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I had an interview on Tuesday on a PhD topic and during the interview I was a little nervous.

I regret saying that I don’t like machine learning since the PhD topic requires using machine-learning tools. I explained that I don’t like it since I took a machine-learning course at university, and the professor taught us the subject in an unpleasant and boring way. His teaching manner seriously wasn’t clear.

I also told them that I will give myself a chance and learn it again in a better way since they don’t require deep experience in it.

I shouldn’t have told them this information because it could be an easy reason to reject me.

I have asked the professor in the interview whether he liked my profile. His answer was that he still has other students to interview... I mean if he did like my profile he could have simply said yes.

I still have some hope because if he didn’t find me suitable he would have rejected me the next day. Instead, when I asked him when I would get an answer to my application he told me next week.

I’m feeling bad. I was overly honest, and sometimes was too informal with my speech and facial expressions.

Did I make a mistake in being too honest in the PhD interview?

Update: I have read an article the professors have sent me where they have used a machine learning tool. I made further search and I was able to understand it. I have been invited to another interview and I did so well. They were friendly with me and I kept my honesty in everything. I asked them more questions and they clarified that there are different methods in the PhD and machine learning is just one of them. I told them that I no longer have fear towards ML since I no longer find it complicated. At the end I explained my interest that meets the goal of the PhD program. They will give me the final answer after one or two weeks. Please wish me luck :) I am glad that I have used Academia site and I thank everyone for their comments and answers that I found beneficial.

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    "I have asked the professor in the interview whether he liked my profile" you put him in uneasy situation and his answer was the most polite way out. For some this question might be a larger error than one you ask about. – Džuris Jan 10 at 5:56
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    @Džuris I didn't mean by question whether he will accept me or not, I just meant that after presenting my information and answring their questions, I needed to know whether he finds me a suitable candidate, and it doesn't matter if he takes me or not. I was nervous and I needed to know his opinion about me. I mean they care to know how much I'm interested in joining their research team so where is the problem if I also care to know if they are interested in me as well. – user128537 Jan 10 at 7:16
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    You need to be more patient with hiring processes. If they think that you are good fit, they will let you know soon enough after the interview. Another point: They are not judging you as a person, but they are trying to find the best person for the job. In the same manner, you should find a job that is a good fit for yourself (rather than just any job). The fact that you don't like machine learning while the job heavily relies on it means that the mistake was to apply for that job in the first place. – lighthouse keeper Jan 10 at 8:21
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    IMHO you can never be too honest (unless you are disclosing classified information or hurting someone else by being honest). Of course, honesty can backfire. (In my own case, I become a persona non-grata in Swedish academia by being honest about my mental health issues. But despite that, which caused several years of constant pain and made me lose any hope of realising my dreams, I still think honesty is a virtue.) – Andreas Rejbrand Jan 10 at 14:09
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    On the one hand, "explaining" that you don't like machine-learning because a professor taught in an unpleasant and boring way and his teaching manner seriously wasn’t clear is rather like saying you can't separate content from process. Either way, it might leave you open to purely personal interpretation. I went to a techie interview in my best suit and when asked "Do you mind crawling around behind people's desks?" I said "I'd rather not when I'm dressed like this but otherwise, fine…" only to be told I failed for refusing to crawl around… Duh! – Robbie Goodwin Jan 10 at 22:36
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I want to make two points here, both are indirect answers to your question, but still open to interpretation with regard to your specific interview.

  1. Interviews are less like taking an exam, and more like going on a date. It is possible to do everything right, and still not click. Equally, it is possible that you do many things wrong, but the other person is willing to take a chance on you, because they see something they like and willing to invest on. It is therefore not really worth it mulling over the details of the date in any meaningful sense, since you'll never really know what it was that did or didn't click. Having said that, just like a date, you would want to sound honest, but not arrogant, and generally not put the other person in an uncomfortable position for the sake of 'honesty' if you expect to establish some sort of relationship with them going forward.

  2. There is always a way to rephrase a negative into a positive, and it typically pays off to do so. You come across as a more approachable, less negative person, who sees the good and the opportunity in things, as opposed to the negatives. It's generally a good way to go through life, too. So, in your case, you could have rephrased

    "it was boring and it was the prof's fault but I'll look at it if I really have to"

    into

    "I am reasonably comfortable with the topic; however, I felt it was not given the time it deserved in uni, and my exposure to it so far has been more theoretical. Therefore I look forward to seeing an interesting application of this field in a real-life setting, and to improving my skills in this area: I'm very thankful for the training opportunities on offer in this job -- this is in fact one of the reasons that led me to apply here (blah blah, continue on positive spin)".

