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All About Interviews: Experiences for the GC Minions

biotechie

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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!



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These are great tips! I second everything about preparation, proper attire, and what the visit is normally like.

 

Other general interview tips:

- Reread all of your submitted materials - SOP, writing samples, anything else. Know what's in them.

- Try and keep each answer you give down to 2-3 minutes, and set them up so as to invite your interviewer to ask follow-up questions. This is a great way to steer the conversation toward areas where you feel more confident.

- It's ok to fumble and to be nervous. Thinking about answers to some common questions will help keep you going when you get stuck. Your goal is really just to sound coherent and excited. The rest will follow naturally.

- Prepare some questions to ask your interviewers. This will come up. Read the school's website in preparation. See more on this below.

- Feel free to ask graduate students anything, but watch their reactions. Normally grad students will be very honest and share all kinds of information with you.

- However, not everyone will say bad things about their advisor to a (practically) stranger, so find roundabout ways of getting at someone's character and style as a mentor. Don't take others' (superficial) opinions too seriously, though. There are always going to be personality clashes between people, so the important question is about the trajectory and general past history of a certain professor, and whether you personally feel that you get along with them. Don't ignore glaring warning signs, but don't give any one person's opinion too much weight.

- Do some basic preparation with regard to potential advisors. Read such things as the "About" page on their personal/lab website, and look at current and recent projects and publications, to have an idea of what their research. I don't think it's necessary to actually read any papers. If you know you'll be interviewed by people outside your subfield, I think it's enough to know what the person generally does. They will not expect you do know details of their work.

- Above all else, BE POSITIVE. Don't say anything negative about the school you're currently attending, other schools you might be considering, experiences during the interview, etc.

- Watch out for negativity directed at you in any way. Including, but not limited to, people trash-talking other schools, or gossiping about other students, professors, or prospectives, in an inappropriate way. For me, that's a major turn-off and a warning sign. If they allow themselves to be so off guard during an official visit, it must be even worse on a daily basis.

 

A couple other relevant questions off the top of my head:

- Tell me about yourself / your work / your research / your interests.

There will be some version of this question at some point. Be able to say something intelligent and short. Also be ready to elaborate on something specific, e.g. your writing sample or whatever you proposed as a future interest in your SOP.

- Why do you want to study [subfield]? What questions do you find particularly interesting?

Something simple will do, and you are not obligated to actually study anything that you say you are interested in. But if there are particular questions, methods, etc. that you know you want to study more, you could mention that.

- Do you have any questions for us?

Be prepared. This will come up. A good question is a question that makes your interviewer feel good about themselves and/or their program. So don't ask if it's true that Prof X and Prof Y don't get along, or that the program recently had a grading scandal. You won't get honest answers and you'll forever be known as the person who asked that question. Depending on what was already covered in the conversation, you could ask about research/collaboration opportunities, courses in other departments, current lab projects, what advanced students are currently working on, what jobs recent graduates have obtained, etc. Avoid yes-no questions and simple questions that are already answered on the website. Another angle is to ask the prof about their own work, projects that may start in their lab soon, what they see as important open questions in the field, what they think have been the most important advancements in the field, etc.

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Do professors tend to ask you to go in depth about your research? Did they ask detailed questions about the science behind your research?

 

That is going to vary depending on the type, amount, and depth of your previous research. I had 4 years undergrad + 2 years masters, so I essentially had my own research projects by that point with my own directionality and even some of my own research funding. Because of that, yes, I was asked extremely detailed questions about what I was doing and where I planned to direct the research next. However, I was more than prepared for these questions as I had presented at a conference and had been giving at least a few research talks outside of lab meetings each year. You also need to make sure your current/previous research mentors are okay with you discussing your project(s). If not, you shouldn't discuss their research! You should also have checked with them before including it in your personal/research statements.

 

If you've been in several different labs or have only been in research a short time, I don't expect you to be asked the kinds of questions that I was asked. They really just want to get an idea of if you will be competent as a student, have grasped the scientific process, and can be a successful scientist. You may just get asked what kinds of things you worked on to make sure you had an idea of the big picture, such as, "Previously you said you worked with GeneX deletion mutants. What does GeneX do, and why were you making those mutants?" You may also get asked something like, "What is the most valuable technique you learned as a research assistant?" One that I got was, "What is the most valuable skill (not technique) that you've gained through research?"

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Thanks so much for the advice.  A couple of quick questions.  I currently do protein biochemistry research, which has involved homology modeling and site-directed mutagenesis.  My work is a lot easier to explain with my model graphics.  Is it appropriate to bring a printed copy in case the professors want specifics about my work?  Also, what is typical in terms of taking notes?  I expect their will be a lot of information and I would like to take notes, but I don't want to be seen as rude or anything.  Thanks again.

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7 minutes ago, biosci said:

Thanks so much for the advice.  A couple of quick questions.  I currently do protein biochemistry research, which has involved homology modeling and site-directed mutagenesis.  My work is a lot easier to explain with my model graphics.  Is it appropriate to bring a printed copy in case the professors want specifics about my work?  Also, what is typical in terms of taking notes?  I expect their will be a lot of information and I would like to take notes, but I don't want to be seen as rude or anything.  Thanks again.

