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    Sergey Arkhipov said:

    “While my naïve and brutally honest answer cost me the position”. I do not think this was only a reason to be refused, because the competition to get a position in the University of Cambridge is extremely high.

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    Simon P said:

    Hello Sergey,

    Thank you for your comment. Indeed, the competition is fierce and there were likely other reasons for not selecting me as well. In retrospect, I can identify other things that I would have done differently. What I chose to highlight in the story was perhaps the most likely reason why I was not offered the position, though.

    As you imply, we would all be strong contenders to even have the interview to begin with and in a scenario where candidates are equally qualified it is details, e.g. motivation, that prove decisive. From their perspective as employers and future colleagues, they want the candidate with the biggest passion about their research to join the their team. In my mind, that was one reason for asking the “dream project” question.

    Briefly, when I applied for Cambridge I was in the middle of my master dissertation project on blood cancer and macrophages. The Cambridge position was about another aspect of blood cancer and that is why I applied. That question then revealed that my passion was more about immunology than oncology. They likely realised that from the answer I gave and I am glad I learned what I really wanted to do.

    Finally, I value honesty highly and do not regret that I answered honestly. In fact, I have surprised a few interviewers who have told me “That is an honest thing to say” or “It was honest of you to say that”.
    Through honesty both parties will be satisfied, as explained by the stable matching theory that was awarded the ‘Nobel Prize’ in Economics in 2012

    I hope that I have clarified the situation for you, Sergey.
    Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts,

    Best regards,


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    Olof Bergman said:

    Oh, yes—the more bruised your shins are, the wiser your head is! Or as Alanis Morissette once put it:

    You live you learn
    You love you learn
    You cry you learn
    You lose you learn
    You bleed you learn
    You scream you learn

    On one point I agree with Sergey, though: I think you make a too strong connection between what you consider your own mistakes and the outcome. Mature and sensible seniors see through the small blunders and nervousness and try to get a picture of the junior in front of them – “does she/he have the right stuff”? As the competition for the few positions available is murderous, you have to keep trying and trying again, no matter how talented you are.

    PS The cross-examination by the PI in the Netherlands gives me the creeps; from the info given here, you should be happy that you didn’t get the position!

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    Simon P said:

    Hi Olof,

    Thank you for your feedback – and for sharing some Alanis Morisette with us.

    Yes, it is probable that experienced recruiters disregard certain aspects. As I mentioned to Sergey, in my case it must have been more than what I focused on in the story. It was my first interview experience and I would have been surprised if I had nailed it straight away. To quote another of my favourite songs: “ all of your failures are training grounds “.

    About the Netherlands; I must stress that I have not intended to portray anyone badly. While it was the worst moment in my life, the PI was in fact understanding and tried to help me get back on track because it was supposed to be a discussion but it turned into a lecture about things I would be expected to know already.

    Realising my focus had been wrong, my mind had gone completely blank and I could not even recall the co-stimulatory mechanism of T cells at the time. I had prepared and taken notes, with the PI could see, but I had simply misunderstood what we were supposed to discuss.

    Moreover, the final decision was based on the individual discussion, an oral presentation that followed in front of the other lab members, and lastly a meeting with a co-supervisor for the project. Theoretically, I could have rectified the poor discussion performance but given the mindset I was in, the rest was not good enough either.

    While it was a crushing experience, I feel most of it was my own inexperience and I do not blame anyone else for what happened. As mentioned, I would never wish for anyone to end up in such an embarrasing situation however, and that has been a motivation to share my “failures” with the Naturejobs blog readership.

    Thank you for your comment,