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CellMol Biologica

List of Interview Questions for Cell and Mol Bio PhD

9 posts in this topic

Hello friends,

I thought of starting a thread where people jot down an exhaustive list of the questions they were asked during their PhD admissions. It wd be great if they are from biological sciences, but other disciplines also welcome to write as I believe many questions will be generic to PhDs. Most helpful would be people who have already attended the interviews, but others who are yet to take their interviews may also write the types of questions they think might be asked.

It would be great if you can write in this format: (for those who already attended)

Program Name: PhD Development Biology

Type of Student: Domestic/ International

School Interviewed with:

(#1) U Penn

Type of interview: Phone/Skype/ Face-to-Face

Questions Asked :

(#2) Ohio State University

Type of interview: Phone/Skype/ Face-to-Face

Questions Asked :

(#3) Cornell University

Type of interview: Phone/Skype/ Face-to-Face

Questions Asked :


thanks a lot for your help!! :rolleyes:


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Nice topic! I interviewed with and was accepted to three schools for Cell/Molecular PhD programs this past application season - Baylor College of Medicine, University of Maryland, and University of South Florida. My area of interest is Cancer Biology; only USF has a program entirely dedicated to cancer, but the other two have Cancer Bio tracks and many great researchers studying what I want to study.

I really found that my interviews resembled conversations more than they resembled a typical job interview. I was never asked "What is your greatest weakness?" or anything like that (though I prepared answers for those types of things, just in case). Generally, when I walked in the room, the interviewer would start off the conversation by making a friendly comment on where I was from or where I did my undergrad, and then they would ask me to tell me about myself. I talked for about 3 minutes or so about my major, my lab work, and how I became interested in cancer biology - this length of time seemed to work very well, and they would ask questions so it wasn't just me rambling. After this, the conversation could take a number of turns. I had a few interviewers who wanted to know about my research in great detail, so I explained exactly what my project entailed, drew some diagrams, etc. More often than not, though, the interviewer would talk about their own research for at least half the interview (I had a couple of interviewers who launched into explaining their own projects without even asking me about myself). I was a little worried that maybe I wasn't giving them enough information about myself since they were just talking about their own research, but people really do love talking about their own interests. If you can get your interviewer talking about their own research, they will remember your interview positively, even if you don't use the full 30 minutes to talk about how awesome you are. When they are explaining their research, take notes, act interested, and ask an intelligent question or two at the opportune moment.

All that said, there were a couple of questions that I got quite a bit:

1. Why do you want to be in this program? Not a hard one, but make sure you do your homework. Pay attention to what the program directors emphasize about the program as well - chances are, these are the reasons they want you to like their school, and it won't hurt to mention some of those things that particularly stand out to you.

2. What other schools have you applied to? As far as I can tell, they are trying to decide whether you will actually attend their program. Be honest; they know you're applying to more than one program, but it's unnecessary to mention schools you have been rejected from or are no longer considering. The interviewer will probably ask a question or make a comment about your answer, after which point you can re-state the reasons why THEIR program is such a great fit for you.

3. Why were your grades so terrible during this particular semester? If you have a weak point in your application, be prepared to explain it. When they ask about this weak point, they are not out to get you - they want you to have a good, reasonable explanation, and if you have an interview chances are you have the explanation.

4. Do you have any questions for me? Always have questions! Remember, you are trying to evaluate the program as much as they are trying to evaluate you. You may end up asking the same questions toward the end of the day, but you may also get different answers.

Really, I think that is about it. If I think of any other questions I was asked, I will add those. However, I would like to add a few interview tips that I could have used coming in:

1. You have control over your interview. This is huge. It really is a conversation, and you can steer that conversation in whatever way you want. Obviously, don't sidestep a pointed question, but focus on the things you want to talk about. Come in with some things you want to say about yourself, and say them. You don't have to wait for the interviewer to ask a particular question, because they probably won't. Work it into the conversation.

