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I had an interview a few days back for a grant for graduate studies. The interview panel consisted of various judges including some of the most renowned and well known researchers/professors in my field(s) of interest. Some of them almost have a celebrity status given the kind of respect they command.

Now comes the bad part. My interview was going good for most of it, I was answering a question when I was told that none of what I said made sense. I was completely caught off-guard. To the best of my knowledge, my answers were correct, but the committee did not share my enthusiasm. I came across to them as an impostor who was simply winging things/saying random rubbish.

The interview went downhill from there. I was so flustered that even the questions which I could have answered in my sleep went wrong. I tried putting some things down on the whiteboard and tried explaining my answers but by then the committee had lost interest. The overall experience was very bitter with me almost coming across as undeserving to even has been shortlisted for the interview. Post the interview, I felt extremely guilty not for torpedoing my interview, but because I felt that I had wasted the time of such esteemed academicians.

My question is regarding, what if any action should I take at this point? I know for a fact that the grant will not be awarded to me, but that is not my concern. Some of the members on the committee are at the forefront of research and work in their field (which heavily aligns with mine). I do not intend to spoil my relation and any chance of a future collaboration with them because of this one interview. Some of the possible actions that came to my mind were:

  1. Sending an email to one or more members of the committee, apologizing for the interview.
  2. Sending an email to one or more members of the committee, asking for feedback.
  3. Sending an email to one or more members of the committee, trying to explain my answers and why they were not completely wrong given the context.

Are any of these too far fetched? Any alternative action that you would recommend? Or should I just let it go?

PS. In case you find any details of my question to be fuzzy, please ask for clarification. Any sort of help/feedback will be appreciated.

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    "Post the interview, I felt extremely guilty not for torpedoing my interview, but because I felt that I had wasted the time of such esteemed academicians." - interviewing people is a skill. It sounds like the interviewers did not do a good job of getting the best out of you. I wouldn't look at it as if they are doing you some great service by give you their time, and you wasted it. What about your time? Why didn't they ask a question instead of making an unjustified comment? (unjustified as in, they didn't seem to give their reasoning). – Dr. Thomas C. King May 16 '18 at 18:43
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    "I was told that none of what I said made sense." This could have been a loaded comment. Perhaps they wanted to see if you could stand back, think and then clarify your answer without becoming flustered or taking it personally. Perhaps they made an effort to ask this during all candidate interviews? – JibbityJobby May 16 '18 at 22:41
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    Note that their behavior might not relate to your actual answer (or their hostility). When interviewing for a very prestigious PhD scholarship me and other candidates realized that the most reputable and most esteemed and senior scientist would always become very vocally negative (and sometimes positive) about one answer of every interviewee (sometimes being very positive or positive for the same answer given by distinct interviewees). We suspected that she wanted to test how one would react to criticism from an authority, if it wouldn't be scientifically warranted. – tsttst May 17 '18 at 3:09
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    @JibbityJobby In other words, a trap? Ugh. People who do this have no place interviewing. – Konrad Rudolph May 17 '18 at 9:44
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    Don't give too much reverence to celebrity academics. There lies madness in trying to judge yourself by impossibly high standards. Who cares if you wasted their time? They aren't that important, really. Learn what you can from this experience and move on. You aren't any less of a human being than before. – abnry May 17 '18 at 16:24
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First of all, you should cool down before you take any action. Clearly, the interview was an emotionally intense event for you, so don't do anything in the spur of the moment (and "a few days later" may still qualify as "in the spur of the moment" in this context). Let a few more days pass, and see how you feel later.

Second, seek the guidance of a trusted person or mentor who is aware of the details. Maybe your advisor can feel out to what extent you have really bombed the interview quite as badly as you perceive it? Note that especially for interviews on grad student level, the committee will be positively used to people giving bad presentations and not being quite able to argue their case. Unless you have made a really monumental blunder, the committee has probably already forgotten about the details of your interview by the time the next coffee break rolled around.

Which brings me to the third point: no matter what you do, don't write an email reminding people that you did poorly or excusing yourself for not doing better. Don't try to argue your points, either. This won't make your interview better, but now people may also think of you as somewhat unprofessional. If you feel you need to write an email, keep it professional, thank them for the opportunity, and ask for feedback.

Any alternative action that you would recommend? Or should I just let it go?

Letting it go is generally the right course of action in these situations. I have personally done my fair share of bad presentations, bad interviews, and (in retrospect) crappy paper submissions. Learn from them and improve for the future. You are a student. Mistakes are to be expected. Life will go on.

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    You are a student, mistakes are expected - I can confirm that faculty make plenty of mistakes as well... – Bitwise May 17 '18 at 18:32
  • To add to the "feel out to what extent you have really bombed the interview" part, I have been part of a number of interviews that I thought I bombed where I actually did fine. For one in particular I learned later that the interviewer's technique is to keep pushing and asking harder questions until the interviewee fails, so that he would get a better gauge both of their knowledge and also how they handle that pressure. Basically everyone came out of interviews with him feeling like they failed, but many actually did well – Kevin Wells May 17 '18 at 21:48
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    @Bitwise Perhaps, "You are a human being. Mistakes are expected." – jpmc26 May 17 '18 at 22:45
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Your question reads:

I came across to them as an impostor who was simply winging things/saying random rubbish.

But I wonder what the committee said that made you feel that way.

I know you feel like your answers were on the mark, but I'm going to side with the committee here and assume that you weren't demonstrating the kind of mastery and expertise they were hoping to see. This doesn't mean you were an "imposter" or that what you said was "rubbish," it simply means I'm assuming they know more about this subject than you do, and they were hoping that their interviewees had a stronger grasp and mastery of the subject matter than you displayed.

