Biological Sciences interview questions thread 2012

34 posts in this topic

Posted

Hey all,

I thought it might be helpful to have a thread with some questions that you were asked during on site grad program interviews with profs. Interview season is just starting (for me anyway) and I think everyone will be more prepared if they see some sample questions that people have actually had to answer on their early visits.

My first interview is tomorrow and I'll try to remember anything and everything that I can and post it here afterwards.

This, or another, separate thread, might also be a useful place to post questions that you asked, or wish you asked, PIs and current grad students during your visit. I know I have a long list of things to inquire about, but I'm sure I am missing a lot of important stuff too.

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Posted

I made a list of questions I was expecting to get and I was asked most of them when I interviewed my first time around. Not to toot my own horn, but I tried this list out on someone who was interviewing last year for her to practice with. She said that this included pretty much everything they asked her about. Some of them are a bit "job interview-y" but are still good to think about because you never know what they might ask.

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • If you're not accepted into graduate school, what are your plans?
  • Why did you choose this career/field?
  • Why did you choose to apply to our program?
  • What other schools are you considering?
  • In what ways has your previous experience prepared you for graduate study in our program?
  • In college, what courses did you enjoy the most? The least? Why?
  • Describe any research projects you've worked on. What was the purpose/goal of the project and what was your role?
  • How will you be able to make a contribution to this field?
  • Describe your greatest accomplishment.
  • What are your career goals? How will this program help you achieve your goals?
  • Why should we take you and not someone else?
  • Any questions? (This is a big one I think. Try to have at least 1-2 questions of your own to ask)

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Posted

One of the ones I wasn't expecting to be asked was "what do you do for fun?"

I know it seems like it's not an important question - but, when I answered that I knit, read, play video games, and play scrabble - well, it turned out that the PI I was talking to plays scrabble too! We ended up having a short discussion about our favourite words to play. :P It was a nice personal touch to the interview. :)

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Posted

For the "where else did you apply?" question -- I only applied to one school. Is this horrible and should I spend tons of time justifying my answer or is this OK? You'd think it's the ultimate sign of "interest" :P

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Posted

For the "where else did you apply?" question -- I only applied to one school. Is this horrible and should I spend tons of time justifying my answer or is this OK? You'd think it's the ultimate sign of "interest" :P

I think you need to be prepared to answer why you did. Don't rant for ages (you'll sound confused). Come up with a short paragraph about why you did so, and be prepared to elaborate on parts of it just in case. I also applied to just one school this season. I wasn't ever asked which other schools I've applied to, but it did come up in conversation otherwise, and I never spoke for longer than two minutes on the topic.

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Posted

I made a list of questions I was expecting to get and I was asked most of them when I interviewed my first time around. Not to toot my own horn, but I tried this list out on someone who was interviewing last year for her to practice with. She said that this included pretty much everything they asked her about. Some of them are a bit "job interview-y" but are still good to think about because you never know what they might ask.

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • If you're not accepted into graduate school, what are your plans?
  • Why did you choose this career/field?
  • Why did you choose to apply to our program?
  • What other schools are you considering?
  • In what ways has your previous experience prepared you for graduate study in our program?
  • In college, what courses did you enjoy the most? The least? Why?
  • Describe any research projects you've worked on. What was the purpose/goal of the project and what was your role?
  • How will you be able to make a contribution to this field?
  • Describe your greatest accomplishment.
  • What are your career goals? How will this program help you achieve your goals?
  • Why should we take you and not someone else?
  • Any questions? (This is a big one I think. Try to have at least 1-2 questions of your own to ask)

Excellent list.

Did you have questions prepared for each interviewer? And were they specific questions (about their research or their lab) or were they about the program as a whole? Any examples you care to share?

One question I always find really hard to answer in a context like this is "what are your biggest weaknesses?" I obviously know that I have weaknesses and I know (and am very self-conscious about) what they are, but when I get myself into the mode where I'm trying to sell myself as awesome this question always throws me off. Anyone have any good responses to this question? I know you're suppose to talk about weaknesses that might really be strengths--I work too hard, I get too buried in my own projects, etc--but those kinds of answers just ring so insincere to me that I find it hard to spew something like that out. Any suggestions?

