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Reasoning behind interviews and decisions


LwT

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I apologize if this is lengthy, but my head is spinning. I just had my first informal interview with a POI over Skype. I knew he'd ask some generic questions regarding my previous research, what my current interests are, and arrange some time to tell me about his current endeavors as well as questions I had for him.

It went okay- I explained my research poorly, and probably seemed a bit sporadic (too much coffee may have been my downfall there). He seemed surprised and happy that I had many questions about his research and was rather familiar with it. However, his facial expressions made me feel like he was a bit disappointed with my lack of "experience." Although, he also explained the opportunities I would have to ease into his methods.

That got me thinking about why exactly people have interviews at specific schools. I performed well in my classes, did okay on the GRE, and have lab as well as individual research experience- just like probably 100% of the other applicants that get interviews. Most neuroscience programs have lab rotations the first year, sometimes 2, and students aren't assigned to a lab until after. Additionally, neuroscience is extremely broad- from simple behavioral tasks on a computer, to neuroimaging equipment, to biochemical interactions inside a single neuron. So is my admissions decision dependent upon the admissions committee and how well they like my application? Or, the number of professors that see me as a candidate to at least do a rotation in their lab? Is one POI even sufficient to get an admission in such cases where you aren't directly admitted to a POI's lab the first year? One school I have an interview at has 50 candidates and 15 slots. So are profs with openings picking like 3 or 4 people they potentially want in their lab, or was it an "overall" decision by an andmissions committee (which potentially consists of profs totally unfamilar with what you're interested in) and interviewees were simply better than other applicants?

What exactly is expected of me, both experience-wise as well as my future aspirations? Am I correct in assuming that the professors are looking for people already trained in specific methods and techniques, not just interested in the stuff they do? My small school experience didn't include opportunities to work with imaging equipment at all- no I have never done any work with MRI tech, no experience in electrophysiology, no experience with MATLAB; so am I screwed? My POI said people entering his lab (he works a lot with MATLAB) sometimes have no coding experience, and sometimes tons of it. So he said while I learn that, I could work on his other work primarily doing electrophysiology and imaging, and I was like "Yeah that sounds favorable!"...conveniently leaving out my lack of experience with those methods as well. This experience is making me extremely nervous for the interview weekends coming up; I'm having daydream nightmares of myself saying "nope, never done that" to  most of their questions as the frowns on their faces droop to the floor.

Lastly, my undergrad experience was in a vision science laboratory, but my dream interests aren't necessarily in that field..it seems that those interests aren't an option though the more I speak with people. I feel like because my undergraduate work was with a prof that did vision research, I have to be set on this course of interest. Why the hell would I know what I want to study for the next 5 years with such a limited scope on such a diverse field? Most neuroscience programs prefer a year of experience in every scientific discipline- chem, bio, physics, math, psych...Am I naïve in thinking graduate school is an opportunity to learn more and hone my research interests? Yet it seems we are labeled with whatever we spent 1-2 years of undergrad researching in labs we were probably just happy to get invited to. Perhaps you don't have the answers or input for all of these questions, but any input would be great even to just one of these questions.

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I've been in three different labs over the last 3 years, and people come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Really. Most PhD students learn a bunch of things they don't have much experience with when they start, and I know of some people who have switched fields and had to re-learn everything. It happens. 

Don't sweat it. Your unique experience will give you an interesting perspective on the research. My advice would be this: 1) know the research that you did do really, really well. Be able to explain the minutiae and the bigger picture both very clearly. 2) Look at some of these professors' research, get an idea for what they do, and have an idea of what techniques you don't know and be prepared to tell them how excited you are to learn them. MATLAB is big in a lot of neuroscience labs, so find a free copy online somewhere and start covering the basics. Here's a quick intro by my undergrad institute that I used when I was starting (follow the link and watch the series). 

You'll be fine, and remember, they wouldn't be interviewing you if they hadn't seen something in your application that they thought was valuable! 

 

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You're worrying more than you need to, and over-generalizing. You're also trying to generalize a field that's very non-homogeneous. 

Generally, schools want you to be able to hit the ground running in some way or another, and they want people with experience in research. That's not to say you need to know every (or even many) of the techniques you will need, but you need the background to pick them up quickly and/or teach yourself. 

MATLAB is a perfect example- it's something you can easily teach yourself on the side. Electrophys, not so much. 

We expect first year students in our lab to spend most of the first year learning techniques- shadowing other students, trying out projects, and building the experience they will need. 

As for who decides, it's very school dependent. If a PI has money and really wants you, that can frequently sway the admissions committee- but you might be stuck working with that person. Admissions committees usually forward applications to someone with interests aligned with yours if none of them are sitting that semester. The idea is to ensure that every incoming student has a lab that will want to take them in and be able to fund them for 5-9 years. 

FWIW, almost none of my undergrad research experience was directly applicable. I worked doing biofuel synthesis on a huge scale, and developing large-scale syntheses for metal catalyst work. 

In grad school, I'm about as perfectly straddling the biological chemistry line as I can be. I taught myself cell culture, got money, set up a cell culture lab, and have many years of experience. Coming into grad school, I had almost no biological background other than intro biology and biochemistry. Now I'm a fairly capable molecular biologist, and have great collaborations at our medical school and with our Neuroscience and CMB programs. 

Each new grad student is ideally looked at as an individual researcher. You bring your background and experiences into the lab, and you learn new things while you're there. 

