I had postdoc at a top 10 university in the world. The email of the first interview said I should expect questions around the job description. The first interview was very smooth and I felt very good about it.

A few days later, I received an email in the afternoon, the email said I have a second interview tomorrow morning and I should expect questions around the job description (I think these are just automatic emails).

The second interview however, was a bit different. In order to decide between me and another candidate, they said they needed a technical interview which they presented a problem I needed to solve in 10 minutes, the problem required a lot of programming skills and classic concepts. I haven't programmed in a while now and nothing in the job description not in the email says "programming skills".

I gave okay answers and played it safe a lot in my problem solving approach. I couldn't solve the problem in the given time because I simply needed to refresh my memory and remember some concepts, but I did get a "thumbs up" from the potential PI when I was explaining some stuff. Unfortunately, I wasn't selected and I think the other candidate gave better answers.

Now days later, I can't stop thinking about that whole process. Normally, if the panel expects a presentation, they mention it in the invitation email. It's very weird and a bit unfair to do that to candidates they clearly liked in a very short amount of time. I truly believe that the interview could have been way better if they mentioned anything about a technical interview. Just because one candidate performed better (obviously, people are different), doesn't make the evaluation process fair. What do you think about the situation, is this a normal routine for postdoc interviews?

PS: The postdoc was in the UK and I live in north Africa. I am saying this because perhaps it justifies why the HR send an email and didn't call (perhaps they can only call candidates within the UK). The field is Computer Science.

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    If all interviewed candidates were treated the same way, the process was at least equally unfair. (Fair and equal are not always the same).
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 24, 2021 at 18:37
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    They probably didn't call because email is typical, I wouldn't worry about that Mar 24, 2021 at 21:36
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    Taking the PI perspective... she/he got two exceptional candidates and needed to select among you two. Good that she/he did not just flip a coin, but gave you a chance. Short notice was (hopefully) equally short for both of you. You say that she/he was kind (giving you thumbs up). Maybe short notice was on purpose, sincet the PI needed to assess the skillsm rather than knowledge, she/he did not want you to (over)prepare for this, but just let it flow. As long as the other candidate was better I would not worry too much and have a feeling of loosing in a fair battle. Mar 25, 2021 at 9:47
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    @eps that seems unlikely - if they already wanted a specific candidate, they would not go to the trouble of extra assessment
    – JenB
    Mar 25, 2021 at 13:50
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    To be honest, it sounds like the kind of additional job interview you might well get from well-meaning but absent-minded people who haven't planned out the interview process properly (or who aren't experienced at interviewing). It's possible that they weren't sure who to select, they couldn't think of any better way of distinguishing between you other than an extra interview (which they hadn't planned for in advance), and HR were chasing them to get on with the decision. That easily leads to people cooking up a random interview and choosing based on that. Unfair? Maybe. But understandable. Mar 26, 2021 at 10:22

4 Answers 4


It's not respectful to applicants for the interview process to be unclear or changed at the last minute. However, for various reasons, many of them completely innocent (busy people, miscommunications), this may happen.

It's also not always transparent what an interviewer is looking for. If the interview has you attempt "Task A", it may not be performance on Task A that you are being evaluated on. Instead, you may be evaluated for how you handle an unexpected change in plans. Or you may be evaluated on how you ask for clarification around a task, how you manage time if a task cannot be completed within the window you are given, what you do when you find you are stuck on something (do you ask for help? Stop and admit you are stuck? Make something up that might work? Pretend you know what you're doing?), etc.

Judging "success" on this sort of task is entirely up to the interviewer's views and opinion. As far as whether it's "fair", well...the definition of "fair" is a moving target and various opinions would give various descriptions of "fair". In one sense, as long as the same information is communicated in the same time frame to all the candidates, and all candidates are judged by the same criteria, it is "fair" among those candidates.

As far as whether it's the process that selects the true best candidate for the job, well... if we had a better way of determining the best candidate than the clunky interview process, we'd use that method instead.

I'm not sure you can do much about this except for continuing to interview for positions that interest you. Positions at desirable universities are likely to attract many qualified applicants, and you aren't guaranteed a job just because you're qualified. Ultimately, they have to select someone, and it's not even really possible for the person doing the hiring to know that they've got the best one.

I'd recommend not spending more time thinking about the process of this one interview. Maybe their expectation is that programming is a bigger part of the role but didn't think it was necessary to mention it. Maybe they had a preferred candidate already but lacked the justification they needed and invented this task on the fly to create it. Maybe they're disorganized. The answer, whatever it is, won't help for your next interview. Maybe you even dodged a bullet and this is a bad work environment, and had you been hired your next Academia.SE question would be about being stuck in a post doc where you're just treated as a programmer and aren't making any progress on independent research projects. Move on and forget this one.