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Posted

So far I've had 11 one on one interviews with PIs and have not been asked the "greatest weakness" question. I'm hoping it continues that way. Sometimes interviews are with program directors and I could see it maybe come up then. But if a research professor asked me a cheeseball question like that, I can't say it wouldn't affect my respect for them (not that it matters).

If they ask that, they're looking to see if you keep your cool under stress. Stay calm and give them an answer, even if you think it's mediocre. Unlike some job interviews, we can admit we're getting into this because we want to improve our skills at research/whatever else. So throw them a strength of their department and how it will help you. Meh.

I haven't actually been asked most of these standard sounding questions. Usually it starts with them explaining their research, or me mine. And then a fairly natural conversation flows from that, often with tough questions about either their work or mine. Almost all of my interviews have gone over time, with the conversation still pretty engaging before someone tells us we need to move on. The toughest question is usually "do you have any questions for me?". I usually have read their papers/abstracts/blurbs (depending on my level of interest) and have something there. But they ask for questions about the program. Towards interview 6 of the day this can be challenging. Come up with as much as you can before hand, it's hard to think of these types on the spot. You can recycle between interviewers of course but I tried pretty hard not to unless it was something I wanted multiple opinions on.

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Posted

I haven't had any official interviews yet, but my go-to question about programs for phone chats with POIs this past fall was "What makes the program at X different from the other programs I may be looking at?" Everyone came up with great, really useful answers, often including both strengths and weaknesses of their particular program or department. Many times their answers provided opportunities for follow-up questions. Now my problem is coming up with new questions for POIs I have already spoken to for the real interviews....

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Posted

Now my problem is coming up with new questions for POIs I have already spoken to for the real interviews....

This is my concern as well for my upcoming visit. I've already had phone conversations with my POI and every time I've been asked if I have any questions, so it's hard to think of things that I don't already know from reading online or things that aren't frivolous-sounding. Right now my only remaining questions are really nitty-gritty things about funding and such that probably aren't the best for a pre-acceptance interview, or things that require the perspective of current graduate students rather than faculty.

At this point I just want to visit, walk around the campus, and see the surrounding area, so that the prospect of actually getting accepted to, and attending, a graduate program becomes more "real" to me. And honestly I would like to just sit down for a presentation where some people in the department talk at me for awhile because maybe that will spark something I haven't thought about yet.

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Posted

Ask about funding if you think you will want to work for or rotate with them, but do it politely. You can ask about "room" for taking on additonal grad students. I did that with three or four people and they were extremely candid about their funding situations. In each case they were glad that I asked.

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Posted

I haven't had any official interviews yet, but my go-to question about programs for phone chats with POIs this past fall was "What makes the program at X different from the other programs I may be looking at?" Everyone came up with great, really useful answers, often including both strengths and weaknesses of their particular program or department. Many times their answers provided opportunities for follow-up questions. Now my problem is coming up with new questions for POIs I have already spoken to for the real interviews....

This seems like a really useful question to ask them, as it will give them a chance to talk a bit about the department and program that they work in, and letting them ramble a bit on the topic may end up being pretty revealing about the strengths and weaknesses of the program. I feel like a need a few more open ended questions like this in my arsenal to use in situations where they ask if I have questions. Maybe questions like: "how well prepared are students to enter the workforce or find good quality post-docs at the conclusion of their studies?" or something like that? Or "Do students generally head into academics or industry, and is their support within the program for their career development?"

I have plenty of questions about PIs' individual research projects and details of their findings, but those types of questions seem too specific for this kind of discussion. I feel like those more specific questions will just come up naturally during the course of discussion so I'm hoping to find some more general questions that will give the PIs a chance to talk about the school.

