Not sure how this happened but I will have a postdoc interview with someone prominent in many fields, prominent even at their already prominent university, and who publishes in top journals with astonishing frequency.

How should I handle this interview knowing (and I do know) that I do not have the best CV they've ever seen? I don't want to talk excessively about all my skills or be vague about the shortcomings of my work in the (frankly unlikely) case that they do hire me and are disappointed that I'm not a superstar. But I also don't think these people are particularly swayed by the argument that I am a quick learner, etc, etc. I also do have some reasonable circumstances why my CV isn't what it could be, but I don't think they want to hear about that either.

What sort of balance should I strike? Or am I overthinking it?

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    For one thing, you can realize that the overwhelming majority of people does not have the best CV experienced people might have ever seen. Feb 18, 2018 at 14:24
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    They've seen your CV, and they invited you for a reason.
    – henning
    Feb 18, 2018 at 16:16
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    I'm actually normally very confident...I don't know why I'm suddenly second-guessing everything. I guess there's nothing like a looming PhD defence and throwing yourself into the job market to take a confidence hit.
    – phimac
    Feb 19, 2018 at 0:14
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    @henning In many cases this is true. But I also had interviews like: "The applicant must have applied for a reason, even if this reason is not apparent from the CV." Feb 19, 2018 at 9:53
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    They could easily be after some unlikely combination of skills/experience you have, that sets you apart from the rest. Or they could need someone who wants to get on with stuff, and the rest of the team, rather than being the sort of person who has an excessively high opinion of themself (often not the easiest to manage). After phone interviews, you're not just there to make up the numbers; even if you were, your approach should be the same. Be confident, be honest, be your best.
    – Chris H
    Feb 19, 2018 at 14:51

9 Answers 9


Be happy for the opportunity to meet with the PI who's invited you for an interview, and go to the interview with an open mind and attitude. Answer questions you receive honestly and without artifice. Show rather than tell your enthusiasm for what's going on.

What's important is what you can do in the lab, and how you go about doing it. You might have a unique capability or perspective to bring that you don't know about it. Maybe your references are better than you think they are (and by extension you're undervaluing your skills!).

And try to avoid the impostor syndrome trap.


I don't have an answer on how you should present yourself but I do have an answer to "How not to present yourself" from my failures.

  • First and foremost don't criticize others/events/bad luck for your failures or bad CV
  • Secondly, don't off-topic. While conversing always be on point.
  • Don't try to use big words just to sound you know a lot. Believe me, they'll find it out. Pros like to keep things simple.

Last but not the least, dress well, smile and keep a good posture. The real way to nail interviews is not through your CV but through your character, else why would they even bother holding one? They could just go through CV's and pick the one with the highest credits.

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    That's good to know. This interview is just on the phone though. Are there any key things I should be saying to get across my enthusiasm or seeming like I am "smiling"? I am enthusiastic about my work, but when presenting sometimes people think I sound bored.
    – phimac
    Feb 18, 2018 at 19:40
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    Dress well, smile and have a good posture even when it is "just on the phone"; it will change your mindset. If you are worried about sounding bored: practice, get feedback, and/or ask for a Skype interview so you can show your face and enthusiasm. Don't act different from what you are but make sure that they get to know you.
    – Emond
    Feb 19, 2018 at 7:20
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    @phimac To me the easiest way to come across as enthusiastic has always been to ask (technical) questions about the project. There are some questions over at the Workplace SE that might be of interest to you, e.g. this one
    – notamember
    Feb 19, 2018 at 12:38
  • Even though, the post is a bit old I'd like to add more. Always ask the interviewer what the company can offer you. Negotiations are basically interactions and interactions should be two way.
    – sentido
    Sep 5, 2018 at 18:26

First off, let me repeat what henning said: "They've seen your CV, and they invited you for a reason." So you evidently have enough to have gotten through the door.

As per Massimo, "the overwhelming majority of people do not have the best CV experienced people might have ever seen." Ya know, if they only accepted only the best CV's, there would be no need for interviews.

While my experience isn't exactly the same as your circumstances, I'll share anyway :->)

Back in the day when I applied to graduate schools, we knew in advance that most of the interviews were adversarial. Perhaps it was a misguided way to see if you could handle stress. Why that their approach, I don't know, especially since 30-60 minutes of uncomfortable cross examination could never duplicate the demands of the program or reflect one's ability to handle stress.

There's no way that you can prep for some specific unknown shot over the bow, only how you are going to manage it. But you can prep your mindset. Some things that I would suggest (some mentioned by others):

Make eye contact and shake hands when introduced.

Make eye contact and during responses.

Do not criticize, rationalize or make excuses.

Do not try to impress them with big words.

Respond directly and concisely. Stay on topic.

When you're done with your answer. Stop talking. If the interviewer remains silent, don't try to fill the gap with meandering word salad. If it's uncomfortable, confidently ask him/them a relevant question.

Try to respond conversationally. Don't drone on. Avoid poor speech etiquete (umms, errs, ahhs and long pauses).

Be affable, personable and professional.