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    Thank you for your answer. For the record, I was really happy with my second interview because I was proud of how I handled the unexpected change, I stayed reasonable and methodical in my answers. But I know, in a normal circumstance, it could have been a lot better. I will turn this page and move on like you've mentioned.
    – U. User
    Mar 24, 2021 at 18:49
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    I would say that weird or uncommon interviews are rarely a good sign about the work environment. I'd personally upgrade that "Maybe you dodged a bullet" to "Probably you dodged a bullet".
    – user133933
    Mar 24, 2021 at 19:50
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    If the interviewer has you attempt “Task A”, it may not be performance on Task A that you are being evaluated on. Reminds me of this discussion about an extreme version of such practices.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 24, 2021 at 19:54

What do you think about the situation, is this a normal routine for postdoc interviews?

No. It’s not normal in several ways.

It’s not normal for a postdoc interview to have someone else schedule your interview for a specific time without consulting you first about whether the time works for you.

It’s doubly not normal when you are informed of the interview on such short notice, in the afternoon before an interview scheduled for the following morning.

(A possible exception to the above would be if it had been previously communicated to you ahead of time that this is how the scheduling would be carried out. But it sounds like that isn’t what happened in your case.)

Separately from that, it’s not normal to be tested on specific skills like programming, when you cannot reasonably guess based on the job description or obvious things about the PI’s research that those skills would be relevant for the job you’re being interviewed for.

Overall, it sounds like you had an unpleasant experience - sorry! - which does not reflect well on the competence and professionalism of the people who were interviewing you. Hope things go better next time and that you end up working with more thoughtful people.

  • I would also agree it is not good to do spontaneous tests at interview. People should always be given time to prepare.
    – apg
    Mar 25, 2021 at 17:57
  • I would jump with the typical "bullet dodged" comment. I would not take that job even if it was offered. I have seen this type of interview, and it is often that they have a "preaccepted" candidate and just want to get rid of the other. I'm not saying it is the case here, but in my country this is a routine occurrence. Mar 25, 2021 at 19:26
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    @Magicsowon I don’t know about dodging a bullet, I think that’s impossible to say with any level of confidence. Everyone has flaws, no boss is perfect, and some bosses have flaws but are still very good to work with in many other ways. Also, being unemployed could be worse than having a boss who sometimes behaves unprofessionally, so I find the “you dodged a bullet” comments people like to throw around to be a bit tone-deaf.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 25, 2021 at 19:38
  • Actually while I would normally agree to all points, I find applying for a post doc in CS to requiring a lot of programming skills should not be unexpected. (yes I know there are some niches in CS which are basically math, but isnt this the exception nowadays?)
    – lalala
    Mar 25, 2021 at 20:40
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    @lalala I said in my answer that it would not be normal to test programming skills if the relevance of such skills could not reasonably be guessed from the PI’s research. So yes, I agree that if PI works in areas of CS where programming skills are an obvious requirement then OP has no grounds to complain. However, as for “isn’t this the exception”, I think the answer is a strong no — many research areas of CS have nothing to do with programming (and many areas of math do involve a lot of programming, so “basically math” isn’t a very helpful characterization anyway).
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 25, 2021 at 21:03

Maybe you should try to see it from the other perspective.

What would you do if you had to decide between two candidates and cannot decide based on the interview. If you are not involved in HR hiring standards, you could easily try to break the tie by scheduling a second round of interviews on the fly. Postdoc positions tend to be short for getting collaborative work done and you do not have the time to wait for the post doc to acquire skills that you now have decided are needed. (Projects evolve and between posting an opportunity and interviewing the profile of the ideal candidate has changed.) Maybe you would want to break the tie by looking for something that is valuable, but not part of the original description.

So, (quite) a bit ad hoc, but presumably no malice nor indications of a bad working environment. My reading of the situation is that you came in second, which is disappointing, but should also give you hope about your employability.

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    I've personally chosen to use the lifehack of not being shitty at my job when choosing candidates to hire, but that's asking a lot from people and I can see the appeal of going a different route.
    – user133933
    Mar 25, 2021 at 21:13
  • @tschwarz I agree with most of the points you've mentioned. Here why I used the word "fair", I really match with all the criteria in job description (essential and desirable). In fact, I really understand the project and where it's going (from the team's publications). The whole situation didn't feel like "we need more information (about the skills needed for the project) to decide between the two candidates" but it's more of "we only need one candidate to fail", I am saying this because the test is a general computer science problem and it's not related to the current project...
    – U. User
    Mar 25, 2021 at 21:58
  • ... But perhaps I am wrong, and simply failed the interview. The good thing is that I was able to have 2 interviews at a top 5 university, so I should focus on the positive like you mentioned!
    – U. User
    Mar 25, 2021 at 22:01

You might've been the subject of a stress interview. These interviews are supposed to put you on the defensive and see how you react under pressure. For example, the interviewer might ask "your CV looks inadequate, what makes you think you can do this job?" This question is obviously aggressive, but it's kind of the point: it shows how you react. Other examples of stress interview questions are "How many rats are there in New York City?" or "Here's a problem, how would you solve it?".

Stress interviews are of course stressful, but don't take it personally. The interviewer doesn't hate you, they just want to see how you perform when stressed. From your description it sounds like you performed OK, but the other candidate was simply better. It's probable you could've done better if you had more time to prepare, but that probably also applies to the other candidate. Such is life. Good luck with your other interviews!

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