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About this blog

My journey to a PhD in the Biomedical Sciences

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biotechie

My apologies for taking so long to get this post up! I started classes and have been pretty sick. As a reminder, the more questions you ask me, the more I know what you want answers to!

The purpose of the post for today is to provide my insights into interviews and hopefully ease some fears by helping you figure out what to expect at a biomedical science, molecular biology, immunology, or similar interview. I have a few questions that were in my message box, but other than that, I'm just going to fill in the pieces.

You guys need to remember that at most institutions, if you're selected to interview, you've got a REALLY good shot at being accepted, sometimes better than 75% chance. These programs are trying to impress you on top of trying to make sure that you're going to be a successful student and a productive addition to their research institution.

This is going to sound cliché, but the most important thing to remember is to be yourself. Don't pretend to be someone who you are not; you don't want them to view you as plastic and fake.

How do you prepare for interviews?

I hit on this previously, but there are more things to hit on. I mentioned that it is important to look up the professors who will be interviewing you if the school notifies you ahead of time. You can get a general idea about them from their lab website, but note that those are also rarely updated. Because of this, projects listed on the website may already be completed by interviews and could already be published (thanks to Glow_Gene for reminding me).Your best bet would be to look at their website and then check them out on PubMed. I also looked for their students on PubMed to see what recent publications they were included on. I read some abstracts and reviews on the professors' areas of research so that I would be able to discuss it with them when the time came, and I printed a few abstracts for study material. Prep a couple of general questions based on their most recent publications, but nothing super specific. You don't want to act like you know their field... because you don't!

All of this research also comes in handy when you're finally at a school and need to pick your first rotation. I also recommend looking up a picture of the professors and program administrators so you can at least know who to expect. It makes you feel a lot more comfortable when you walk into their office! It is also a good idea to bring in updated copies of your resume or CV. Most professors are given your application, but in case they are not or they want a new copy, take them with you.

I mentioned previously that I took some powerpoint slides from my last MS committee presentation with me to demonstrate that I could generate data. This is not necessary and definitely not required. You should also not do this unless your PI that you did the work under approves what you're taking with you; it could cause some big issues if your PI ends up getting scooped, and you want to protect that data.

When you pack, keep your bags to a minimum. Sometimes professors come and pick you up, and you will have to get your bag into their car. You're only going for a couple of days, not a month!

If you're currently in school, you need to be notifying people that you'll be gone. Make sure someone can record audio for you in lectures (if that is allowed) and be sure to reschedule things like exams as soon as you find out about the interview. I also had to find someone to sub for teaching my lab class. If you're employed, you need to either have some vacation time to take or you need to get some unpaid time off.

What should you be wearing?

I went over this in the previous post, but seeing people freaking out about it in the forums suggests it is worth repeating. On the plane or traveling, nice jeans and a decent shirt are generally fine, though I changed into khakis when I arrived at the airport.

For "casual" events such as a dinner with graduate students or other evening activities, I dressed on the more casual end of business casual: Khakis and a cute blouse, brown boots.

For my actual interview day, I dressed up more, but not to the level of a high end business professional. I wore fitted grey trouser pants with black boots, a ¾ sleeved black blazer, and a blouse.

For ladies, it is important that you're comfortable.

Here are things that I feel ladies should avoid:

1. Skirts, especially those above the knee... Complaints about modesty were common from professors. If you wear pants, you don't have to worry!

2. High heels, especially stilettos. You're going to be walking so much you'll be miserable before lunch. If you do want a heel, keep it low, and make sure that it is a fat heel so it is more supportive. Short wedge heels or boots are the best. Pick shoes you know you could wear 12+ hours with a few miles worth of walking in a day.

3. Cleavage. Just cover it up, ladies. You'd rather those you're talking to to look at your face, right? V-necked tops should probably have a camisole underneath just in case.

4. Sheer fabrics: There was a girl at interviews last year with a sheer shirt on over a yellow bra. Common sense should tell you to avoid things like that.

Guys, you've got it easier, but sometimes you put patterns together that make people cringe. Just look professional, and that should be all you need to worry about. You don't have to wear a full suit; a nice shirt + tie and dress pants are fine. Just don't wear jeans.

What are the outings with grad students like?