Before you talk about ANYTHING you do, if it isn't already published, make sure your PI is okay with you talking about it. If they're not okay with you talking about their data directly, you can draw out how you do your methods and discuss that. Because I was finishing up a MS, I got permission from my PI to print out the slides from my last seminar in case they were needed. I talked to nearly 20 professors at interviews, and I only pulled out the slides a couple of times. I drew out things for them most of the time, and they actually like seeing people that familiar and comfortable with their own data. Many of them will spend more time talking about their own research and use it to try and recruit you.

I took a small notebook with me, and I only really took notes when they gave me specific information I asked for at the end and in seminars we attended. I didn't really need to take any as the programs I was invited to interview with sent me more information, and gave me pamphlets and jump drives with more information at interviews.

Edited by biotechie

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26 minutes ago, biotechie said:

Before you talk about ANYTHING you do, if it isn't already published, make sure your PI is okay with you talking about it. If they're not okay with you talking about their data directly, you can draw out how you do your methods and discuss that. Because I was finishing up a MS, I got permission from my PI to print out the slides from my last seminar in case they were needed. I talked to nearly 20 professors at interviews, and I only pulled out the slides a couple of times. I drew out things for them most of the time, and they actually like seeing people that familiar and comfortable with their own data. Many of them will spend more time talking about their own research and use it to try and recruit you.

I took a small notebook with me, and I only really took notes when they gave me specific information I asked for at the end and in seminars we attended. I didn't really need to take any as the programs I was invited to interview with sent me more information, and gave me pamphlets and jump drives with more information at interviews.

Thanks so much for the feedback.  It is great to know that the programs give you more written information, as I expect that the excitement will probably make it hard to remember everything!  I will definitely talk to my PI before I share anything.  Thanks again

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Just now, biosci said:

another random question: I don't drink alcohol; do you think that will be a problem at interviews?  Thanks

Nope. Not a problem. I drink, but only rarely and only a little. I didn't drink at any of my interviews. Just order a soda or tea if you're out at a bar. Otherwise, just decline politely if offered an alcoholic beverage. People understand and at worst you'll get a little joking about it. Lots of people don't drink for personal or religious reasons.

On the other hand, for others who DO drink, limit it to a single weak drink... be responsible and don't get wasted. That's only asking for rejection.

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Just now, biotechie said:

Nope. Not a problem. I drink, but only rarely and only a little. I didn't drink at any of my interviews. Just order a soda or tea if you're out at a bar. Otherwise, just decline politely if offered an alcoholic beverage. People understand and at worst you'll get a little joking about it. Lots of people don't drink for personal or religious reasons.

On the other hand, for others who DO drink, limit it to a single weak drink... be responsible and don't get wasted. That's only asking for rejection.

Thanks!  I just don't want them to think I am prudish or anything so that is great to hear.  

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Great info regarding interview. Iam an international student ,i have applied for MS in CS UP TO 10 grad schools.

 I have a question ,i had an interview on Skype with the POI mentioned in SOP. I had applied for MS in CS.The interview lasted for just 10 minutes, he asked me about my summer internship , he asked about other places i had visited, last he asked me if i had any questions for him./

Its almost one week since i had this interview, still nothing was heard from them yet. What does it indicate? 

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1 hour ago, sasya said:

Great info regarding interview. Iam an international student ,i have applied for MS in CS UP TO 10 grad schools.

 I have a question ,i had an interview on Skype with the POI mentioned in SOP. I had applied for MS in CS.The interview lasted for just 10 minutes, he asked me about my summer internship , he asked about other places i had visited, last he asked me if i had any questions for him./

Its almost one week since i had this interview, still nothing was heard from them yet. What does it indicate? 

Possibly nothing. Odds are they had other applicants to interview. Usually the admissions committee all gets together and reviews applicants after a set number have been interviewed. Then they decide who gets an offer, wait list, or rejection. They'll let the admits know as soon as they meet, but may not let the others know right away until they have an idea of who will accept their offer.

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Any advice on how to win over professors who you will probably not end up working with? If you are somewhat certain about wanting to join a specific lab, how do you have a positive interview with the professors who you may not even do a rotation with? Do you guys have strategies for expressing (or even feigning) some interest in their work? Are there certain types of intra-faculty politics to watch out for in these situations?

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10 hours ago, dvwz said:

Any advice on how to win over professors who you will probably not end up working with? If you are somewhat certain about wanting to join a specific lab, how do you have a positive interview with the professors who you may not even do a rotation with? Do you guys have strategies for expressing (or even feigning) some interest in their work? Are there certain types of intra-faculty politics to watch out for in these situations?

The worst thing you can do in science is go to interview at a school where there is only one professor you want to work with. There should be several labs you would be interested in, otherwise you've made your scope of interest too tight. I ended up joining a lab in a completely different field, and it is a great idea as I will return to my field in post-doc, where it will really matter.

Regardless, most professors who interview you at interviews aren't looking for someone to join their labs. They're vetting you for the adcom. They want to know you can be a good scientist and that you know what you're getting into. You're always going to have to talk about research that isn't your favorite throughout your life as a scientist. You still need to read their research, but try to find the interesting parts about it, maybe things that are more similar to what you like or have researched in the past. Pay attention when they have a science conversation with you and ask questions.

I'm not sure what you mean about "intra-faculty politics"... my experiences were that all of the professors and students wanted to get to know me regardless of what I was interested in.

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