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I had an interview where I was asked to tell the committee about a situation where I had a conflict with one of my previous supervisors.

I told them the truth, which is "I have never had a conflict with any of my supervisor before". But they gave me a couple of minutes to think carefully so maybe I remember something. I could not come up with an idea.

Is it bad not to answer this question? In other words, should I have been not honest and make up a story?

How much of an effect can this question have on their final decision?

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I think it would be worse to make up a story. I'm not particularly a fan of this sort of "trap" interview question (alongside other common ones like "what's your biggest weakness?") but presumably the interviewer is asking because they are hoping to elucidate something about how you handle conflict. If you brush the question off, well, that tells them something about how you handle conflict, doesn't it? Maybe they won't mind, maybe they will care deeply, but especially because they gave you extra time they are signaling that, to them, this was an important question, and yet you weren't able to answer a question that was important to them. That said, it's impossible to measure the effect this will have on the decision. It seems unlikely that the answer to this question would be literally the only thing between you and another candidate that was interviewed, but ultimately if it is a choice between you and someone else then anything could matter as the proverbial "last straw".

Instead, in the future I would consider interpreting a question like this much more broadly. A "conflict" doesn't have to mean you came to fisticuffs, it could be any level of disagreement. If you truly have never had a disagreement with a supervisor that may not be a good thing, either, it suggests you aren't bringing anything to the table of sufficient substance to disagree about or lack the confidence to support your own ideas when a supervisor suggests a different direction.

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    +1. I suspect the last paragraph is key here -- it's one thing to have never had a screaming match, it's quite another to have never had any disagreement or difference of opinion at all. While the decision probably won't hinge on one bad answer, the pattern (if there was one) of "I mindlessly do whatever my advisor says" could certainly swing the decision.
    – cag51
    May 18 at 0:46
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    @cag51 Yeah, and I'd say the Workplace answer linked by a commenter above here: workplace.stackexchange.com/a/157289/63134 goes into a bit more depth on the likely thinking behind the question and importance of the answer.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 18 at 0:55
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    OK, but OP appears to be a new applicant for a Ph.D. studentship, so presumably the previous supervisors in question are bachelor's and/or master's dissertation supervisors. It's quite common for bachelor's and master's dissertation projects to go through without any significant controversy May 18 at 10:04
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    @DanielHatton As I mention in my answer, conflict need not refer to "significant controversy".
    – Bryan Krause
    May 18 at 22:49
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    @BryanKrause When I said "significant controversy", I meant something much closer to 'any level of disagreement' than to 'fisticuffs'. May 19 at 8:02
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Is it bad not to answer this question? In other words, should I have been not honest and make up a story?

There is a third option in this kind of situation: take your best guess at the purpose of the question, and then offer them some other way to get the information they're after.

In this case, the purpose of the question is most likely to explore whether you're capable of communicating and resolving such conflicts in a productive manner. So one could instead offer something like this:

"I've actually been really fortunate with my supervisor/s and we haven't had any significant conflict, but perhaps I could tell you about a conflict I had with one of my course coordinators, if that would be relevant here?"

(Or anybody else who you've had a conflict with, but the more similar to a supervisor/supervisee relationship the better.)

If that's not what they're looking for, they can clarify what the point of the question is, but this kind of approach shows a willingness on your part to work with them.

Footnote: while each question in an interview might be there for a different purpose, every question is also a de facto test of communication skills and collaboration style.

If I have to choose between working with the candidate who says "I couldn't do the thing you asked me to do, so I did nothing", and the one who says "I couldn't do the thing you asked, so I thought about what the next best thing would be, and did that instead"... I probably want to work with the latter.

Footnote #2: since none of us are perfect at divining the intent of such questions, especially in the pressure of an interview, it is important to phrase this as an offer (note the "if that would be relevant?") rather than assuming this is the correct interpretation and going straight on to answer one's own version of the question.