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Posted

Ask about funding if you think you will want to work for or rotate with them, but do it politely. You can ask about "room" for taking on additonal grad students. I did that with three or four people and they were extremely candid about their funding situations. In each case they were glad that I asked.

Thanks for the advice, though in my case there are no rotations and, prior to applying, I had to find a "faculty sponsor" who is taking new students. Fortunately my POI was willing to be my sponsor, so I will (most likely) be joining that lab if I am accepted.

My funding questions then are more about the fellowships for which I have been nominated, but I'm thinking I should just wait until I hear if I received one or not and then start looking more closely at funding.

Maybe questions like: "how well prepared are students to enter the workforce or find good quality post-docs at the conclusion of their studies?" or something like that? Or "Do students generally head into academics or industry, and is their support within the program for their career development?"

I've thought about that as well, though as with everything else I've been taking a more lab-specific rather than general approach, so like: "What positions/opportunities have your former students pursued after completing their degrees here?" (some professors have this on their websites, but not all)

I should probably consider having a general question or two ready as well though, since I'll probably talk to other faculty members at some point, even if it's not during official one-on-one interviews.

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Posted

One question I always find really hard to answer in a context like this is "what are your biggest weaknesses?" I obviously know that I have weaknesses and I know (and am very self-conscious about) what they are, but when I get myself into the mode where I'm trying to sell myself as awesome this question always throws me off. Anyone have any good responses to this question? I know you're suppose to talk about weaknesses that might really be strengths--I work too hard, I get too buried in my own projects, etc--but those kinds of answers just ring so insincere to me that I find it hard to spew something like that out. Any suggestions?

I've been told to answer this question with a positive spin by talking about how you're working towards fixing them. Eg for me, one of my weaknesses is that I sometimes find my fear of messing up to be paralyzing. However, I've worked hard to overcome that by purposefully volunteeri for tasks at my lab that are really easy to screw up -- if I do mess up, i'll learn to deal with failure better; if I don't, then I'll prove to myself that I can do things! Etc etc

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Posted

Is it customary to bring a small powerpoint presentation of your research to an interview? I was thinking of printing one out so I wouldn't have to vaguely describe structures or experimental set ups. MIT BE is requesting that all interviewees make a research poster, so I was thinking, why not do a mini one for other schools.

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Posted

I got an invite from a POI to attend an interview weekend and his graduate students are in charge of coordinating my visit. They asked me if there are other professors I'd like to meet with, since it's their job to have me meet as many people as possible. Of course, I'm first and foremost interested in the POI who invited me. I don't want to give the impression that I'm looking elsewhere (and I'm not really sure what I'd say to the other professors since I'm not trying to get into their labs) but, I also want to show interest in the department as a whole. On the other hand, I don't want to run into the problem of expressing interest in so many people that I am unable to prepare for each one. (This happened to me previously - 6 interviews with 6 potential POIs in 4 hours. Granted, that school does rotations so it was probably more acceptable.) Has anyone else faced a similar dilemma?

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Posted

Haven't had that situation since all my schools do rotations. In your case, I'd ask your POI if he/she has any recommendations as for people to meet in that department. The department chair? A collaborator of his/hers? You can explain your interests to the grad students and maybe get some suggestions from them too.

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Posted

Okay, so I'm finished with my first interview weekend, and the experience was not quite as expected. Basically it seems at though every interview varied based on the direction that the conversation naturally took, and based on the approach of the interviewer. My first interview was with a faculty member who was on the adcom, and he essentially wanted me to talk the whole time. He asked me first to describe my progression through various labs (I have worked in three labs between undergrad and post-bac work), explaining why and how I got into the fields in which I worked, and what I was working on in each lab. Then he asked me what I was planning on doing after completing my PhD. Along the way I tailored my responses to issues and questions that I had about their program, for instance, "I've worked in a variety of fields and have not yet committed to exactly what field I want to join, which is actually part of the reason why your school is so attractive to me. I want somewhere where I have the freedom to try working in different sub-fields and flexibility to try a lot of different areas of cell bio research. I was actually wondering if you could talk a little bit about how fluid the interaction is between departments..." He didn't really grill me on my individual research projects, but he gave me a chance to ask plenty of questions about his department through the course of the conversation.