I've learned the hard way that it's possible to know just enough about a subject that you can – how does the old expression go? You know just enough "to be dangerous;" that is, you may think you fully understand the concepts, but you don't have all the details ingrained enough to sound like an expert when put under close scrutiny.

I'm guessing that they didn't really regard you as an "imposter," but more like someone who had some more learning to do and wasn't yet ready to receive the grant.

As for what to do next, I would avoid your third solution, which would be to prolong the debate outside of the interview. That would likely rankle their ire even more.

I wouldn't apologize for wasting their time, either. That sounds too defeatist.

Your second solution aligns most closely with what I'd recommend, but I wouldn't ask busy people for specific feedback. Instead, I'd recommend sending one or more of them a thank-you letter for pointing out that you still have a lot of learning to do, and letting them know you intend to keep studying the subject and developing a keener mastery of it.

Perhaps you can tell them it was a humbling but eye-opening experience, and you intend to leverage it to further your career, your goals, and your aspirations.

I would think that the committee members would find it hard to argue with such a humble approach, and some of them might be impressed by your willingness to learn more.

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    Mostly agree, but I wouldn't recommend sending a thank-you letter for having been so thoroughly chewed out (much less with platitudes about 'still having a lot of learning to do'). If they actually gave helpful feedback, sure, thank them for the interview and the feedback. Otherwise, best to let this lie. – cag51 May 16 '18 at 23:20
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Important interviews can be very emotional business. Also, performing well during such an interview is not an easy skill. I think you are not the only person to learn that "the hard way". Everyone experienced a failed interview, and the committee people have seen dozens people to fail. You are no exception.

Instead of worrying about the bad parts, you need to take this as a precious lesson. An interview is not just about seeing what you can do (although it is also important), but also finding out what you cannot. The interviewers need to see how far your understanding goes (and what happens beyond) and how you act outside of your comfort zone. If the interview is tough and you feel lost, that does not necessarily mean it is going bad—it simply means they have reached your limits. What matters is how do your limits compare to others'.

Certainly, this was not the last important interview of your life/career. Do not regret the failure; embrace it and learn from it. Next time, you shall be ready for this situation (which caught you by surprise this time and got you off balance).

Also, there is no reason you should feel like wasting the time of the professors on the committee. They agreed to be on the grant committee and interview the candidates to pick the best; interviewing you was a necessary part of the process.

Finally, regarding your next step: I would recommend against contacting the committee members. Do not further emphasize this episode. As was said in other answers, they probably forgot by now, and the only potential effect the email might have is to remember you as "the guy who failed". If you get to meet them in the future under different circumstances, you can talk about it perhaps in an informal setting and maybe even have a laugh together over the whole story.

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There is really no need to do anything in this situation - interview panels are aware that people sometimes stuff up their interviews, get nervous, fail to explain things correctly, etc. Experienced research-leaders like the ones you are describing have probably conducted a number of interviews, both with applicants for academic positions, and post-graduate candidates, and grant-candidates, etc., and it is likely that they've "seen it all". It is also quite possible that they would test you by telling you that what you said made no sense, when in fact it did make sense, just to see how you would react to this (which is a well-known interview technique.)

The fact that you were selected for an interview means that you have the academic background to be considered for this kind of grant. If you made a mess of the interview, they will not conclude that you are incompetent and write you off for all time, especially since you are still only a grad-student. (Don't over-estimate the level of understanding that experienced professors expect of a student. To an experienced professor, all grad-students seem like imposters who are winging it!)

Now, if you really feel you need to apologise, you should feel free to email the panel. In this case it would be best just to write a short email thanking them for the opportunity to interview, and noting that you feel that you did not do a good job of answering their questions, and you're sorry if you wasted their valuable time. There is no need to go overboard; don't bemoan your answers; just say that you feel you didn't do a good job explaining yourself. And whatever you do, don't attempt to re-explain or elaborate on the answers you were making at the interview - have mercy! If they didn't enjoy hearing you speak about these at the time, they definitely will not enjoy plowing through a second explanation!

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    I've had this happen to me in job interviews. They will staunchly claim that I'm remembering some obscure (or maybe not so obscure) thing backwards. They want to see how you handle it when you think (or know) you're right and their not. Don't sweat it. – kmort May 18 '18 at 4:41
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Adding to the previous very good comments:

People tend to forget. As long as you are not very well known in your community at present, it is very likely that non of the committee members will remember this situation in a year or so. So don't worry about long term impacts.

Professors know that people can be very nervous in interviews and underperform.

If you really meet one of them again, you could talk to them in an informal setting (like a dinner reception at a conference or else) and tell them how you felt.

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Don't worry about it too much. I read an essay online from an academic who had vomited on the department chair during an interview. Your interview was much better than hers.

She got the job.

You might ask yourself if these are people you want to work with, per @Thomas King's comment.

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    Do you have a link to the essay - it sounds like a hoot! – Reinstate Monica May 17 '18 at 23:44
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Post the interview, I felt extremely guilty not for torpedoing my interview, but because I felt that I had wasted the time of such esteemed academicians.

One: these esteemed academicians (who look like some sorts of demi-gods) were there to interview you. These esteemed academicians apparently do not know how to interview very much.

Two: use it as as a learning opportunity. You will have a lot of interviews and some of them will be painful. I once had an esteemed academician who covered his face with his hands after one of my answers. I concede that my answer was not the most brilliant but I asked him to stop the drama after 15 minutes of holding his face and making weird noises because it was disturbing. He was clearly offended. I got the job.

To answer your question: it is not likely that anything you could do would change the mind of your esteemed academicians. Since they have a first-grader level experience in hiring, they will not have any second thoughts after receiving your letter.

Just let go, learn (not to be disrupted by some comments, among others), and go on. Good luck finding a position!

protected by Alexandros May 17 '18 at 22:01

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