Odds are, you'll be arriving the evening before your interviews. Schools generally like to have the current graduate students meet you and take you to dinner, and often these students are volunteers. Usually they'll take you out to a local restaurant and you'll all sit, talk, and generally have fun. This doesn't mean that you should go and get completely wasted. Have fun, have a drink (as in only one, and a small one at that), and enjoy your meal. These grad students are both your best friend and worst enemy. They'll give you insight into the professors you're meeting and will usually answer anything you want to know about the program really honestly. On the other hand, they're also directly in contact with admissions and will note things about you. If you're rude and obnoxious, they're going to tell someone. The same goes for if you're so quiet that you talk only when spoken to or if you do not seem to play well with the other applicants.

Since I am assuming most people know how to play well with others right now, these outings with the grad students are great ways to learn about the area, real expectations for students, to ask questions about classes, professors, etc.

I had a blast at one of the interviews; the students ate with us the night before, attended their student seminar the next morning, and then the night of interviews, we got to meet them around a campfire with the professors. After that, we headed to a bar, which was a test, but we all had fun. Probably the best day was the day after interviews where the students showed us their apartments and some of their favorite places in town. Everyone was happy, and everyone was enthusiastically answering our questions.The grad students really made us feel welcome and like we wouldn't shrivel up and die if we attended there.

Another interview, the students were set up to meet us the evening we got there and then for a reception right after interviews. The difference was that students were reluctant to answer questions, acted miserable, and did not do much to make us feel welcome. These kinds of things can help you solidify a decision, later if you're struggling to choose between two schools.

What is the interview like, and what are some common interview questions?

You guys need to realize that everything is fair game. The types of interviews I attended were 3-5 interviews at 30-50 minutes each individually with each professor in their office. None of them treat interviews the same. One may want to ask you a ton of questions about your SoP, your research, and where you see yourself in 10 years. Another may have seen your application and decide that he wants to see how you take to being recruited for his lab, so your interview time will be spent discussing his research. Others are a mix of the two. Many professors will make at least some time in your interview to request that you ask questions of them about research, the area, and the program. Essentially, be ready for anything. I even was assigned a short homework assignment from one PI.

The obvious thing to do to prepare is to read abstracts as discussed above and to make sure you remember everything you put in your essay.

That being said, I know all of you still want some questions to prep to help control your constant worrying.

1. Why do you want to pursue a PhD?

You would be surprised at how many people get to their interview, are asked this question, and then just sit there staring at the person who asked it completely unable to generate a response. You're applying to grad school, so surely you have a reason for doing so, and hopefully it is one other than that the "real world" is a scary place. Know why you want to do this, and be able to talk about it.

Hint: You probably hit on this in your essays!

2. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A good idea here is to have a couple of options already in your head.

3. Why do you want to study at "insert institution name"?

Of all questions, you really want to be sure of this! You need to be able to demonstrate that you've applied to a school for other reasons than it had a free application or has a well-known name. Were there specific PIs you wanted to work with? Be careful, here... you need to have more than one PI! Was there a specific research area, such as epigenetics, that the school is known for? They almost always ask this, often followed up by something like, "You didn't grow up in a place like this, so how do you think you will adjust?" or "Will moving away from your family be okay with you?" or "Will your significant other be moving with you, or will they remain behind?" These sound personal, and they are, but sometimes they ask to try and gauge if you're serious about the school. I know when I interviewed, I wasn't prepared for that kind of follow-up, but I had luckily already discussed it with my boyfriend and family..

4. You said "insert random thing" in your essay. Can you elaborate a little on that? Why do you feel that "thing" is so important in "whatever they correlate it to"?

This is notable because you're going to have things in your essay that make you unique. They're going to want to question you on that. It could be some anecdote from your essay, something you say you want to do with your life (like public science outreach), or even something completely random.

5. Why did you want to be interviewed by me?

If you got to select who your professors were, be able to tell them why you picked them. Telling them you just went down the list isn't nice. Pick your profs by research interests and other factors.

6. Do you have any questions for me?

Now would be a good time to ask questions about the program, or, if you haven't discussed their research, give a segue into discussing a little about it. Like anyone in science, they love talking about what they do!

(More questions will be added as I get more question ideas!)

Interview etiquette (copied from my previous post):

Make eye contact.

Shake their hands when you get there and when you leave them.

Avoid "stuff" words (like, kinda, sorta, maybe, ummm, etc) and run-on sentences (and.... and then.... but..... and.....).

Ask questions about their research, the students, AND the program (the PIs might not know, but they will see your interest).

Say thank you!

Do all of the things you know to be professional, but try not to make yourself seem plastic.

It is a great idea to have someone give you a practice interview a few times before you go. Some career services places at your university may have this service for you. It is a good idea to film and watch yourself to see where you need to improve.

