Today, I was helping someone prepare for grad school interviews, so I thought I’d share some of the advice I shared with her, and some of the advice I got from actual interviewers, here so anyone who has interviews coming up (and congrats by the way!) can benefit. Today’s post features thoughts and advice from the bumbling biochemist,  IUBMB president-elect and UCSD Prof, Dr. Alexandra Newton, and my PI (lab head), Dr. Leemor Joshua-Tor. So let’s talk about what may be in store!

Let me start with some words about your attitude – okay, that sounded weird, but what I mean is that you should approach these interviews recognizing that they interviews are really 2-way. You are checking them out too! Just getting offered an interview means they are seriously considering accepting you. When I had my first interviews, I was just so excited to have interviews and I went into them feeling like my only task was to sell myself to the school. But then I got there and they were trying to sell themselves to us. And I started to realize that they recognize that choosing a school is a big deal and I needed to give serious thought into which school was a best fit for me if I were to be in the fortunate position of having multiple offers. 

I’m not saying you don’t want to make the best impression possible – you do! And that’s why I want to help you nail the interview!(sssss) But that shouldn’t be your *only* focus. And you shouldn’t go into it just feeling like “how the heck did I get here? there must of been a mistake!” – that was certainly how I felt when I had my interview here (at Cold Spring Harbor’s Graduate School of Biological Sciences). And I am sooooo grateful and privileged to be here, but I honestly never thought I could possibly get here (and often still have trouble believing I did!). So, if you’re like that past me, have some confidence in yourself. You deserve it!

quick note before I get started: if you applied and didn’t get an interview, I really hope that you don’t find this post saddening or offensive in any way. Yes, getting an interview (even if you don’t get a subsequent offer) is a huge accomplishment, and if you do get one(s) you should be proud of yourself. But there’s also a lot of luck that goes into it – from what life opportunities you’ve had, to who wrote your letters of rec, to who read your application, etc. So don’t take a rejection personally. And, remember, there are lots of great programs and labs outside of the big name schools. 

okay, now let’s get to some advice. 

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. This year will be weird because of COVID making things go virtual, but schools are trying to make the best of it. 

Our school is setting up virtual tours of campus, as well as virtual meet-and-greets with current students. 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.). 

The virtual format, with virtual tours and virtual happy hours would actually have been a lot easier for me, because I am actually a major introvert. In normal years, 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. Also, they had a lot of dinners and stuff when people drank 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. But virtual happy hour would have been nicer! And hopefully then people wouldn’t have gotten drunk – definitely not a good first impression and not a good way to prepare for being 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!

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.”

– Dr. Leemor Joshua-Tor

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).”

– Dr. Alexandra Newton

[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.”

– Dr. Alexandra Newton

What else might come up? Here are some of the questions Newton likes to ask prospective students:

  1. What do you like best about research?
  2. What do you like least about research?
  3. When/how did you get interested in science?
  4. What was your favourite course in undergrad?
  5. 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!

And thanks again to Drs. Alexandra Newton and Leemor Joshua-Tor!

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