Regarding the second point, as a personal anecdote, I was taught this by my own PhD supervisor during my PhD. A large part of my PhD involved improving a field in which one of the most influential papers had many (in my opinion) naïve assumptions which weakened its conclusions. I approached this in my work from the point of view of "we build Y which doesn't suffer from the errors in X, who did bad things x,y,z". My supervisor thought this was unnecessarily harsh and had me rephrase it as "X pushed the field forward by proposing X. We improved on this idea by addressing improvements in areas x,y,z, which we believe make the general direction proposed by X even stronger".

Now, "technically", both versions say exactly the same thing, and both are 'honest'. However, imagine I wanted to invite Prof X to be my external examiner in my PhD viva at the end of my PhD. Which of the two formulations do you think would predispose them more positively towards my thesis?

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    Thank you for your answer. I liked your perspective at looking at an interview as a date. Since I have previously received many rejections, even to positions that I fulfil their requirements, I began to doubt myself, my capabilities, and that also decreased my self-confidence. The personal example you have given makes sense since people prefer to use their own paraphrasing which something normal in humans. So the answer would be using the formulation of your external examiner to get a better result even though using your own might be more self satisfying. – user128537 Jan 10 at 15:13
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    Regarding your first point, you shouldn't obsess over things you might've done wrong, but you absolutely should reflect on and try to improve on them. In my (more corporate) experience, interviews are typically much less "let's see if we click" and much more "you need to give good answers to proceed". "Clicking" may also be necessary and it make up for a few bad answers, but ultimately there are still good and bad answers and not reflecting on those is just shooting yourself in the foot. If there were really no point to reflecting on the interview, your answer would be a lot shorter. – NotThatGuy Jan 10 at 21:13
  • Thank you @NotThatGuy I will improve my answers in future interviews. :) as well as my knowledge and skills. – user128537 Jan 10 at 22:03
  • @NotThatGuy You are certainly correct, but part of this is also that industry has, in an attempt to make interviews more objective, turned them more into exams than traditional interviews. In my experience that's largely not the case in academia (yet?). – xLeitix Jan 12 at 12:35
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    @xLeitix I agree to an extent, if for instance the comment was delivered in a lighthearted manner, and hinting about the interviewee's educated preferences rather than stresses and frustrations with said technology. In that sense, it might even come across as a "positive" comment, about the merits of seeing beyond non-trendy tech. But I feel that's different to what is described here. Also, I'm not necessarily advocating for "polite phrasing" or unnecessary "wordiness" here. Just that it's better to engage people from a 'positive' mindset, rather than lead conversations towards 'negative' ones – Tasos Papastylianou Jan 12 at 14:51
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It probably depends how you put it.

If you said: "I find machine learning boring, because my prof taught it in a boring way.", and machine learning is a key technique in the PhD: Yes, this was wrong, and for obvious reasons. (Then again, if you really find it boring: Why did you apply for that position in the first place.)

If, on the other hand, you made it clear that you had issues with machine learning & you were skeptical about certain points, since those were swept under the rug in your lecture, but you generally made it clear that in fact you would like to understand the topic better, this can in fact be beneficial: It makes it clear that you are actively thinking about the topic, that you are a critical thinker, and that you would like to understand things better. This is far better than someone who just says "Yes, topic X is great." just because it is listed in the job advertisement.

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    Thank you :) I hope the professors take it into consideration when I told them that I will give myself a chance and learn it better than before. – user128537 Jan 9 at 21:08
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    @Unknown As I said, professors will likely appreciate critical thinking more than someone who just says "Yes, all of this is great.". And if they don't, you might prefer not to work with them. – user151413 Jan 9 at 21:10
  • “if you really find it boring: Why did you apply for that position in the first place” – well, lots of people nowadays think that one must pretty much do machine learning to stay relevant. (Whether this is accurate or it is wise to act accordingly, are two debatable questions.) – leftaroundabout Jan 11 at 13:47
  • @leftaroundabout Sure, but if you must do something boring, better do it in a well paid job! – user151413 Jan 11 at 14:33
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Possibly you made a mistake, but only the professor can judge that. But, honesty is still a good path here. Better that than to wind up in a situation that isn't productive for you.