Next time, we'll answer Rexzeppelin's question: "How do you determine if your potential PI is a closet psychopath?" Feel free to ask me questions in the comments or to message me questions! I'll either answer them directly or make a new post!

GOOD LUCK AT INTERVIEWS!

biotechie

I received some lovely questions from a couple of users this week, so this blog entry is going to cover some things about my perception of interdisciplinary programs. The tail end of the entry will be a little about interviews. Leave questions in the comments about this entry and what you would like to see for future blogs.

Spectastic asked me several questions, and I'm going to go through them in order:

1. How do you think an interdisciplinary program differs from a field specific program in curriculum, research, and career placement?

Curriculum:

For the most part, I think that the majority of the classes I take are also taken by students in field-specific programs, but the emphasis is more broad. An example would be the genetics class I took first term. It did not simply focus on one system, but required me to learn prokaryotic systems, as well as eukaryotic systems including yeast, C. elegans, drosophila, mouse, and human. The goal is to give you a more broad understanding of the whole field.

However, it should be noted that not all interdisciplinary programs are the same. Some start you out in interdisciplinary coursework, but later place you into a specific department based on the lab you choose. That department may have additional required coursework. In others, you remain in the program your entire graduate career and only have a set amount of coursework that must be completed. My program is the latter type.

Some students complain that interdisciplinary coursework is a little more difficult for them because they expect us to have a broader understanding of the biomedical sciences, but I really think that this helps me in the long run.

Research:

This is not going to really be different than a normal field-specific program except for one thing. I'm still rotating right now, but my interdisciplinary program allows me to select faculty from many different programs at my institution rather than being limited. If I really wanted to, I could rotate with someone from Immunology, Physiology, Molecular Biology, or Biophysics. This is good for someone like me who is interested in general gene regulation as well as immunological activation. I do not feel limited, though sometimes the sheer number of faculty I could rotate with is overwhelming. In the end, the research aspect is going to be similar between programs. You still defend you research proposal, still have a committee, and still give presentations and do your research.

Career Placement:

Being interdisciplinary is beneficial these days because you yourself are better able to approach a scientific question from many different angles, but as a student, you need to work to maintain your interdisciplinary nature after coursework is over. Your success at this will be apparent when you are applying out to post-docs but even more so when you're interviewing for faculty positions and applying for funding. More and more programs are taking the interdisciplinary slant, even if they're not marketing themselves that way. Interdisciplinary program names may make you sound a little more fitted to a wider variety of post-doc labs, but in the end, I think it ends up being what you make of it.

2. Were there a lot of things you had to learn from the ground up?

As far as coursework goes, a lot of the non-mammalian and non-prokaryotic studies are new for me, but not so difficult that I can't figure it out.

In the rotations labs, having 6 years of research experience is proving extremely beneficial as I'm not being taught many new things and am able to adapt rapidly to the new lab settings. It allows me to focus more on the lab environment and figuring out if I can see a feasible and fundable project if I were to join that particular lab. This is really important. You need to be able to work well with the PI and it helps immensely if you also get along well with the technicians and lab manager. Even more importantly, I can take the time to focus more on the literature, current lab projects, and trying to figure out if there is enough promise for a dissertation project. Many times, the PI will discuss this with you as well, but you might need to bring up the topic.

3. Is it a different experience working with students from other similar fields?

I wasn't really sure what you were asking with this, but I'm going to assume you're asking about the different types of students that come into an interdisciplinary program. I'm surrounded by students who are interested in microbiology, eukaryotic cell biology, cancer, aging, autoimmunity, etc, and they have the degrees that match those interests. It is different from my previous experiences where everyone was in the same field and research area. I actually love it; none of us look at or approach anything in the same way, so a research discussion may result in a novel approach to solve a problem that we would never have reached if there weren't a microbiologist in the room.

4. Assuming you don't already have a thought out career plan (which I think you do), how do you think your opportunities will differ?

I don't know that my opportunities will be different than someone in a general program. However, because my background is so interdisciplinary and because I intend to maintain my microbiology knowledge on top of my eukaryotic molecular biology and immunology knowledge, it may affect where I get post-docs or make me a little more versatile. If I didn't want to go into academia, I would be able to contribute readily in industry or in patent law (starting to be hot for scientists). However, I want to stay in academia and run my own lab, and I think I'll be able to relate a lot more to different areas of research than someone who has stayed in one small field area their entire education.

5. User Ratlab asked: How do you prep for interviews with PIs, and what do you do if you're not interested in some of the PIs?

