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How do I communicate my research interests at an interview without pigeonholing myself?


Impatient Microbe
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So I applied for a school based on it's location, the reputation of the school, and stipend support. There is certainly a lot of fascinating research going on there, but a majority of the topics don't fall in line with my current "interest". I'm using quotes because truthfully I'm interested in the whole field. But I've chosen the area with which I have the most exposure to talk about as my "interest", so it seems more like every career move I made up until now was a highly meditated decision to achieve an ultimate goal. I mentioned my "interests" in the essays I submitted to the school (applications were free, I had nothing to lose), and I got the interview! I'm really excited, but I'm afraid of being asked why I want to go to a school that is mostly involved in subject X when my "interests" lie in subject Y.

 

Edit: Also, there ARE faculty there whose research interests DO fall in line with my "interests" (I included their names in my statement of purpose).

Edited by Impatient Microbe
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I tend to re-read my statement of purpose before interviews so I can remember pivot points. They may ask you point blank why you applied if your interests don't align - I'd try to somehow weave it together or have a reasonable explanation as to why you still do belong at the program and fit with the research, and would love to expand upon it in xyz (not leaps and bounds away, but something that builds off of their current research easily), or would love to learn more about abc because, while you don't have a background in it, you find it fascinating. That said, try hard to be honest, because it just hurts both of you if you're stuck at a program that you don't have any interests in.  But at the end of the day, if you're not interested, you're not interested. It's a two-way street and sometimes it just doesn't work out! 

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A short sentence about your interests, your previous work (that demonstrates your experience/previous knowledge), and then connecting it with the faculty you wish to work with... or even using their interests as a reason of why you want to join that program and then connecting it back to your own work... is perfectly acceptable in my opinion. Don't get bogged down in minutae, and talk about how the program best serves your interests/plans, and you should be okay. Example:

My previous work shows that while A and B are typically related to C, Professor Q's work on X suggests new ideas which I would like to pursue such as Y and Z.

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I agree with @TiredOfApps that although you want to make sure your reasoning makes sense, at the of the day you also want to end up somewhere you’ll be happy.

My interests are very specific to a particular population, age and condition. I applied to and interviewed with a couple of programs whose emphases were more broad and not necessarily in line with my interests. There was however, one professor at each school with research and clinical work related to my population of interest. I made sure to emphasize my interest in their work and really voice my passion for working with that population when I interviewed with them specifically. When asked why that particular program, I brought up their work and said something like, “I’m very interested in population X and Dr. So-and-So’s research provides me an opportunity to look into some of the questions I have regarding Such-and-Such in that population. I understand the program has a more generalist approach which would provide me better breadth of training given that This-and-That is also as important as Such-and-Such when considering outcomes for population X and others involved.”

I should say I got admitted to both of these programs but I turned them down because I’m truly too passionate about Population X to spend 5 years doing anything else. 

Good luck!

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I'll take a shot based on your username and guess you're applying to microbiology/biomolecular science programs, so you'll probably be doing rotations your first year anyway--so you can be flexible. Definitely bring up the PIs you named that align with your 'interest', and if you're enthusiastic about the school for other reasons, talk about that too!

I've been in your position for one program, and I spun it as "My interests align well with the current work of Dr. X, Y, and Z, but I'd like the opportunity to collaborate with researchers in other fields/take an interdisciplinary approach/learn new techniques" etc. Having more than one focus isn't a weakness as long as you have the rationale or experience to back it up.

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