NPR may tote their tote bag, but grad school recruitment really knows how to bring out the swag! So if you’re at a grad school and you see a trickle of nicely-dressed people with school-logo-emblazoned tote bags walking around looking slightly lost, it probably means one thing – grad school interviews!
It’s getting to be that season again, so I want to tell you about what my experience with the process of interviewing for biomedical science PhD programs was like and some of my advice from an interviewee perspective – but I’m sure what you *really* want is advice from the people in power – the interviewers! So I’ve done some research not involving pipets and gotten tips from a couple professors – IUBMB president-elect Alexandra Newton and my PI (lab head) Leemor Joshua-Tor. So let’s talk about what may be in store!
I am sooooo grateful and privileged to be where I am today (a PhD candidate at Cold Spring Harbor’s WSBS graduate school), but I honestly never thought I could possibly get here (and often still have trouble believing I did!). It was love at first sight and I have never once regretted my decision to come here – and I hope the school hasn’t regretted their decision to accept me… Which brings me to the point of today’s post – how those decisions get made is in large part dependent on the interview!
A major caveat to start with is that the process is greatly different for different types of PhD programs. In some fields, you apply to grad school planning to work directly in a specific lab whose PI has agreed to take you. But in the U.S., biomedical-science-type programs tend to be set up so that you apply to a *program* and not an individual lab. Instead, you get to try out a few different labs in “rotations” before choosing where you want to do your thesis research. So it’s really important that the schools you’re applying to/interviewing at have multiple labs you could potentially see yourself working in. And you might even get to meet some of those lab heads during the interviews…
Interviews typically take place during “recruitment weekends” – these weekends serve a couple purposes. As an anxious, insecure grad student, it’s easy to think that the weekend is all about the school choosing you – and that’s certainly a big part of it – but it’s also important that you choose the school – so they do their best to convince you the school’s really cool! So, apart from the interviews themselves (more on these in a sec) there are things like program overviews & Q & A sessions with administrators, as well as presentations from profs, current and past students highlighting some of their work. (I’m super excited and honored to get to give a talk to recruitees in a couple weeks!)
And there are usually tours of campus and even excursions to nearby areas (which as an introvert might backfire…. way too many trips to the “big cities”). As an introvert this can be really hard and draining, having to switch that extrovert switch on all the time. So it’s also really important to find and appreciate the little down time you do have – even if it’s just a few minutes’ walk around campus under the guise of exploring (but remember to bring a map!)
Often the outings, etc., and even just your getting from place to place, are guided by current grad student hosts. These are your windows into the world of that school! Feel free to ask them questions about their experiences (in particular be sure to feel out things like course/teaching work load, campus environment, ease of getting into the labs you’re interested in, etc.).
They’ll also often take you out to dinner, etc. I don’t drink alcohol, so one of the things that I was really worried about heading into interviews was whether people would judge me or give me a hard time for it – but it was thankfully never an issue – so don’t feel compelled to drink. And don’t get drunk – believe me, it happens and is not a good first impression… and you definitely want to be on your A game for the interviews.
Speaking of those interviews – the number varies from program to program, but about 5 is probably average? CSHL is kinda notorious for packing in like 12 of them… Many schools will let you request particular PIs you want to talk to as part of your application and/or interview weekend registration. You’re *not* guaranteed to get to interview with these people (they might be out of town, overbooked, etc. so don’t take it personally!) and you *definitely* are in no way committing to work, or even rotate, in their labs.
The interviews can often seem intimidating, but the key is to try to relax and keep things conversational instead of stiff and clammy. I think sometimes the interviewers get tired of asking the same questions over and over, so you can get into some really interesting conversations – I have to say, one of my favorite interviews was with Jack Szostak at Harvard, discussing the origins of life and whether life could evolve without water…
Sometimes, however, even if your interview is going great, the talking can run long and you could be at risk of running late. So, make sure you slyly keep an eye on the time, especially if you have a tight schedule and don’t have a grad student host assigned to “run interference” and cut things off if things run long. I know it’s scary to cut things off with one PI, but you also don’t want to make a bad impression with the next by running late!
