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TrashPanda

Interview with a PI whose interests don't align with yours

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I have an upcoming interview and the program has provided me with the names of faculty I'll be meeting with. I'm SUPER stoked about some of them, or at least interested in their research, but one of them does research in sometime I'm not so sure I'll be able to have a conversation about. We have some similar interests, applying molecular biology to neuroscience, but only at a really broad level. I don't really find myself interested in the types of questions he's asking in his research. How can I make the conversation go smoothly? 

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1 hour ago, TrashPanda said:

I have an upcoming interview and the program has provided me with the names of faculty I'll be meeting with. I'm SUPER stoked about some of them, or at least interested in their research, but one of them does research in sometime I'm not so sure I'll be able to have a conversation about. We have some similar interests, applying molecular biology to neuroscience, but only at a really broad level. I don't really find myself interested in the types of questions he's asking in his research. How can I make the conversation go smoothly? 

Same thing happened to me. Ask him about his research. Ask any questions you can to make sure you understand, just to show interest. To carry the conversation, ask general questions about the program and the way his lab functions. That's what I did and it went well.

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These meetings aren't always with people you might work for and throughout your academic career, you will meet lots of people who don't share research interests with you. So, just have a general academic discussion about their work or your work, or something else general. I'd say let them lead since it's a meeting during an interview. 

During my visit days (not interviews), I had tons of meetings with various academics. It was fun to hear and ask questions about a field of work I don't know much about or think about often. Some of these conversations veer towards non research things too! I had a 15 minute meeting with a prof who just talked about climate change, which was fun!

And keep in mind that since this is an interview, it will likely be part of the final decision. Not to add more stress or anything, but it's not implausible that they purposely arrange for some out-of-field interviewers for candidates to see how well you can converse outside of your field and whether you show interest beyond your narrow scope. Although I am not a fan of sneaky interview tactics, I do think these traits are important for an academic/scholar to have! Or, in a less sneaky alternative, maybe these people outside of your field are just other admission committee members.

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8 hours ago, TakeruK said:

These meetings aren't always with people you might work for and throughout your academic career, you will meet lots of people who don't share research interests with you. So, just have a general academic discussion about their work or your work, or something else general. I'd say let them lead since it's a meeting during an interview. 

During my visit days (not interviews), I had tons of meetings with various academics. It was fun to hear and ask questions about a field of work I don't know much about or think about often. Some of these conversations veer towards non research things too! I had a 15 minute meeting with a prof who just talked about climate change, which was fun!

And keep in mind that since this is an interview, it will likely be part of the final decision. Not to add more stress or anything, but it's not implausible that they purposely arrange for some out-of-field interviewers for candidates to see how well you can converse outside of your field and whether you show interest beyond your narrow scope. Although I am not a fan of sneaky interview tactics, I do think these traits are important for an academic/scholar to have! Or, in a less sneaky alternative, maybe these people outside of your field are just other admission committee members.

Thanks so much for the info. Do you know anything about skype interviews as well? I got an interview invitation from this uni which I had several professors with aligned interests. Unfortunately the professor who emailed me with the interview invitation has no common ground research topic with mine. So, I have no idea on what to expect of this interview... Or how to prepare for it.

Any tips?

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I also want to mention that sometimes programs will arrange for faculty on recruitment or admissions committees to interview, even though the prospective student provided a list of faculty they're interested in.  And I agree that it's important to be able to communicate with other scientists whose research is outside of your area of interest, even if you don't know much about it.  And it's totally alright to be honest and ask simple questions about the research, and to mention that this is outside of your field.  I like to think that they would be happy to see you are curious about science in general.

Edited by StemCellFan

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@basketballfrost: I'd second what @StemCellFan said!

Also, if you have not done this already, you should do a little bit of research into any interviewers that you know the name of. I would say that this is general advice that applies to basically any time you have an appointment to formally meet with another academic! For something high stakes like an interview, I'd spend a bit of time (maybe 15-20 minutes? or even 30 minutes if you have the time) on each person. Read their website, their CV, look at their recent papers. For someone outside of your area of expertise, try to understand the basics of their research area. You should at least know: 1) what is the big picture question they want to address, 2) what are the major challenges and 3) what is their biggest contribution to this area. It's good to know these things so that you don't make a mistake I made a long time ago and basically said I don't think X is true when the person I'm talking to has done a lot of work arguing the opposite! Oops.

In the future, for less high-stakes/more informal meetings, I'd spend 5-10 minutes to at least read their website, CV, and publications list. Every time we have a seminar speaker visit our department and we sign up for meetings, I do this just before meeting them so that I have some ideas on what to discuss!

Finally, the above was all about the other person's work, but conversations are a two-way street and you'll spend at least half of your time talking about your own work (probably more if it's an interview). So be prepared to speak about your work concisely and in a way that will excite your audience! When you've spent countless hours on a project, you might be mostly thinking about the fine details. But to prepare, take a step back and think about the big picture. Start by motivating your line of work and then explain your specific contributions. This is important when talking to both experts in your area as well as non-expert interviewers. Of course, you may want to change your approach based on the audience. Extra bonus points (i.e. don't worry too much about it, but if you think of something then great) if you can draw an analogy between your work and the other person's work (but warning: make sure you're right!)

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Thanks everybody for your input! I'll be sure to be up front about not having experience in his field and ask him questions. I've definitely been reading up on faculty members that I'm meeting with and even though this particular PI's work is a bit outside my field, There is a little bit of overlap on collaborations he's done and I'm really into the techniques he's used in his research. I think I'll try talking about my current research, and ask him what he thinks about applying some of the techniques or approaches he's used to the research I'm working on now. Does this seem like a good direction to take? 

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1 hour ago, TrashPanda said:

Thanks everybody for your input! I'll be sure to be up front about not having experience in his field and ask him questions. I've definitely been reading up on faculty members that I'm meeting with and even though this particular PI's work is a bit outside my field, There is a little bit of overlap on collaborations he's done and I'm really into the techniques he's used in his research. I think I'll try talking about my current research, and ask him what he thinks about applying some of the techniques or approaches he's used to the research I'm working on now. Does this seem like a good direction to take? 

Sounds great to me.

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Most of my interviews so far have been with faculty whose interests were different from mine. To me they have just been conversations about science with someone. My interviews have largely been a similar experience to going to the dinner at a faculty members house and chatting with different faculty members, except in an office and they generally ask more about my research. Even when I've known about their research, they usually just say "let me just tell you about what I'm doing" so there's never really much point in me researching it ahead of time. To me it's just a chance to see what's going on at the school, to see another scientist's perspective, or another aspect of the field. I pretty much find all questions in biology interesting on some level, so I think there's always some aspect of their research I can get excited about. Imagine going to a seminar on a topic you're unfamiliar with, trying to understand why its important or they're passionate about it, and then thinking up possible interesting questions to ask.

This past weekend I spent an hour talking to a faculty member about his research, which I had absolutely no interest in going in. The next day I thought: he would be a good PI to rotate with. So I think even if you don't have an initial interest, just be open to it, because you might be surprised and find it interesting.

Edited by hurryskurry

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