I went into every interview prepared to talk about my own research (with my current PI's permission) and ready to ask questions about the research the person interviewing me does. Taking my research with me meant printing out a couple of copies of my most recent research presentations (notice I am emphasizing: with my current PI's permission!). I didn't give the slides to the professors, but I was able to show them what I was doing. This was beneficial for my interview in several ways. First, it demonstrated to them that I know how to generate a research presentation, have research experience that I have data to demonstrate, and that I know what I'm talking about. Another benefit was that I could point out things without having to draw them, so the understanding was a ton easier. The third thing was that, since I'd already presented the data, I was very comfortable with it and able to discuss future directions, etc. It is also a great idea to take in new copies of your resume with any updates that occurred since application. Be sure to leave your resume with the person you interview with.

I also went through pubmed and read abstracts from the PI's I was interviewing with for the past 2-3 years. If it wasn't something I was familiar with, I found a short review and learned a little bit. I printed out a couple abstracts, maybe some interesting figures, and took them on the plane with me to study. I prepared 2-3 questions for each PI in case the conversation was stale or I found I wasn't interested in what they were working on. I was lucky and got to choose all of the PIs that interviewed me, but I prepped just the same. It could be as simple as "I noticed in *paper name* that you showed *interesting observation*. How do you think *something that ties their project to your interests* participates in this process?" I never acted like I knew their field, but the questions I asked let them know that I had at least researched them a little bit.

Make eye contact.

Shake their hands when you get there and when you leave them.

Avoid "stuff" words (like, kinda, sorta, maybe, ummm, etc) and run-on sentences (and.... and then.... but..... and.....).

Ask questions about their research, the students, AND the program (the PIs might not know, but they will see your interest).

Say thank you!

Do all of the things you know to be professional, but try not to make yourself seem plastic.

It is a great idea to have someone give you a practice interview a few times before you go. Some career services places at your university may have this service for you. It is a good idea to film and watch yourself to see where you need to improve.

6. Microarray asked: What do I wear to an interview?

Microarray was specifically asking what to wear to an interview that doesn't specify a dress code, but I noticed that most biomedical sciences and molecular biology interviews had about the same dress code. Most guys wore dress slacks and dress shoes with a nice sweater -or- a shirt and tie -or- a button down shirt and sport coat -or- a suit. The guys in full-out dress suits were almost too dressy, but all of those things worked out well. I was mildly annoyed by some of the guys who wore bow ties that very horribly contrasted with their shirts. Just make sure you match and look professional.

I am a female and I wore nice, tailored grey trousers, comfortable black boots (low heel), a blouse, and a black ¾ sleeve blazer. I saw lots of girls in adorable little skirt suits with spiky heels... however, I would not go that route. You are going to be walking.... A LOT. You want to have low or no heels, and if you have heels on your shoes, you want them to be fat heels so you're not wearing yourself out. Break your shoes in well ahead of time. As far as wearing a skirt, I would avoid that as well for interview day. Many skirts are relatively short these days, and sometimes it is quite cold. I heard PIs commenting on how inappropriate some of the clothing some of the ladies were wearing... so to avoid any problems, avoid it altogether. For ladies, stores like Maurice's tend to have cute, appropriate clothing (minus the skirts) that won't make you feel like you're an old lady.

You also need to bring clothes that are comfortable and a little less dressy for outings with the current graduate students and for traveling. I wore jeans on the plane, but changed to khakis before meeting the people who were picking me up from the airport. The most important thing is to be comfortable at all times: traveling, informal meetings, and your formal interview. Don't pick something way out of the norm for you your personality; you need to feel like yourself in your interview clothes. This helps you to present yourself more confidently. However... under no circumstances should you show up in jeans and a t-shirt to your interview (on the plane or with grad students is fine). Wear professional and fitted clothing, and you'll be fine.

If anything isn't clear enough or if you have more questions about what I mentioned in this entry, leave me a comment. Good luck on your applications and interviews!

-bio

biotechie

Hi Everyone!

I am a first year student in the biomedical sciences studying molecular and cellular biology, so I went through the whole application and interview process, last year! I was not able to start my blog at that time because I was also frantically trying to recover some samples I lost in a crashed freezer and also generating my thesis at the same time (a story for another time).

I am mid-way through my first year of my PhD studies, am completing laboratory rotations, and will be doing my qualifying exam in about 8 months. 6 months ago, I had just defended my M.S. Thesis and was preparing to move. It is simply amazing how much your life can change in half of a year. You may look at my post and wonder why I am here and writing this blog entry. There were a ton of things that I was not told during my application process, and I want to be around to try to answer some of those questions for this years' applicants.

