It’s that time of year again: the air is filled with holiday cheer, people are making New Year’s resolutions, and prospective PhD students are frantically refreshing their inboxes.
If you recently applied to PhD programs in a biomedical or life science field, chances are good that you’re anxiously awaiting (or you’ve already received) invitations to travel to some of the campuses for an interview lasting several days. When I was an undergraduate senior applying to PhD programs in neuroscience, I had a vague idea of what these interviews entailed – one-on-one meetings with a few professors, campus tours, and opportunities to mingle with current students and my fellow applicants. But I had little guidance on the details of what would be involved. What questions might the professors ask? What questions should I ask professors and current students? What should I wear?
Here I will summarize what you can expect during these interview weekends, from the meetings with professors to the late-night student social hours. While some aspects of the weekend will vary or occur in a different order depending on the university or program, graduate school interviews tend to have common threads, and with the right preparation you’ll be ready to nail that first interview!
Perhaps the most stressful part of the interview occurs before the interview itself. At some point after you’re notified of the program’s interest in interviewing you, you’ll start to receive a mountain of emails to settle arrangements for your hotel, travel, and other logistics of the visit. This can be overwhelming, but it’s important to pay attention, read each email carefully, and meet each program’s deadlines.
It’s also important to note that each program will have a different way of doing things; you may have your flights booked for you automatically, you may have to contact a travel agent to arrange your bookings, or you may have to book your flights yourself and get reimbursed later. If you’re interviewing at many programs, creating a folder in your email client for each program can help you stay organized during this process. I also highly recommend making a spreadsheet so that you can check off every step of your preparation as you complete it for each program.
As the interview draws near, you’ll receive a list of several faculty members (usually four or five) that you’ll be meeting when you visit. These people generally fall into one of two categories: 1) professors of interest that you either listed on your application or emailed to an administrative staff member upon their request, or 2) members of the admissions committee whose work might be quite unrelated to your own interests. I’ll get into the specifics of these interviews in a later section, but suffice it to say that you should briefly look up these professors ahead of time. Contrary to what you might hear, there’s really no need to read their papers unless you’re extremely interested in one of their labs. But you should take 5-10 minutes to read their faculty webpage and get a general idea of what they do. Don’t stress too much about this – you can do this at the airport or on the flight and you’ll be fine.
After your hard preparation, it’s time for the fun part – the interview weekend itself. When you fly in, you’ll probably arrive in the evening and be treated to a nice dinner with faculty and current students to welcome you. If you’re like me, the most intimidating part of this will actually be meeting your fellow applicants. Particularly at your first interview, you may be unsure of what to expect and might not know how to interact with these peers. It’s an awkward situation since you’re all technically competing against one another, but in the collaborative spirit of science, you certainly wouldn’t want to treat one another poorly…especially because some of these people will be your future colleagues and good friends if you attend the program!
Try not to worry about this. Some people may be trying to show off their knowledge and experience, but the reality is that, despite any differences in your sub-fields or time spent doing research, every applicant is in just about the same place. Take this opportunity to chat about science with your colleagues and have fun learning about their work. You may not previously have been in a situation where you were surrounded by people excited about the same thing that you are, so take advantage of it! Even if these people don’t end up attending the same program as you, you’ll probably see them again at other interviews, and for the next several years at conferences and other events in your field. Put your best foot forward and do your best to make some acquaintances.
Yes, that’s “interviews,” in quotes. That’s because the faculty “interviews” are really more like informal conversations and are much less stressful than you might expect. These commonly last about 30-45 minutes, depending on the program. If you haven’t had much practice interviewing, this can seem like a long time, but the time goes surprisingly quickly when you get into an engaging conversation.
The meeting will usually start with some small talk. The professor may want to know where you’re from, how your flight was, how you’ve enjoyed your visit so far, and other pleasantries. Then the conversation will turn to you and your research. Your interviewers will probably have read your application materials, but they might not have time to brush up on the details right before the interview, so their memory will be a bit hazy. They’ll often ask you to give a broad overview of your experience and your personal role in your research projects.
If you’ve worked on many projects, it may be best to focus on a single one. In advance of the interview, pick a project for which you can succinctly describe the background and motivation, your specific contribution, the results, and the conclusions and future directions. It’s more important that you demonstrate your scientific thought process than that you attempt to gloss over every project you’ve ever worked on. You won’t have time to talk about all the research you’ve ever done, especially since the professor may have questions that will draw out the time you spend on just one project. While these questions can feel intimidating, their ultimate purpose is not to test you but rather to see whether you and your way of thinking would be a good fit for the program. Alternatively, perhaps the professor has a genuine question that they’d like to clear up for understanding.