2. Elaborate on the things you are interested in. This kind of ties in with my first point. From speaking to other interviewees, I learned that one interviewer could be very difficult for one person but another person would find the same interviewer to be easygoing and kind. The difference was usually a matter of perspective. Those who had trouble generally answered the question, shut up, and waited for the interviewer to fire another one at them. Those who actually enjoyed the interview saw it as more of a back-and-forth. If you talk about the things you know and are interested in, the interviewer gets to see that you are smart and knowledgeable, and you can prevent the interview from becoming a grill session where you may be asked about things you are not as knowledgeable about. Caveat: don't ramble. If you're done talking, you're done talking, and if you keep talking just to fill silence, you are likely to say something dumb.

3. Get them to talk about their research. Takes pressure off you, they enjoy talking about themselves, and you get to gain more perspective on the program.

4. Prepare, but don't overprepare. I think a good thing to do is to take a sheet of paper for every interviewer and write a few short bullet points about them - what they're doing, where they got their PhD, specific questions you want to ask them. Then, take the sheets to the interviews and use them to take notes. At least for my interviews, it was overkill to read papers by every single interviewer. If you are very interested in working with a particular professor, by all means read a paper or two and ask them about it. Otherwise, keep it simple and don't stress about it too much.

5. Know your research. Be able to explain it inside out. If your current research is in a field other than what you want to get your PhD in (as mine is) then know how to explain it to someone outside the field. Interestingly, I found it was not as important to be well-versed in what I want to work on at the PhD level. In fact, I was told by several interviewers that many students' interests change after the first year and that having your whole PhD planned out was not that important. This may depend on the school, though.

6. Relax! Your interviews will be fine. Your interviewers want to like you. Be engaging, be interested, be excited to meet your interviewers. If something goes wrong during your interview, brush it off and recover. During one particular interview, I was convinced that I had made the biggest idiot of myself and that the interview had gone just terribly. I later found out that my interviewers recommended me unanimously for admission - so it can't have gone too badly!

I hope this helped! I know it's quite long, but I was so nervous before my first interview that I was reading as much advice as I could get my hands on... so maybe some of you made it through. Cheers, and good luck!

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wow, what a comprehensive instruction for interview! I have just finished my first interview, and I think I made myself an idiot. But after reading your opinion, maybe it's not that bad, and I have learned something in it. thx~

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I have been selected for interview via skype by University of Sciences in philadelphia for cancer Biology PhD program. My interview is next week.

 I am pretty much nervous as this is my first interview ever for PhD program, that too on skype. Can anyone please help me to prepare for my interview.

Also how to dress up for this type of interview/

And how do i bring them down to talk about thier own research work?



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@The Defenestration: great reply! Thank you for instructions and suggestions. Very thoughtful of you.


I think there's no big difference between the questions asked at interviews in US and in EU, so I think my experience(s) could help.


1. Be prepared to be in "tune" with the general sentiment of the interviewer. Certain cultural backgrounds imply more or less of familiarity and closeness. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to sell stereotypes, but I had an interview with a friendly Italian and a reserved German. So, yeah, I might be biased, but nevertheless, be extra careful and considerate. I actually found a more distanced interviewer more helpful, since it left me enough time and energy (and mental space).


2. Be thoroughly prepared. Refresh your knowledge on the topic, and, needless to say, read the available publications of your prospective team/mentor.


3. Be honest and concise. When faced with so-called "stress questions", respond truthfully. When asked other "unpleasant" questions, as Defenestration pointed out, the aim is not to embarass you or get you. They just want to know you a little bit better, personally.


4. And last, but not least, most labs actually want someone who is pleasant enough to work with, and if you're enthusiastic, imaginitive, and hard-working, all your potential short-comings (e.g. a couple of lower grades, modest practical experience) will be eclipsed. I say this because it might help you or any other interviewee to remain calm and not too self-critical.



I hope your interview went fine. As you've probably seen, there's really nothing to be nervous about. And maybe you could also write something about your experience?


Anyway, that's just a couple of impressions I had, and I hope it helps. :) Good luck!

Edited by Helgarh

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I had one interview several years ago, where the PI handed me a pad of paper and asked me to comprehensively document the synthetic transformations that had gone into my undergraduate thesis. It was quite nerve-wracking. 

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