My Week At The EMBL

Last week I was interviewing for a PhD position at the European Molecular Biology Institute (EMBL). I did not get the position for various reasons, the main one being that the two recruiting group leaders were offering projects that I was not particularly keen on (I guess that showed!). However, I thought I would take this opportunity to report back on my experiences at the institute.

I quick background on the EMBL: it was established in 1974 to complete research in the life sciences, mainly for Europe to compete with the highly prestigious American universities. The PhD programme was founded in 1983. The main base of operations is in Heidelberg (where I interviewed) with outstations in Grenoble, Hamburg, Hinxton, and Monterotondo.

I applied in October 2016 and heard back in November, when I was informed that I would have to complete a “pre-interview” on Skype. For candidates coming from outside Europe this is standard procedure. I was asked about my past and current research projects and some basic molecular biology questions. That same day, I was informed by email that I could travel to Heidelberg for the interview.

The EMBL pays for everything during your week stay (which is really nice!), from flights to accommodation and all meals during the week. I arrived in the afternoon on Sunday and was taken to the ISG hotel in Heidelberg by taxi (pre-paid by the institute). I did go into the town centre to look for a place to have lunch; as some may have seen from my previous post, I was learning a bit of German, but after the experience of Sunday afternoon I was too mortified to attempt to speak German ever again! Later in the afternoon, I meet my roommate who was also, like me, interviewing in the Structural and Computational Biology Unit.

On Monday we all had an initial assessment interview (IAA). This is basically a thirty minute interview to assess your suitability for the programme. I later found out that they tend to fail candidates who, for example, have a math or physics background and practically no knowledge of basic biology, for example what a mitochondria is. I thought my interview went well: there were three interviewers on my panel, and they asked about my research background, and some biology questions on super-resolution microscopy, CRISPR-Cas9, and an organelle I had to name (I chose the mitochondria). The whole point of the interview is to assess your specialist (based on your research) and broader scientific knowledge. I passed the IAA which meant that I could move on to individual interviews with the recruiting group leaders and those in the unit who are not recruiting.

All of my individual interviews took place on the Tuesday. These are also half an hour each and I found that they tended to be a bit repetitive, with explaining my project over and over again to each interviewer. This was also the chance for each recruiting group leader to explain what projects they are offering. The interviews were not too bad, although the one interviewer had me calculate the approximate number of ribosomes in a cell. On the Tuesday evening we had an excursion to a pub in the older part of town where we could order a drink paid for by the EMBL, and talk to current PhD students.

On the Wednesday, there was not much to do. I arranged to talk to one of the recruiting group leaders again, but I found that they gave very mixed messages; in the first interview, the person mentioned possibly doing some structural work as part of the project, and then in the second interview when I asked about those aspects again, the person said that they are not a structural biologist.

On the Thursday, my roommate, I, and another candidate took a trip into town to visit Heidelberg castle. There was also an apothecary museum in the castle which was quite interesting to see. We also got a chance to pass the Old Bridge, one of the attractions in Heidelberg (and which also takes five minutes to see):


And here is the castle, in all its ruined glory:



Friday was results day. The previous day we had to hand in our preferences by 4pm. My own choices were a bit non-standard. There was a new group leader who is based in Hamburg and who did a quick two minute presentation during a “Bio-IT” session held on the Monday evening. I thought his work sounded interesting so I requested an additional interview on the Tuesday. He asked about my previous work and explained a bit about the project. I was lead to believe that the project would be computational with some scope for experimental work. I asked for additional papers which he did provide over email. Then on the Wednesday, I thought it would be best to have another interview (since most of the other candidates were having multiple interviews with groups that interested them), but the group leader emailed back that he was too busy but that I could email questions about the project which I did. I handed in my preferences on Thursday morning, with this new group leader as first choice, who was technically not recruiting but the admin staff told me that if he wanted me in his group they could accommodate. Then I received an email on Thursday afternoon, where this group leader mentioned that he was actually looking for more of a computer programmer. He also mentioned that I should not solely rely on the current system that I use for reconstructing protein complexes for my Master’s project (he called it a “black-box” interface, which it certainly is not), which I found extremely rude and presumptuous considering that during the thirty minute interview he had not asked a single question about what I knew about reconstructing using this system (my current supervisor also agreed when I told him).

So on the Thursday I already knew that I had not secured a place. This was confirmed on the Friday. I think it worked out for the best, as I can now focus on finding a research group that is more aligned with my interests. The experience was good; I had some nice meals at the EMBL canteen provided for free and I met some really nice people. The only thing I found quite annoying about the experience was that the EMBL only tells you which group leaders are actually recruiting when you get invited for an interview (and whose going to pass up an opportunity to fly to Germany!?). So when you arrive you may find that the projects are not really what you’re looking for.

All in all I had an enjoyable time in Germany. I got to see Heidelberg in the winter, which is very different to sunny South Africa (it was grey for the entire time I was there). And now I can say I have crossed another destination off my travelling list.


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