It happens all too often: You find a research contract advertised online and spend hours completing paperwork and polishing your application. After being invited to interview, you take time off from your current project, travel a considerable distance and meet with department heads. But something seems off. They don’t seem that interested in you or your past accomplishments. The following week you receive a polite email thanking you for your time but advising that you did not have the necessary skillset. Later, when catching up with a former colleague, you mention your interview experience and they dismiss it casually: “You shouldn’t have wasted your time; they already had an in-house candidate selected”.
One of the biggest challenges a researcher may face in seeking a new contract is negotiating the minefield of fake interviews. In many countries, laws on equality require that new research positions be advertised in a major academic outlet or online portal. Even when this is not the case, many university HR departments necessitate the public advertisement of new positions to avoid potential accusations of discrimination. But often Professors or department overseers will already have chosen a researcher for the position, perhaps a former colleague or student. The interviews with other candidates are just a technicality, a loophole to circumvent policies on combating partiality.
So how is it possible to spot a real opportunity amongst the counterfeit? There are some potential red flags to look out for:
The position is advertised on a major academic online portal: Whilst there is no way of knowing for sure, research positions advertised on online portals frequented by academics may often lead to fake interviews. If you meet the specifications of the position, try contacting the department directly instead of wasting time filling out online applications. A brief email to a Professor outlining why you think you would be ideal for the position (with your relevant work history attached) should be sufficient to attract interest in case it is a legitimate posting. If it is a fake, you haven’t wasted much time and will be less likely to be invited to a “sham” interview.
Job descriptions are oddly obscure or overly specific: You would expect a certain level of detail in any advertised job posting, but if it is either too specific (you feel like you are reading another researchers résumé) or unusually vague (the description could fit almost anyone) then you may have cause to be wary. With either tactic it is very easy for potential candidates to be dismissed because they don’t meet the criteria – either because they don’t have the exact specialist experience in a particular subject, or because once you arrive for the interview they can suddenly narrow the criteria, eliminating all but their pre-selected candidate.
The interviewers show little interest in you, your qualifications or past experience: A job interview should focus primarily on you; you are selling yourself as the ideal candidate and the interviewer is researching whether or not you would be suitable. If they’re not showing interest in getting to know you or in understanding more about your past experience, then it is likely because they already have someone selected for the position.
In addition to wasting valuable time, fake interviews can be hugely damaging to a candidates self-worth. Continual rejection without understanding why may lead a researcher to feel they will never be good enough. So be aware that fake interviews do exist. Be on the lookout for red flags. And if you become suspicious during an interview that the candidate has already been preselected, try to keep a positive view of the experience: it was a trial run interview that will give you more confidence for next time; they haven’t rejected you or your skillset personally; and you have the opportunity to practice remaining calm and being a consummate professional when faced with difficult circumstances.