I am applying for a fellowship so that I can pursue a PhD in the US. The selection process includes an interview for shortlisted candidates.

I like to save the best for the last in order to surprise the audience. I think surprise, wherever it is used, has a good effect. I have a poster based on my undergraduate dissertation, which is said to be very attractive. It is inspired by the poster of Michael Barton, which is introduced by the Better Poster blog. I think I can use it to surprise the fellowship selection committee.

Now, should I apply this strategy to the interviewers? That means I will keep the information of what I've done in the SOP as minimal as possible, just enough to pass the first selection round to get to the face-to-face round. At this round, I will show them my poster and hope they will be favorably impressed.

Should I use this strategy?

I think I should quote my comment on Hans Adler's answer here:

I just take my A0 size poster in to the interview room. During the interview, professors will test my knowledge, ask me what I've done and judge that if I'm adequate to the fellowship. In the room it will have a white board for you to outline what I've done, and this is what is poster born for. Instead of drawing figure or chart by myself, I just need to open the poster and show what's what.

  • 44
    By far the hardest part of an application process like this is getting to the interview. Don't short-change yourself before that point.
    – sapi
    Jan 15, 2015 at 10:39
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    Holding back the best stuff from the original application sounds like a terrible idea.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 15, 2015 at 11:52
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    I hate surprises. Especially at the interview.
    – Compass
    Jan 15, 2015 at 20:27
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    Is anybody else completely lost as to what a poster has to to do with a PhD interview? What is a "poster examiner"? I'm having a lot of trouble parsing the second sentence in the answer to the "what poster?" question.
    – JLRishe
    Jan 15, 2015 at 21:52
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    So do I have this straight? Your proposal is to give practically no detail about your work in your application, hoping that you will get an interview anyway. And then, assuming you do get an interview and are asked about your work, rather than answering, you propose to whip out some massive poster and say "Here, read this poster." Is that right? Jan 16, 2015 at 0:26

6 Answers 6


Absolutely not.

Even if you turned out to be a good candidate, I would reject your application on this basis alone. You're completely wasting my time by failing to be up-front about your qualifications when you know that I have a lot of work to do in prioritising applications and arranging interviews accordingly.

If I find out, after doing all of that work, that by hiring you I will be hiring someone who routinely withholds relevant information because he wants to "surprise" me, then I know I am only hurting myself in the long run. I would instead pick an individual who is capable of being up-front and honest — someone with whom I can work without constantly wondering what he's not yet bothered to tell me.

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    @Ooker: This is the reverse of the way to wow someone. Wow them, impress them by demonstrating integrity, reliability and wisdom. Your "strategy" sort of suggests the opposite to me. However, you've already been told this several times now (surprising someone may get you remembered but not necessarily in the way that you want to be remembered; they'll be telling stories about you to their friends for a while, but it's likely they'll be laughing whilst doing so) and you don't seem to be getting it, or you're unwilling to accept the overwhelmingly negative response to your idea. So. Jan 18, 2015 at 14:30
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    For the record, I think that @ff524's answer is wildly better than mine. Not sure why you migrated the acceptance tick! Jan 18, 2015 at 14:31
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    I know that her answer is better than yours. I just feel that your answer is easier for me to digest. It's not her answer is uncomfortable, it's because there are somethings (that I think) needed to be ask deeper. I still choose her answer as the best. The accepted answer is the one that works for me.
    – Ooker
    Jan 18, 2015 at 14:52
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit Maybe Ooker is waiting for you to surprise-wow him.
    – Dronz
    Jan 18, 2015 at 18:41
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    @kitty: It's not about being "harsh". The entire selection process is based upon finding the right person who has the right qualities for the position. If you demonstrate that you do not have those qualities, then you are qualified for the position. It's not "harsh". Jan 18, 2015 at 19:37


  • How will you know exactly what's "just enough to pass the first selection round"? You won't. You can't.
  • Don't "surprise" by withholding helpful information. I believe most people find it annoying and inconsiderate when someone deliberately withholds information that they need in order to do their job (which is what you are proposing to do to the selection committee).
  • It's harder to change someone's opinion of you than it is to confirm it. Even if you manage to get an interview using this strategy, convincing the interviewer that the candidate he thought was mediocre is really exceptional is more difficult than making him think, "This student is just as exceptional in person as I thought he would be!" (Also see: confirmation bias)
  • Presenting yourself badly on paper can lead the committee to think that you don't know how to present yourself well, or didn't bother to find out how, or didn't care enough to put effort into your application. These are not qualities that people look for in an applicant.
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    The "it's harder to change someone's opinion of you than it is to confirm it" really convince me.
    – Ooker
    Jan 15, 2015 at 6:59
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    Ooker, it is a a nice strategy maybe for a pickup line, but not for work-related things.
    – skymningen
    Jan 15, 2015 at 7:34
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    @Ooker I can't argue with what you think. All I can do is give rational, objective reasons to support what I think. Perhaps your unwillingness to change your mind even in the face of these is another example of confirmation bias :)
    – ff524
    Jan 15, 2015 at 7:34
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    @Ooker The withholding important information is in general terrible, because your basic problem will always be to get people to care enough to pay attention to you. Put the important "what" up front where everyone can see it, and let the surprise be how you achieve that "what."
    – jakebeal
    Jan 15, 2015 at 12:13
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    Busy people make very fast decisions based on the available information. Do I go to this talk based on a one-paragraph abstract? Is this job applicant worth a phone-screen, based on my 20 seconds scanning their resume? Treat your audience like adults and put your best up front.
    – Peter
    Jan 15, 2015 at 13:45

