VIDI Interview

On Monday March 6 I had the VIDI interview. It was a big challenge, but I had a lot of help. I received feedback and training and lots of well-meaning advice. I also got a lot of support from colleagues and friends which helped me stay motivated and confident. So, first of all: thanks everyone, you know who you are!

The process is odd in many ways. There are long waiting periods in which nothing happens, then suddenly you only have a very short timespan in which to prepare for something really important. I was notified on Feburary 20th that I was invited for the interview two weeks later. I tried to alert all involved as quickly as possible, but still the presentation workshops, interview training, mock-interviews, etc. had to be organized in a hurry and compressed in the next week (a school holiday). I understand that the commission and NWO have a lot on their plate and that longer lead times increase the duration of the entire process, but it is still pretty stressfull for all involved. Moreover, now I’ll have to wait until May 24 for the results.

During the presentation training it became apparent that not all VIDI interviews were going to be the same. Those in the humanities panel were given only 5 minutes to present their projects, in other domains 8, or even 10 minutes. Why? Is there perhaps some tacit assumption that it is easier to explain a project in the humanities than in psychology or biology? I certainly could have made good use of more time. There is only so much you can do in 5 minutes. The proposed structure in the workshops of catching the audience’s attention, presenting the project, showing the problem and your solution, plus method, innovation, valorisation, results, and then concluding with what makes you qualified is quite hard to fit in 500-600 words. Step one, catching the commission’s attention and making them care seemed like the most important thing. All the rest is already in the project proposal in much more detail. So I didn’t summarize my CV for them, or went into great detail about my method, results, and innovation. Instead, I tried to make them laugh, and they did!

As a historian of philosophy I am bothered by the constant call to make your project relevant to the present. I suppose this happens to all historians (“So you’re doing research on the historical context of Darwin’s ideas, but how will this impact current developments in evolutionary biology?”). I’m not doing systematic philosophy and I am not aiming to participate in ongoing debates about the same problems or ideas. Yet, the people in current debates are using the same terminologies and dealing with the same issues as a century and a half ago. If I can clarify the past that they depend on, then I suppose that would be a “contribution” to current discussions. However, as a historian that is not my goal and not what makes it worthwhile. I don’t mean this as a criticism of the members of the commission, but what can a broad non-specialist commission really do? They will adjust the ranking of my proposal, but based on what? If they ask what I consider to be the wrong questions, what can they make out of my answers? I made them laugh when I told them that one example of a mechanical algorithm taking over cognitive tasks from humans is picking the right candidates for a reserach grant or an academic job. That’s not because the algorithm is smarter, but because humans inevitably have biases. My suit and gender (and the fact that I made them laugh) have as much of a chance to positively impact the ranking of my project as my answers.

The absolutely best and totally legitimate question I got was about how I would prepare myself to be a good promotor for my PhD student since I lacked experience in that respect. Just asking that question of every candidate and confronting them with the potential need for training and the responsibilities that they are taking on is a major positive point of the interview. At no point in the application process was this required from me, the point was only made through a question at the interview. I told them that I had studied the relevant literature on career development and project management in the context of my own work as PhD student and postdoc, but also that there were opportunities for professional development by taking courses in management and leadership. I underscored that I took the question seriously especially in view of the fact that the right to act as promotor is about to be extended beyond full professors in the Netherlands. If I would get the funding, I sure hope that I will have the opportunity to act in all respects as formal and official promotor.