Interviews and Offers

two empty chairs at office deskSome fellowship and scholarship competitions will ask a short list of candidates to conduct an interview. This part of the process is equally important as the written portion and you should give the interview as much preparation as you did the application. Harvard selection committees are usually comprised of faculty and staff from around Harvard College and Harvard University. Selection committees at the national level are similarly made up of successful academics, professionals, and former scholarship winners. Generally, committee members are fascinating people and you should count yourself among them!

Interviews

Research-wise, interviews should be expected for many external competitions (e.g. some NSF REU sites) as well as Research Assistant positions. For research programs that are run through URAF, some will require interviews (e.g. Amgen Scholars, BLISS, SHARP), whereas others will not (ex. HCRP, PRISE, RCE).

The following are some simple steps you can take to prepare yourself to interview successfully:

  1. Reread the fellowship/program description, website, and your own application. Selection committees are looking for someone who is a good fit for the opportunity, meaning, someone who knows what the fellowship/research program is about and can argue their harmony with those goals. Further, any detail that you included in your application is fair game to be asked about during the interview. Students should be sure to remind themselves of one interesting thing to potentially discuss about each class they took, every activity they've done, etc.
  2. Read the news, current research, and any other major publications on your topic/region of interest. You will likely be asked questions that test your knowledge of the critical issues/theories underlying your intellectual interests, as well as the current prevailing opinions on the matter. (e.g. If you’re proposing to travel to Thailand, what are the issues affecting the Thai people/region today? If you’re proposing to do academic study, what are the most exciting developments happening in this field?).
  3. Practice answering mock interview questions, even the easy ones. At some point during the interview, you will have a chance to talk about yourself in an open-ended way. The committee is genuinely curious about you. Candidates often stumble on this question, because they haven't practiced simply explaining who they are and what they like to do. This prompt is not designed to challenge you, although others are, and you should prepare for both types of question. Practicing is not the same as rehearsing! Rehearsing makes you sound robotic and if the question is asked in a slightly different format than what you had prepared, you might panic!
  4. Expect a tricky question or two. You should also presume that at some point during the interview, you will be asked a question which challenges an assertion you've made or generally puts you off balance. These questions are designed to see how you respond to pressure. Stay calm, take a breath, collect your thoughts, and respond in a respectful and collegial manner.
  5. Practice the art of redirection. It may occur that you are asked a question to which you don't know the answer. Don't panic. Acknowledge that you understand the question, but then direct your response toward something about which you do have knowledge. (e.g., "I haven’t read that particular article, but Edward Said had some interesting thoughts on the matter…") Alternately, the committee may ask you a question to which they expect that you won't know the answer. (e.g., How would you cure the common cold?) This is your opportunity to be creative and think on your feet. Whatever answer you give, be confident and sell it! Never leave a question unanswered.

Some general advice:

  • Arrive early, especially if you are traveling a long way. Anticipate that your flight will be delayed, there will be traffic, the subway will get stuck, or your shoe will break.
    • If your interview is in a virtual setting, be sure that you have logged on with plenty of time, are either sitting in a straight-backed chair (feet on the ground, please!) or standing, and have both the angle of the screen and the lighting set to your liking.
  • "Appropriate dress" applies to your behavior too. In addition to wearing appropriate (and hopefully comfortable!) clothing (conservative business attire is usually fine), be sure to sit up straight, make eye contact, and smile. New shoes should not be making their debut in an interview setting, if you can help it. Try to wear shoes around for a week in advance so that you’re not distracted by blisters or general "new shoe" discomfort. Lastly, don’t hold anything in your hands while talking unless you’ve been asked to take notes. (See OCS's Dress for Success guide for more ideas.)
  • When answering a question, don't just respond to the person who asked it, address the entire selection committee.
  • Play well with others. If your interview involves an opportunity to meet the other candidates, genuinely show an interest in them, as well as the committee members and everyone else that you meet on the interview day (e.g., administrative staff, custodians).
    • Remember, while you are at the interview site, you are always being interviewed even if no one is asking questions that directly relate to your candidacy, and even if someone you think is not on the selection committee is talking with you.
  • Have fun! Even if you’re feeling anxious, try to let yourself enjoy the process and the company. Be your delightful and respectful self, stay positive and cool even if mini-catastrophes happen (e.g., spilled coffee, broke your shoe, got lost on the way there). Try your best to be happy and grateful!

Offers

Navigating multiple offers is a wonderful problem to have! Here are a couple thoughts as to how to steer your way through this situation.

  • Be honest with yourself. If you are not interested in pursuing one of the offers on the table, then decline the offer. If you have already received an offer from an opportunity that you are excited to pursue, please remove yourself from other competitions of opportunities that you are less excited about.
  • Be a clear communicator. If you are waiting to hear about a decision from a competing opportunity, it is fine to ask for a reasonable and specific extension for the decision deadline from your first opportunity. Do your best to have all of the decision timelines at hand so that you do not go back to any administrator to ask for an extension more than once and so that you have time to make a thoughtful decision about which opportunity you would like to accept. Please Note: any program administrator has the right to deny your request for an extension. At that point, please make the best decision that you can with the information that you have at the time.
  • Stick to your word. It is in poor taste, is often seen as disrespectful, and reflects poorly on Harvard if you accept an opportunity and then decline that opportunity down the road if you believe that a better offer has come your way. Do the best that you can to make a wise choice and only accept an offer for an opportunity that you intend to pursue.