Demonstrate interest and knowledge regarding whatever you will be involved in but do not try to impress/snow them.

Show some personality and confidence but no conceit, arrogance, superiority or anything negative.

I had one interview with a doctor and a professor who sat about 150 degrees apart with me in the middle on a swivel stool. They played off against each other, putting me in the middle. One was black and one was white. As an example, they raised a racially tinged issue and took opposing sides. They then asked for my opinion and the one I disagreed with went on the assault. At this point in my life, dealing with such an interview wouldn't bother me much since I have more knowledge, as well as the experience and perspective that decades of life have provided. But as a young kid whose future depended on admission, it was stressful. But nothing in my poker face or reaction reflected that. Stay calm and cool. You are accepted or you are rejected. All you can do is make your best effort and if this one doesn't work out, maybe the next one will. Good luck!


Bear in mind that interviews are a two-way street. You, as well as your interviewer, are trying to work out whether you and the job are a good fit. Don't be so star-struck that you forget to consider whether you will enjoy working in this environment. Chances are that, by taking this considered approach, you will end up focusing on asking the right questions and showing a genuine interest in the job, and maybe forget a bit about trying to be impressive and be more yourself. Good luck!


I had an interview of this type. As I was giving the talk, I was terrified. Luckily, I had learned by heart what I wanted to say, and it went smoothly despite me being overly self-conscious.

What surprised me was that the big guy wasn't at all what I expected. He was patient, and gave me time to get over that moment. After that, it was just a normal interview. He asked many technical questions, and I answered the best I could without trying to pimp my results or fake knowledge.

In the end it helped that he was a technical guy, so he appreciated my technical answers. But, I never interviewed for people who became famous in academia due to salesmanship. I'm not sure if the interview would have lasted longer than the talk, because I'm not that good at selling myself.

So, in the end, my advice is what others said. Answer truthfully about your competences and what you did in your research. And, number one, don't worry if you don't get the position.


The title of your question calls this interview ‘out of your league’. Of course, things in academia exist that are out of one’s league. For me, having been in organic chemistry and thoroughly acquainted with the perks of this subject, a position in e.g. social sciences, which requires a completely different approach, is out of my league because it is in a horizontally separate league.

But as per your question all you are worried about is that the person who is interviewing you is too high up on the ladder.

In my (admittedly limited; I am still young and only a postdoc) experience, each subject only has one league. There may be top notch scientists and those that struggle to get a high-impact paper published but essentially they are all in the same game, all competing and collaborating with each other. Naturally, there are people everyone in the subject will know because of exceeding work they have performed; in my field, one of those would be K. C. Nicolaou. But just because a K. C. Nicolaou is famous, regularly publishes in the top notch journals and so on does not mean that only a certain subject of exceedingly good organic chemists are allowed to talk to him.

When there is a position to be filled, the actual picture would likely be the opposite. Because they are well-known, a lot of people will notice that they have a vacancy and would love to decorate their CV with that famous name. Thus, I would expect they receive many more applications per position than Professor Joe Average, junior professor S. T. Artoff or the not-so highly viewed I. M. Dimm. (Again, I don’t know if this is actually the case but I deem it likely.) They have to process the CVs and applications with quite a lot of scrutiny because no way they can invite everybody. There will be quite a number of average and subaverage applications which are quickly wielded out and only the more interesting (to them) ones remain.

Or maybe you did not apply for a published opening but by your own initiative. Again, I would be very surprised if people like Nicolaou did not receive initiative applications all the time — for the reason, see above. And once again, they will have enough experience to quickly and kindly say thank you to those they do not want to have in their group and try and make it happen if they find somebody interesting.

Regardless of which of the two pathways it is, you cleared that hurdle. They are interested. They consider you close enough to them in the league. Now remove the thought ‘out of my league’ from your mind!

As for the interview itself, I am not very experienced with those so I can’t give you any hints. But that doesn’t matter: just approach it like any other interview.


Look, people always hire for 1 reason: To solve problems. If you are competent to perform the work, then a good interviewer looks for the person who is going to solve problems, not cause workplace drama, be responsive, and be hardworking. Now, fair enough, there might be people with better CV's and can communicate they have all those other skills. In which case, sorry, but you are not the best person for the job. Don't be sad or upset if that's the case, go in, show you are competent and that you are 100% focused on the success of the projects you are working on.


Research is done in teams, and teams need people with different skill sets. This includes less that brilliant people who get the job done you tell them as long as it is within their capabilities, even if it carries little intrinsic reward.

You've been invited for an interview by somebody who apparently is rather successful in his endeavors. That is good because that means he has a clue about what he can work with and what not, likely more so than you. So there is little need to beat around the bush or get into a panic: he'll be asking the questions necessary to figure out whether you match what he needs, and you answer to your best knowledge. If it's a fit, great. And if not, better to find out sooner than later. Try figuring out the stuff you yourself would like to know, too. There may be some things for you that can mean a better or worse fit.


Use it as a practice interview. Keep in your mind that whatever the outcome, you'll be better off for just having the experience. Win-Win for you!!!

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