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    excellent answer: I could have used this approach myself in the past May 18 at 21:51
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    Or the conflict you had in your last interview because of the stupid questions! Or the conflict at your current job which is why you have to endure this interview. "You want conflict? I give you conflict!" May 18 at 22:21
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    Agree that it’s an excellent answer. I’d add that the ability to be asked a question and divine and address not only its literal meaning but also the deeper intent behind the question is an extremely valuable skill in its own right that’s useful in research, teaching, and many other contexts (e.g., answering questions on stack exchange!). Doing what this answer suggests would be a great way to demonstrate that skill and score additional points.
    – Dan Romik
    May 19 at 19:00
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This question is designed to ask you how you deal with conflict. It's a standard interview question outside of academia, and it can be very important in hiring decisions. Your interviewers have adapted it to an academic setting in a narrower-than-usual way - outside of academia, the question would just be "How do you deal with conflict", specifically to avoid the situation you're in. The "your supervisor" version may also be intended to reveal how intellectually independent you are, by giving you a chance to talk about a time when you realised something your supervisor didn't believe.

The correct answer is to describe a time when you convinced your supervisor of something. That is, think of a time when you had an idea that your supervisor initially didn't think would work, but you eventually convinced them (or they eventually let you try it despite thinking it wouldn't work, and it did). Explain what your idea was, why your supervisor didn't like it, what you agreed on, and how that vindicates you. This shows that 1) you have your own, good ideas, 2) that you can argue for them, and 3) that you can listen to other people's input and take it on board.

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    or even if their idea wasn't vindicated, at least they independently came to a hypothesis that was testable... it didn't have to work, but it should at least have been an interesting idea with far-reaching implications if it were to have been proven to be true and replicable. there's value in disproving your own interesting (but wrong) ideas. the mores would then amount to: "I disagreed with my supervisor, but was able to coordinate with them in a way that allowed me to disprove my idea, which was educational and enriching" or some B.S. like that. they will eat that up like candy. nomnom May 18 at 13:04
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    "I realized that although I may have fresh, new ideas to present to the academic community, having access to the knowledge of experienced supervisors is invaluable" and blah blah blah May 18 at 13:07
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    That depends on the interviewer. They might just be looking for ability to generate ideas and humility to accept when they're wrong, or they might also be looking for ability to have good ideas.
    – user7868
    May 19 at 1:12
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    +1, if nothing else they were probably shocked the OP was caught offguard by such a stereotypical interview question.
    – eps
    May 20 at 4:16
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You (like most people) have a very high bar for what is called conflict. Especially if it was solved amicable. And how it was solved is what the interviewer wants to hear. So lower that bar until you find a conflict. Let me start with the lowest possible bar (and increase):

  • One time my supervisor wanted to eat lunch with me and proposed canteen X, while I wanted to go to canteen Y, I ...
  • I prepared the draft for my first paper, but my supervisor thought it should be revised substantially, I ...
  • When discussing research directions/implementations my supervisor had a different idea/didnt like my idea, I ....

These things have to be thought out before the interview, look for the biggest (resolved) conflict you can find, and tell it (if you look good how you solved it, otherwise pick another conflict)

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Impossible to predict, actually. But the question seems a bit strange. I wonder how they expect to get truthful answers to such a "gotcha" question. Perhaps it was just somebody with a strange idea.

Asking for how you might behave in a hypothetical situation might be different, but still strange.

Hopefully it won't affect you at all. But if it does, then you might take it as a warning and go elsewhere.

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    I don't agree that a question about conflict is a "gotcha question." Every relationship involves conflict, including professional relationships. No two people agree on everything all the time. But, being professionals, we're expected to resolve conflict in a professional way. And we should be able to explain how we do that (preferably with examples). May 19 at 1:43
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    @ChrisBouchard as a person in the OP's shoes, I would also disagree that every relationship involves conflict in the popular understanding of the term. Maybe this is field dependent, but any disagreement usually is due to asymmetric information between the parties or some misunderstanding, so it is always easy to figure out what causes the disagreement and resolve it. E.g., I assume that I'm missing something, if my advisor disagrees with me, or I need more arguments to back my claim. Do we call a discussion that goes through various facts and ideas a conflict? Seems like "gotcha" to me.
    – runr
    May 19 at 17:05
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    @Buffy Whether a suitably dysfunctional interviewer could turn this question against you? Of course, but that's true for just about anything you could ask in an interview. I can only speak to what it means in general, and I don't think interviewers are dysfunctional in general. May 19 at 21:10
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    @ChrisBouchard The first time I sat on a selection panel was a real eye-opener for me. From the interviewee's side it's easy to see it as an adversarial process where the interviewer is looking for an opportunity to strike. But in reality... as an interviewer, I want to hire somebody! (Usually more somebodies than the budget will allow me to hire.) Playing gotcha games is not only toxic, it works directly against what I'm there to do. No doubt there are toxic people out there who do abuse the process, but I agree that it's not typical IME. May 19 at 22:30
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    It's an incredibly common interview question, to the point that it is basically a stereotype like "what's your biggest weakness". Maybe it's unusual to ask for academia but certainly not in business. How people handle conflict is pretty important.
    – eps
    May 20 at 4:20
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This is something that stumped me when I first started interviewing for jobs — I figured they asked questions because they wanted the answers. So I gave short, factual answers. I've had to learn that interviewing is much more like an improv game, where they give you a prompt and you talk for a few minutes about it.