Speaking of making impressions, you want to dress business-casual-y. And prepared for a lot of walking (think nice-ish flats) and cold rooms (think layers). Another big thing when it comes to impression-making – keep your nose out of your phone! This piece of advice was brought to you by one who knows – Alexandra Newton, who, in addition to my PI Leemor Joshua-Tor, graciously agreed to provide some pro tips.
Of course, Newton phrased it much more elegantly: “Focus on the day, put your phone aside – if you have some time waiting around, you will seem much more engaged if you talk to other students or look at your surroundings, rather than do stuff on your phone”
So what else did they have to say?
In terms of preparing for the interview, Joshua-Tor advises: Give some thought to (and be prepared to answer questions about) “Why you want to go to graduate school,” “What you are looking for in a graduate school,” and “Why you are looking at that particular graduate school/program.”
Newton also suggests you “do your homework and read up on the research of the professors on your schedule.” This way, “If the professor says “do you have any questions for me?”, ask them to tell you a little bit about their research; ask them a question about it (this is where it is very helpful to have done your homework).”
[bumbling biochemist interjection – but don’t just memorize the title of their latest paper! and don’t feel wedded to prepared questions you had come up with, feel free to “improvise” if they bring up something that interests you]
Speaking of that “improv-ing”… Joshua-Tor says “It’s good to be conversational, rather than give a lecture with a lot of details.” It is important that you know the details when it comes to the research you’ve done, so that you can answer questions related to methodology, experimental design, etc. if asked, but the more crucial thing is to know, and be able to convey, the broader significance of the work. As Joshua-Tor puts it, “for their own research it’s important for them to know the big picture – why they did that project.”
When it comes to the explaining your research experience part of the interviews, Newton gives tips along the same lines:
Be prepared to describe your research – this is a very important part of the interview
- Give sufficient background on the project for the interviewer to understand the goal of your undergraduate research
- Don’t just focus on the techniques you used, make sure you can explain the bigger picture and how your experiments were aimed at solving a piece of the puzzle
- Be succinct but if the interviewer asks questions, provide more details
- Be prepared to explain how a technique you used works if asked (and never say anything you will not be able to explain)
- Be prepared to explain concepts of the project
All that’s about your past research, but what about your plans for the future? This is bound to come up too and, as Newton stresses, they don’t expect you to know exactly what those plans are – especially when it comes to research topics (which is where the rotation thing comes into play). In Newton’s words: “You are not expected to ‘know’ what your thesis research will be; it is more important that you have a passion for science – your thesis work is ‘training’ and not necessarily the research area you will devote your career to (you can fine tune that for your postdoctoral studies). But you should be able to explain what you love about research and why you want to go to graduate school in a particular area.”
What else might come up? Here are some of the questions Newton likes to ask prospective students:
- What do you like best about research?
- What do you like least about research?
- When/how did you get interested in science?
- What was your favourite course in undergrad?
- Why do you want to get a PhD?
[bumbling biochemist interjection: it’s okay if you don’t have an “aha moment” of getting interested in science – I don’t – I’ve just always been fascinated by it – and instead of making up some interesting story I was just open about this and it doesn’t seem to have held me back]
A day or two after the interviews, I sent (personalized) thank you emails to my interviewers. And then I waited for offer decisions to be announced… And that’s pretty much it.
Before I leave you, though, some last general advice I have: don’t try to pretend to be some cookie cutter perfect person – let your passion shine through! It’s that passion for science that is what they’re (hopefully) really looking for – this passion is what will get you through tough classes and rough stretches of experimental “failures” in the lab. And it’s this passion that is hard to convey in written applications – so the interviews are a great way to let it shine!
And don’t be afraid to openly discuss some lab “failures” you’ve had – especially if you were able to troubleshoot your way to solutions – it’s important for them to see that you aren’t easily discouraged and you have a “science thinking cap.” There’s much more to being a scientist than memorizing formulas and answering multiple-choice questions. So use the interview to highlight your real-life experiences doing real-life science stuff.
Best of luck to everyone interviewing! You have exciting scientific journeys ahead of you!
This post is part of my weekly “broadcasts from the bench” for The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Be sure to follow the IUBMB if you’re interested in biochemistry! They’re a really great international organization for biochemistry.