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?
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.
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.
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!