You want a position in which everyone is comfortable. Hiding your feelings or your background is probably counterproductive.

But the past is the past and can't be undone. Work on other options in case this one doesn't work out.

But, if all of your options involve machine learning, then a somewhat more positive statement is that you feel unprepared as your course was poorly done. If you are willing to work on it (not "I hate it, but...") then this might be enough. But if ML really isn't your cuppa-tea then move on.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. We can only move comments to chat once, but you can use the chat as long as you wish keeping a respectful tone. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 10 at 9:48
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If you find ML boring, you should not apply for a position that requires it to a significant extent. A 3 year PhD is a very long time to do something that you dislike. So, hiding that you dislike a topic is not doing you any favours.

If, on the other hand, you are interested in learning ML, that's a different issue, but even so, you need to know if the prof requires you to know the stuff from the beginning or is happy for you to learn on the job. Here some more politic answer is probably more suitable.

Others have commented that the past is the past. Let it run its course.

For your future interviews, decide ahead of time what you want to say. Prepare a list of things you want to say or ask ahead of time, so that you don't accidentally bump into unexpected answers of yours that surprise you as much as the interviewers.

Update There was a comment that questioned how tactful one should be when expressing the dislike. Basically, that's on OP, but I'll sketch what happens if someone is not reasonably open about it.

If OP knows they do not like the topic, they should consider being explicit about it. They are fooling both their supervisor and themselves if they hide this fact.

If they are unsure, and think that they may learn to like it, they can be more careful in the formulation. But still, what if it turns out that they just convinced themselves wrongly? After 2 years of investment, will they leave the project and their PhD and supervisor hanging?

Now, one could say that people may develop a dislike to the topic anyway. Yes, that's possible. But, consider a marriage. Would you rather start out with a partner you actively dislike from the beginning with unclear expectations that things will improve in the hope you pull through? Or rather with a partner which you like where there, while, of course may be a risk of intermittent crisis or long-term deterioration, you still at least start from a position of justified hope that things will work out fine?

While there is always some leeway how one can reinterpret what one wants to do in terms of what a position requires, I cannot recommend being untruthful about one's dislike of a particular direction. That's too much of a bend. There are enough interesting PhD topics to waste one's life with unproductive busywork.

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    "hiding that you dislike a topic is not doing you any favours" - this seems illogical. If you feel capable of judging whether the pros of the PhD outweigh the cons for you, then telling them does little more than giving them a reason to reject you (because they would see this as a negative). The only time where it might make sense to share this (without saying you "hate" it) is when you want their help to make this judgement, because perhaps you don't have enough information or experience to make this judgement yourself. If it's just to be honest, fair enough, but that's a different argument – NotThatGuy Jan 10 at 12:11
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    @NotThatGuy Sorry, but I cannot recommend that a candidate hides a dislike. Perhaps the committee likes the candidate and may be ready to modify what they expect from them. If not, life's too short to do a PhD in a disliked topic. I strongly discourage that. That's how you get frustrated and unhappy PhD students asking questions at SE about how to salvage their dissertation. What's the point of suffering for 3 years (and probably longer, since motivation will be low)? Pick a topic you love, and are enthusiastic about. – Captain Emacs Jan 10 at 17:23
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    I'm not saying you should go in the opposite direction with your answer, rather just that "hiding that you dislike a topic is not doing you any favours" is unclear and misleading. It implies that it would not further their goals, which may be blatantly untrue if their goal is to not get rejected (regardless of whether they would ultimately be happy with their studies, which you can't know for sure anyway). I'm simply suggesting that you clarify the possible outcomes of not hiding it. Also, is simply saying "I hate it" appropriate or would you recommend a more tactful response? – NotThatGuy Jan 10 at 20:59
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    @NotThatGuy "Not doing you any favours" is precisely that. I chose the formulation with care. If someone's goal is to suffer for 4-5 years in a field they dislike and force themselves to go through it, is that a favour? Why not pick a PhD in a topic of interest? Will they be happy with their studies? My long-term experience in academia shows one thing consistently to be critical in a PhD: one has to like topic & supervisor; all else is secondary. It will need a lot of work to convince me otherwise. As for diplomacy, I said "dislike", not "hate"; other responses made even better formulations. – Captain Emacs Jan 10 at 21:33
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    Thank you for your answer and all comments. ML is a basic tool in the PhD but all other aspects I'm interested in. The reason I dislike ML is its complexity but I like its applications that's why I told myself if I understand it better by self study and PhD training everything might work out in the end. But I agree with you in case I dislike the whole PhD. Even if the PhD was for one year only it would just waste my time and worsen my mental health. – user128537 Jan 10 at 22:13
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Wait and see. Can't change the outcome, anyway, so what's the use of worrying? Besides, "I failed the PhD interview because I was too honest, too informal" sounds like ...beep!