I'm now "that guy that understands biology but can also re-build instruments and synthesize things", and it's a unique role I'm pretty happy in. I'm sure you'll find that role for yourself as well!

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I agree that you are overthinking and trying to over-generalize. Every possibility you list could be the actual case because pretty much everything you said I've heard about happening at some place/lab/department or other. 

To me, it sounds like you did fine. It's also really really hard to read some people, unless you happen to be a people-whisperer or already know the person well. For example, a prof may appear disappointed that you didn't have skill X because he thought you would have been the 110% best candidate if you had that extra skill, but now you are still the 100% best choice for him. You can't guess what's going on inside people's heads normally! 

And why do schools interview? In my opinion, it is not primarily to find out your actual scientific skills. Yes, I do think interviews are a good way for faculty to dig deeper on interesting points they read in your CV or SOP or other materials. But really, I think it's an evaluation of your interpersonal skills and character traits. I know faculty at some programs have told me this is exactly the reason why they interview and ask essay questions in the SOP. They are looking for the "intangible" qualities that would be really hard to gauge in a CV, transcript, and GRE scores. For example, the ability to communicate professionally. The ability to think on the spot. Leadership ability and initiative---are you "just" a dilettante doing what you're told in the lab, or do you take the opportunities you do have to take "ownership" of your work, understand why you're doing what you're doing etc. Resilience and ability to work through tough times (note: I'm not saying this is the same as "grad students should suck it up when they face bad work conditions" but I'm referring to things like facing rejection, handling appropriate criticism etc. Many undergraduates go into grad school with very little experience of failing and for most of them, they will face failure for the first time in grad school. It's important to be able to overcome that (with proper support from the school and mentors, of course). An interview is a really good way to get this information by speaking with the candidate directly. It's not the only way though---a lot of this is learned from LORs and even your SOP. 

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I'm very appreciative of all your input! This definitely helps calm my nerves. Perhaps I was being a bit irrational, but you guys confirmed my hopes and that makes me more excited than anxiety filled. I'll probably start getting acquainted with matlab through MITs online materials if I do indeed get accepted someplace. Or I suppose it might be a plus to mention I am learning it at the interviews, we'll see if time permits.  Thanks again for your support and advice.

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@LWT 

From my own experience, what I learned from my seniors' experience and read online here are some of the reasons for the interview.

If you are an international student then the interview might serve the additional purpose of gauging your spoken english skills.

If you are a really good candidate then the interview might be the professor convincing you to join the university and his lab.

Other than that professors usually do interviews for a these reasons:

First is to act as tiebreaker, in case your application is a close competitor.

Second is that they want to get a feel of you as a real person. They might do it so that they can know how well you know your stuff and if you have really done what you said in your personal statement, they might ask questions about project details or "what-if" questions or questions like "why did you do this and why not this..." to understand how you think as a researcher. Or there might be some things in your SOP that need explanation.

Another reason is that you have you have a certain type of experience e.g. operating some specific type of machinery or software or knowledge of some subfield that they are doing research in, or something else that makes them think that you might be helpful in their research and by doing the interview they are trying to figure out if you are indeed suitable, so that they can offer you an RA.

I had an interview where the professor told me that he choose me because I had some experience in using an xyz tool(used in a subfield of Computer Science), and had taken xyz subjects which makes me suitable for an upcoming project that he wants me to work on(if offered admission). I should tell you that I had only novice level experience in the field and he did not actually test my knowledge about that specific field, but wanted to know if my foundation was good. (He asked me question about basic computer architecture and stuff like what was the most complex code I had written. Because his research area required good architecture knowledge and good programming skills.) He will probably need to train me first, before I can undertake any real work in his lab.

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1 hour ago, toxicdevil said:

 If you are an international student then the interview might serve the additional purpose of gauging your spoken english skills.

 

I know that this is commonly done at many places, but I want to point out that many people, including me, think it is unethical for a school to only interview international students because to gauge spoken language skills.

It's okay to interview everyone on the shortlist. It's okay to only interview the ones that are near the cutoff. But it's not okay to create a shortlist and then only interview the international students (or any other group that is not decided based on merit).

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I think you are right, but I also think that it is necessary to gauge the spoken skills of international students especially if their TOEFL score is on the borderline. They probably wont be successful in the program in they cant speak english effectively and discuss their research idea etc.

It might actually play to their advantage because they might be rejected otherwise (no funding = rejection).

Still I agree that it is not okay to interview international students for this purpose, and if they do it should not have any effect on the admission decision (so that they do not any disadvantage compared to native speakers).

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1 minute ago, toxicdevil said:

I think you are right, but I also think that it is necessary to gauge the spoken skills of international students especially if their TOEFL score is on the borderline. They probably wont be successful in the program in they cant speak english effectively and discuss their research idea etc.

It might actually play to their advantage because they might be rejected otherwise (no funding = rejection).

Still I agree that it is not okay to interview international students for this purpose, and if they do it should not have any effect on the admission decision (so that they do not any disadvantage compared to native speakers).

I agree that it's okay to gauge spoken language skills for graduate student admissions. I even think it's okay to interview specifically for this purpose only.

But, I don't think it's okay to single out international students for just a language interview. If they want to ensure that a candidate has strong enough spoken language skills, they must apply the same screening to all candidates and treat everyone the same/fairly. 

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