From here, the interview can go any number of ways. Some faculty may ask you to describe a second project. Others may ask you about a particular area of your application, such as a weak grade in a relevant class. Others may tell you about their own research. Still others may ask you to explain your reasons for applying to that program in particular. Often, the interviews will involve a combination of many of these topics. If they ask if you have any questions about the program, don’t be afraid to ask what’s on your mind. Faculty can be good resources to answer questions about the program requirements or the dynamics of their own lab.
Above all, try to relax. These meetings can seem intimidating, especially if you’re talking with a potential future advisor, but ultimately the professors are people too. They just want to get to know you, and they’re probably excited to meet some intelligent and motivated young scientists!
Besides meeting with faculty, another central aspect of the visit will be the program’s attempt to recruit you by showcasing their facilities and resources. This can range from a presentation about the program requirements, to lab tours, to campus tours.
These activities often play an even larger role in the visit than your faculty meetings. Take this as an opportunity to “interview the program.” After all, if you’re admitted and choose to attend, you’ll be spending several years in this environment. It’s important to make sure that you choose a program and university where you’ll feel comfortable and supported from your first day through graduation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions during this process! The faculty and current students should be more than happy to help you find the answers you need to make an informed decision.
The Social Events
When the faculty meetings and time for showing off are over, you’ll get a taste of the social climate of the program. Most interview weekends will include one or more social activities where you can mingle with your fellow applicants and current students, and perhaps also faculty. These events occasionally occur at a faculty member’s home, but often they will be at a local establishment such as a bar or restaurant, so that you can see how you might spend your free time if you join the program.
This is your chance to learn more about the people that may be your future classmates and colleagues, as well as to explore the city or town outside of the campus. Current students will be happy to answer questions during these events to help you decide if this is the right environment for you. These events are a prime opportunity to ask questions that you might not feel comfortable asking faculty, and you’ll be more likely to get honest answers from current students who are immersed in the program on a daily basis. Here are some questions you might consider asking:
- What is your favorite part of the program?
- Is there anything about the program that you would change if you could?
- How are the courses? Do they provide a solid conceptual foundation for your research? How much time do you spend on classes in comparison to research? Do you have any freedom to choose advanced electives?
- How well does the stipend match the cost of living? What other financial support does the program provide (e.g., university fees, health insurance, gym membership)?
- Do you feel supported by the program staff and faculty? Who is the go-to person for any concerns you might have?
- How does the program support students’ professional development? Are there workshops, individual development plan requirements, etc.? Are both academic and non-academic careers discussed?
- What do you do for fun both on and off campus?
Finally, while you should make sure to have fun and generally relax during these events, remember that you are still being interviewed. Current students may have an influence on the admissions decisions based on the way they see you interacting with others during social events. Don’t ruin your chances by bad-mouthing your current lab or having one too many free drinks.
After you leave the university and return home, you’re not done yet! You should be sure to follow-up with the people you met during the weekend. This includes professors, administrative staff, and any students who may have gone the extra mile for you. For example, did the department assign you a student host to show you around? Did a student have an extended individual conversation with you at a social event? If you can locate their contact information, these people would be good candidates for a quick email to say thank you. While these messages won’t be likely to make or break your acceptance, they will leave a lasting impression and certainly can’t hurt.
Clothing gets its own section because I personally found it to be one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the process. PhD interviews tend to be less formal than what you might expect for job interviews of other types, but it’s still important to look nice so that you make a good impression. In general, dress for the weather. February in Pittsburgh is quite different from February in Los Angeles, and you’ll want to pack accordingly.
For cold and snowy weather, it is perfectly acceptable (and perhaps even encouraged) to wear snow boots. You’ll be doing a lot of walking and often won’t stay inside just one building. These shoes can be paired with black or khaki pants or dark jeans, and a nice sweater, dress shirt, or blouse. Some people will wear blazers or suit jackets, while others won’t. Use your best judgement and wear what’s comfortable for you. For warmer weather, substitute a short-sleeve dress shirt and weather-appropriate dress shoes, and you’ll be good to go!
Most importantly, be sure to have fun! Remember, if you make it to the interview stage, the admissions committee already likes you. At this point, you’re really not trying to “prove yourself” anymore – you’ve already done that in your initial application. Instead, your objective for the weekend should be to gauge whether the program and the university would be a good fit for you. This process should be enjoyable. Take advantage of the opportunity to explore new places, network, and “talk science” with your peers for a few days…and bask in the pride that comes with every acceptance and the knowledge that you’ll soon be a seasoned graduate student.
Meredith Schmehl is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Neurobiologyat Duke University, and a STEM advocate in science communication efforts such as outreach, writing, and policy. Follow her on Twitter @MeredithSchmehland visit her website at meredithschmehl.com.