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  • yeah you're right. I'm no longer worried. It's not the end of the world. Maybe it would better for me not to get accepted. I made it clear what aspects of the PhD I'm interested in and also willing to work on what I dislike (ML) so the rest is on the Supervisors – user128537 Jan 10 at 14:51
  • Cheer up! I bet you'l pass. Let us know. IMO ML is the new AI. (as the buzzword AI was embarrassingly shifted, on expiry. ) – WorkingClassHero Jan 11 at 16:29
  • Thank you! :) I have dreamt today that they accepted me LOL. I was thinking in sending them a follow up email tomorrow since I have done the interview on last Tuesday. But I'm not sure if that would be annoying to them since they told me they will reply to me "next week" when I asked them. Oh I will make a celebration and a small party if they accepted me. – user128537 Jan 11 at 16:39
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No, you didn't make a mistake. You will spend several years of your life studying for a PhD, and it is vital that you are genuinely interested in the topic as there will be times during your PhD where your motivation is sorely tried. I'd suggest you would be better off studying a different topic that is closer to your real interests.

Pursuing a PhD on a topic you didn't like - that would be a mistake.

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I just had a PhD interview so I can relate.

(1) It is always good to be honest. So, you both find the right match (2) Show motivation. And show you do not know now but you are willing to learn (3) It depends on what program you apply. If Ph.D in Machine learning then apparently not the right match. Others, less relevant. Also your interest can grow and change over time.

You have not done anything wrong by being honest. But the information you give is relevant for your application.

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  • Thank you for your answer @supperAlpha. I wish you success in your PhD journey :) – user128537 Jan 10 at 16:04
  • If you like my answer, you might like my insight page too: facebook.com/anhEuropeAsia – SupperAlpha Jan 10 at 17:48
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For job interview, I always go for harsh honestly. I am web developer and I consider it as luxury I can afford because there is a lot of offers.

And basically, if you are note hired because you are too honest, I guess you don't want to work in this company. As Tasos said, yes, you have stay positive and not looking depressed in advance about what you will do. Job interviews are mostly about personality, you have to look friendly and serious but you don't have to disguise yourself.

And as a personal anecdote, I was looking for a job one year ago. I have been asked about what could stop me from achieving my personal goals. I answer Covid-19. I did not have the job because I was too pessimistic… Well… I am glad, I don't work for them.

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  • You are lucky to have a lot of offers. I rarely get invited for an interview. I have noticed that you're from France. Bonjour from Liban :) – user128537 Jan 11 at 12:14
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    Bonjour ! Well, yes, I said, it's a really a chance. When I was doing a more competitive job, I did'nt not had the same opinion – Ernest Jones Jan 11 at 13:37
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What you like and dislike aren't really relevant to a job. You want to give off enthusiasm for the job, and you to do that you can talk about subject areas you are passionate about. But mostly you should talk about how you experience, expertise, and how you can perform in an area they talk about.

Yeah, it's a mistake to go into how you don't like it, and how it was taught. Because that's not relevant to you doing the job, a lot of people hate certain aspects of their job but they do it anyway because they need to.

Interviews are tough, and it is an important career skill to develop, so learn from it and don't sweat it to much.

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    Actually like and dislike are relevant to your life. And that is more important than any job. There is little worse than slaving away at something you hate. – Buffy Jan 10 at 11:50
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    Unless you are desperate for a job and need the money to avoid starvation, like and dislike are vital considerations. I can't imagine anything worse, academically, than doing a PhD in something you aren't interested in. – chasly - supports Monica Jan 10 at 11:57

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