I want those of you in the life sciences to feel free to ask me questions. They can be about applications, your SOP or Research Statements, interviews, what to wear, etc. Feel free to ask me about things I might not have mentioned about my applications or about things you will do in your first year, such as lab rotations. I will address these questions in future blog entries and fill in things I remember about the application process as we go. This will probably have a mostly biomedical sciences slant, but may be helpful to others as well.

Right now, many of you have submitted your early-deadline applications and are freaking out about those that you have already submitted and also those you have yet to submit. Maybe some of you have heard back about interviews, already? This is the calm before the storm of interviews and frantic last things that will occur this spring. Make sure you take some time around this holiday season to relax and escape from the application frenzy for a little while. Since this is my introduction post, I feel like I can't offer much more advice than that. The rest of this post will include some information about me so that you know my background.

I'm from a very rural area and I also went to an undergraduate institution that was almost equally as rural on an academic scholarship with a Microbiology major. Starting my very first term of undergrad, I volunteered in a laboratory doing phylogenetics research under a zoologist, but by the end of my sophomore year, I joined a molecular physiology lab. There, I realized that molecular biology was my true passion. Though it was too late to change my major by that point, I knew that I wanted to pursue that route. Despite knowing over 20 lab protocols, I was worried that graduate programs would look down on my Microbiology degree since I was interested in eukaryotic cellular physiology, so I stayed on in that laboratory for a funded Master of Science.

My research interests lie in gene regulation, particularly at a transcriptional level, as well as epigenetics and autoimmunity.

Now for the stuff you really care about, the stats! I'm borrowing the format from the 2014 Biology Applicants thread:

Undergrad Institution: Public Research Institution, probably medium funding, very rural

Major(s): Microbiology Minor(s): Chemistry/Psychology

Overall GPA: 3.68 Position in Class: Top 25%

Master's Institution: Same place, but within the School of Medicine

Concentration: Cell and Molecular Physiology GPA: 3.61

Type of Student: Domestic Female

GRE Scores (revised version): All were right about 75th percentile at application.

Q: 156 V: 157 AW: 4.5

Research Experience:

6 years research experience within my university, 4 years undergrad, 2 years masters. Experience generating transgenic mouse lines, generating primary cell lines, RNA extractions, DNA extractions, genotyping, PCR, Chromatin IP, bacterial culture, etc.

Awards/Honors/Recognitions:

I have excluded all but the most important, including my undergraduate scholarship, which was academic in nature and covered tuition, room and board for my undergrad. I also was active in the Honors Program and was selected to travel to China as a student ambassador. I also received 4 small research grants during my undergrad (and 2 during my masters) and placed within the top 4 presenters at each of the 4 research forums I attended.

Pertinent Activities or Jobs:

Student Tutor for all 6 years, Teaching Assistant for 2. I also participated in science outreach to local schools as a supplement to their educational program. I would show up, teach them how to run PCR and a gel, and we would have all sorts of fun.

Special Bonus Points:

I was very well known on campus through involvement in various science-related groups and the honors program, but also the marching band and pep band (clarinet and trumpet for the win!). My research experience also sets me apart because we literally did not use kits for our experiments. If I wanted some DNA to genotype, I did a phenol:chloroform extraction. I'm easily able to adapt and trouble-shoot many different types of experiments, so this makes me a little more versatile for the places I applied to. I also ran a transgenic mouse colony for 4 years, which is a lot more complicated than it sounds. When I interviewed, my lab skills and mouse work were frequently brought up as something immensely positive.

Applied to Where:

I applied to programs that I felt would be interdisciplinary in nature because I did not want to be limited to a specific area. My two degrees also make me an interdisciplinary student, so I felt that my chances would be better at such institutions. I looked for places that had a large variety of research interests as well as things that fit my own interests and pushed my research skills as one of my biggest assets.

My Application Concerns:

My GRE scores and GPA were not stellar, and I was a little worried that my undergrad degree and the change of fields for my MS might raise some questions. However, I had research experience going for me, and I really banked on that.

Results:

I applied to 6 institutions. I was flat-out rejected from two, one of which I had a typo (the wrong schools' name in my SOP) and the other had hundreds of applicants for 3 spots. I was initially wait-listed at one school and invited to interview at three. After interviewing at my top two choices, I knew which I wanted to attend and declined the third interview. The "wait-listed" school later contacted me for an interview, which I declined.