Every question you answer is an opportunity to show something about yourself. The factual information matters, of course — they're taking notes, so don't lie — but what's going to stick with them afterward is what talking with you felt like. They're going to forget the facts (since they can reread their notes later), and they'll just be left with that impression. You're painting a portrait of yourself with your words.

Given that, saying, "I don't have an answer," is possibly the worst answer. Not only are you not giving them the information that they (nominally) asked for, you're also passing up an opportunity to talk about yourself!

So when you get a question like this, what they're really saying is, "Talk to us about conflict." Anything you have on the subject is fair game, as long as you're showing how you approach conflict — e.g., how you get along with difficult people, how you de-escalate, or how you try to understand different viewpoints. I'd take the specifics of "with your supervisor" as a suggestion. If you have something, great! Otherwise, start widening the search criteria until you do have something. If not a supervisor, maybe a senior colleague? Coauthor? Instructor? And if you haven't had Conflict (with a big C), what about disagreements? Intense discussions? Misunderstandings?

In the end, I think what's most important is just to talk and be earnest. Make it a conversation. You're helping them to understand who you are and why they should like you, not filling out a form letter.

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    Giving just some answer will make me continue interview but will not leave good impression. When I ask a question, I expect question to be understood and candidate try to answer as good as possible for them. Doesn't matter if it is exactly what I have expected. But attempt to give clear, conscious and honest answer as much as it is possible, leaves good impression in me. May 19 at 9:54
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What they are asking is: "Everyone has conflicts and different ideas. Tell me about how you communicate and negotiate with other people when these conflicts arise".

They weren't asking about you and your professor, but how you interact professionally. The better way to answer is to come up with an example how you had a conflict with a fellow student who you were doing a big project on, or conflict at work outside of Academia.

Any big time conflict and how you resolved it would have been acceptable. Something like "Well, me and my professor got along rather well, we sometimes had small disagreements, but let me tell you about when I was doing research with a fellow student and had a huge conflict that almost cost us months of work..."

These questions are asking you how do you operate, how do you organize, how do you communicate, how do you resolve problems. More people than you'd imagine don't keep notes, or schedules, or have any regard for their colleagues, and the interviewers are trying to weed out those people.

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This question is standard and not gotcha. Conflict is normal, how you handle it is important. I would neither like candidate that avoids conflict on all costs by holding back their opinion nor a candidate that use everything to create conflicts.

It is also perfectly fine if there were no big conflicts especially people with little experience.

In my case, for over 15 years I had no real conflicts in a sense of a real conflict. But then I had.

I can share this situation in an interview, tell how things went, how I would try to react in a better way in case such situation arised in the future.

Also I can share about situations of disagreement, which is sort of a conflict. This would also count as a reasonable answer if I interview.

This question is also an opportunity to show that you are a honest, confident and have the ability to learn from your own experience. There surely is risk as well that the interviewers will not like you for whatever reason. But then maybe you don't want to work there.

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Yes, it is bad, because they think your answer to the question will elicit relevant information about you, and declining to answer is almost always considered a completely negative score.

On the other hand, it is not a question I would directly ask as a seasoned and professional interviewer. Perfectly sane people are often stumped and embarrassed by this kind of very confrontational (and boringly generic off-the-shelf) questioning.

So you were not interviewed by a very professional team, which I am afraid is the norm in academia.

A professional interviewer (usually the HR representative, who is in many cases the only one in the room with high-quality training in personnel interview techniques) will only proceed to "how did you handle this" when in the course of a previous answer the candidate brings something up that hints in this direction.

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I've answered similar questions with general principles on how to manage conflict, rather than describing specific cases. One principle is that prevention is better than cure. ;)

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