everyone else sat – I had expected I would sit down after the presentation. But it wasn’t a big deal and I quickly forgot that once we started.
A man halfway down the table introduced himself as leading the interview, and said I could start. I don’t think anybody on the panel said their name, or if they did, I didn’t catch it. My talk went well, I said what I had planned to say, and finished before the first alarm went off. The man who said he was leading the interview asked a couple of questions, then passed the word to a slightly younger man who asked a couple of questions about the digital methods I was using – wouldn’t it take more time than I had planned for? And what did I hope to find, and why that particular method? A woman with an American accent asked how I would deal with the phenomenon I was studying being bound to change over the period I was studying it. A man at the end of the table asked a couple of questions about what was different between my research and what other researchers were doing – he mentioned three specific researchers, and I recognised one name (Sonia Livingstone), but didn’t quite hear the others (and perhaps wouldn’t have recognised them anyway?) I started by explaining that our methods were different, as they used primarily anthropological methods while I will use aesthetic analysis, but then he asked whether my topic wasn’t different as well, which of course it was, and I explained how. I’m not sure he quite got the answer he wanted, but I couldn’t figure out what exactly he did want. The coordinator said five minutes left, and the man who led the interview said they had a question from a remote viewer (I didn’t see a camera, but I suppose maybe there was one? Or perhaps it was only audio?), who wanted to know what methods the ethnographic part of the project would use – surveys, fieldwork or interviews? I was surprised by this question since it’s very clearly stated in the proposal that we’ll use fieldwork, interviews, observation. But I suppose they have a lot of proposals to read. When I had finished answering that question the coordinator said 20 seconds, and the leader said that I could add some final words if I wanted – which I hadn’t really expected, so I just said that I genuinely thought the research was important, and I hope to be able to do it, and then I thanked them for the opportunity to talk with them about it. The coordinator walked me back to the waiting room, which now had two women in it and about 12 men. I got my jacket, took the lift down, and left. I walked out of there full of adrenaline like YEAH! But then quickly just felt tired and hungry, so I bought a can of beer, a pizza, and binge-watched a Netflix show in my hotel room, and met a friend for dinner afterwards.
The day after, flying out, it feels rather anti-climatic. It was such a short interview with so much anxiety about it beforehand. And it really is quite strange presenting and talking with twenty or more anonymous people who don’t introduce themselves and give you little impression of whether they like what you say or not. It made me realise how much I like the informal chats you have with audience members after pretty much every other presentation in academia. I guess I’m happy though. I can’t think of any better answers than what I gave, and I was calm throughout the interview, so I guess it went well.
In retrospect I think I was well-prepared. Before the interview, I worried that I had not had much practice answering questions about my project. I was disappointed in Beacontech’s “mock interviews” because they only focused on the presentation and not at all on the content of the project or on what kind of questions the panel would ask and how to answer them – I would have liked to have had a real mock interview with a presentation AND people asking real questions based on the content of my proposal. I was very confident about the five minute presentation though, after first working with SpeakLab in Bergen on it and then getting the feedback from Beacontech. I also asked several colleagues in my field to read my proposal and tell me what kinds of questions they would ask if they were on the panel. Most of these questions didn’t match the questions I was actually asked, though. Really, the questions I was asked were much simpler than I had expected – I had already answered most of them in the proposal. So perhaps the focus from Beacontech was appropriate. In a way the emphasis on the presentation is a good way of calming candidates down by letting us have something concrete to make perfect.
The day before the interview I had this gut feeling that I didn’t want to practice the presentation and reread the proposal anymore. Finally I thought of ringing my sister, who is a professional musician, and asking what musicians do before an important audition. She gave me some great advice. I think for future candidates it would be really useful to have somebody who is an expert on preparing for a high-stakes performance, for instance music or sport or acting, to coach candidates on this sort of practical stuff. My sister said a musician would never practice the audition piece in the last 24 hours. They would do something completely different and relaxing. She would often eat carbs, like a runner before a race. Don’t eat fish just before as it makes you tired, or an apple, as it makes your mouth dry, she cautioned. Musicians need to warm up before an audition or concert, but they wouldn’t play their audition piece, at least not at tempo, because if they make a mistake just before the audition they’ll remember that and feel anxious, or if they play it wonderfully it can use up the energy so that they play it with less energy at the audition. They might instead practice one difficult technique, but slowly, or they might play something completely different. They might listen to music that inspires them while in the waiting room (but probably not the exact piece they will play). She also recommended visualising myself performing well, and especially visualising the feeling AFTER the interview when I was happy with how it had gone. And taking three deep breaths just before the interview to reduce adrenaline.
I tried to apply some of her techniques. The night before the interview, I ate cake and watched a favourite TV show instead of rehearsing more. I did go through the presentation once the morning before the interview, but only once. I went for a run. In the waiting room I watched YouTube videos of artists related to my proposal but not directly in it, who were talking about their art, which meant they were talking about similar ideas to mine but in a different mode. That was actually really inspiring. I took deep breaths. I didn’t reread my proposal or go through the presentation in the waiting room (as I saw many others doing), but I did repeat the first line of what I wanted to say for the last slide a few times, slowly, because I knew I often got that wrong. I figured that was similar to the musician practicing a single technique instead of the whole piece. I think the approach worked, for me at least, because I felt calm and confident when I walked into the interview room.
If you are heading to an interview: good luck! Prepare well, breathe deep. You’ll be OK. And if you’ve had an interview – was your experience similar to mine? Do you have different advice?