I fully agree with ff524's answer. As you still seem to think that your question outlines a good strategy, let me offer an additional point.

One purpose of having two rounds of selection is that the paper application focusses on different qualifications than the interview, and the committee wants both to be tested. So yes, by all means, do surprise the interviewers, but do that with points that couldn't be shown on paper due to their nature. Examples for these are:

  • Give a convincing oral presentation about your results or plans.
  • Show confidence even when asked critical questions.

The poster you mention may not be a good fit for the paper application anyway, but do not withhold any information about your research that would fit into the paper application format.

If you can show the poster at the interview, you would want the interviewers to be surprised by thinking "This guy has very nice research results, and he can present it in an innovative format." You don't want their evaluation to be "This guy cannot write clearly about his research, but ..." (nothing follows because you're not invited to the interview).

  • Points that couldn't be shown on paper. This one also convinces me. Thank you.
    – Ooker
    Jan 15, 2015 at 14:51

No. Too often, interviewers will be surprised anyway by things you did put in the application and even things you said in an earlier interview. They are reading a lot of applications. The interviewers who do carefully retain all the information they've gotten are people who do not prefer surprises.


I'm a bit puzzled by the question. Posters are one medium for presenting your research. Other options include talks (or the associated slides), articles and abstracts. A poster only really makes sense in a poster session, when there is actual space for putting it up, and ideally some time has been allocated for authors standing next to their posters and presenting them to interested people.

Sending in a poster as part of an application in general doesn't seem to make much sense, just like sending in the slides to a talk you have given. It's not really the right medium for the purpose. And the same principle applies to your presence before the selection committee, unless they are doing a poster session.

You should prepare a presentation of your work in a suitable format (probably an abstract, maybe in somewhat extended form, along with a URL to a preprint or published article) and send that along with your application. You can still bring your poster in case there is a situation in which you can use it. And slides in case you get the opportunity for a little talk. Don't think of any of these things as a magic bullet just because someone has complimented you on it. Choose the right medium for the occasion; if you have material in a less optimal medium such as (presumably) your poster, keep it in your sleeve as an ace to be presented in case an appropriate occasion should arise.

In my opinion, a poster would have to be truly extraordinary in a way that cannot be captured in another medium to justify sending it with your application. Besides, I am not even sure how you would send it. By snailmail would be slow, unusual and a hassle. If you send it electronically, most recipients probably wouldn't know how to print it in an appropriate size, and reading it on the screen is probably not much fun.

  • I just take my A0 size poster in to the interview room. During the interview, professors will test my knowledge, ask me what I've done and judge that if I'm adequate to the fellowship. In the room it will have a white board for you to outline what I've done, and this is what is poster born for. Instead of drawing figure or chart by myself, I just need to open the poster and show what's what.
    – Ooker
    Jan 15, 2015 at 14:58
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    @Ooker, that is almost exactly the opposite of how interviews work. The interview will very rapidly push you beyond what you have previously thought about so that we can assess how well you think on your feet.
    – StrongBad
    Jan 16, 2015 at 14:40
  • @StrongBad I know. But before asking in details, the interviewers need to what I've done, right?
    – Ooker
    Jan 16, 2015 at 15:07
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    @Ooker: That's what the application / CV is for.
    – cHao
    Jan 17, 2015 at 11:42
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    @Ooker: Point is, there's a way to tell them, and they pretty obviously want to know. Wait til the interview to wow them, and you may never get the chance -- on paper, you'll compare pretty badly against anyone who isn't sandbagging too.
    – cHao
    Jan 17, 2015 at 16:44

No. In addition to reasons given above, the following story illustrates the folly of witholding. I once turned down a candidate, i.e. did not invite him for interview.

He then demanded to know why.

I said such and such were essential.

But I have such and such, he said (in, however, not too convincing a manner, otherwise I would still have invited him at this point).

It is not on your CV, I said. It really should have been there.

There was no room, he said.

You managed to find room for... [activities that were not relevant] I said.

Yeah but I sent you the same CV I send to everyone, he said.

There's your mistake, I said, in future remember to tailor those few pages to the job you are looking for at that point in time.

Thank you for your kind advice, he said, welling up. (Of course he didn't!)

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