My second interview it was clear the prof had done some reading on my previous work, as she was able to talk to me about the pathways I had researched previously. She was very friendly and wasn't grilling me, but was interested in the process by which one previous project had developed. She then spent the majority of the interview actually talking about her own research as I asked her questions about the pathways she was working on and the model systems the lab was using to explore them.

My third interview was with my faculty host, and I was grilled pretty brutally and specifically. He asked me to describe the research I was doing, starting with my current lab and then progressing backwards, but we never actually got past the lab I work in now. He asked very specific questions, such as "are there homologous enzymes to the one you are studying in other organisms such as yeast?" "Is it known whether the mechanism of action of any structurally similar enzymes have been solved?" "What are the interacting partners involved in specificity of targeting for the enzyme?" and similarly specific questions. I really wasn't ready to answer a lot of these, and this interview went fairly poorly compared to the others.

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Posted

I've had a somewhat varied experience so far with interviews. I've interviewed with 11 faculty thus far and I've had mostly positive experiences. For the most part I talk a little bit about my past experience (usually just my most intensive research experience while I was in undergrad). Sometimes they have some questions about it but my field is generally obscure so they don't really require very detailed answers. They usually spend a large amount of time talking about their research and I spent the rest of the time shooting questions at them (if there is any time left).

I would say I've only had one interview that has gone poorly. I won't name names but I got the strong impression that this professor really did not want to talk to me and wasn't convinced about the contributions I had made to my projects nor that his research at all fit into my interests. I was a bit taken aback and when it came time to ask questions, I mostly forgot what I was going to ask and could only come up with a couple. He asked if I had any more and I said no, which I think is the biggest mistake you can make. I think if nothing else, you at least need to keep the conversation going until the end of the interview time regardless of how you think you're doing.

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Posted

What level of detail were you asked to go into when discussing your research? I'm sure this will vary with each interviewer, but were you typically asked to go into a fairly detailed account of the project, or more of just an overview of the objectives of the project and what role you played in it?

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Posted

It generally starts out as fairly broad. I mean you might be discussing 6 months to years of work in 5-10 minutes. The specific questions come when something sparks their interest, relates to their work, or doesn't quite make sense to them.

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Posted

Is it appropriate to bring power-point slides to present/summarize my past research projects? I think figures and bullet points would really help me and the interviewers understand what I did.

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Posted

Is it appropriate to bring power-point slides to present/summarize my past research projects? I think figures and bullet points would really help me and the interviewers understand what I did.

I mean, if you have it on an iPad or printed out then it might be okay for figures - but I was speaking to some profs about the qualification exam process, and they said that they only allowed chalk talks for one's research because powerpoints can be used as a crutch. You should know your research inside out and be able to explain it eloquently without having to rely on bullet points, imho :) Practice talking about it out loud! That really helped me.

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Posted

@ coonskee ~ Thanks for the response.

I am thinking about printing out a few figures regarding my hypotheses (potential signaling pathways. etc.). Thought that visuals would really clarify things, but I will certainly practice taking about it out loud in case they don't allow people to bring anything during the interview process.

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I mean, if you have it on an iPad or printed out then it might be okay for figures - but I was speaking to some profs about the qualification exam process, and they said that they only allowed chalk talks for one's research because powerpoints can be used as a crutch. You should know your research inside out and be able to explain it eloquently without having to rely on bullet points, imho :) Practice talking about it out loud! That really helped me.

are you referring the exam that determines one advance to candidacy - that qualification exam? I thought it depends on the school, isn't it?

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Posted

Do not bring a powerpoint to your grad school interviews. Even if the figures are great and super-clear, the interviewers want to hear that you're able to talk about your research and think critically about it. They don't care about your data and you're not there to educate them about your findings, they just want to see that you really understand your research and can answer questions about it.

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