Preparing for Interviews: Ph.D. Season is Here!

I know, it’s been 10 light years since I’ve written a blog post. What better time to offer interview tips while my holiday brain is setting in two days before the break. In my defense, I’ve been teaching myself electrophysiology and electrical engineering…kind of… this morning so my brain cells are a bit fried.

SO! You’ve been invited to interview for Ph.D. programs – yay!!!! CONGRATULATIONS. Stop and take a moment to celebrate your accomplishments. This is a big deal and something you’ve worked very hard for!

Here are some tips for crushing your graduate school interviews (STEM based) and basiccccccccaaalllyy guaranteeing your admission.

  1. I don’t care what the statistics are for your program, an interview is never, ever, EVER a guaranteed spot. It doesn’t matter if you’re the President of the University of the Ph.D. program you’re interviewing for, treat your interview as if you could be cut at any moment.
  2. The minute, the second, the instant, you set foot in the direction of your interview, you are ON. Assume every thing you say and do is being documented by the admissions committee.
  3. If your hosts or peers are taking 10 shots of tequila, remember that THEY aren’t interviewing. YOU are. First impressions are everything. YOU ARE NOT AN ADMITTED STUDENT. Don’t get got trying to hang with the current students. Have fun, be social, but ALWAYS be professional.
  4. Don’t compete. More often than not, more interviews are offered than available positions which means not everyone can get in – even if they’re super qualified. Just focus on being the best version of yourself and doing your absolute best. What’s meant for you is yours, regardless of the outcome. (speaking as someone who applied twice to my current Ph.D. program).
  5. Practice discussing your research and giving the elevator pitch about your project and your role. Faculty love students with research experience and you have a short amount of time to demonstrate your research capabilities in person. It is absolutely essential that you are able to effectively communicate your science confidently and clearly.Seriously, practice.Imagine someone says the following, and practice your answers.”So, tell me about your work as an undergrad?””What kind of work did you do in industry?””Why are you interested in gene therapy?”This isn’t even close to covering all the potential questions you might get. ANYTHING on your research is fair game. And remember, YOUR role in the project is equally important. Be sure to practice explaining your contribution to any research projects you were/are involved with.
  6. Ask questions. When you’re meeting with people, especially Faculty, ask them thoughtful questions about their work.When I interviewed for a program, I was chatting with a professor about their current projects (I actually don’t remember the topic). I asked them about experimental controls and proposed an experiment to validate their model and asked whether that was the correct line of thinking. You don’t have to know it all, you don’t have to be correct, you just need to show that you can think critically as a scientist while also showing enthusiasm.It’s always a good idea to brush up on the research of people you’re interviewing with but don’t stress about it. You don’t need to know their latest paper (if you do that’s great!) or remember Figure 9 from a paper 2 years ago. Faculty will typically spend some time introducing you to their work. When I got my interview schedule I spent maybe 5-10 minutes looking at each Faculty’s profile to prime myself right before the interview.
  7.  Take advantage of your immediate network and ask people for help.  Talk to people who serve on graduate admissions committees at your host institution and ask them what they evaluate. For example, if you go to the University of Pumpkin Pie, ask Professor X, “hey…when people interview at U of Pumpkin Pie… what do Faculty and students evaluate?” or “hey, do you know any Faculty who serve on the admissions committee that I could meet with?” Of course, reach out with the appropriate tone. E.g. Let’s say you are acquainted with Professor B and find out they’re on the admissions committee (of a University that you are NOT applying to i.e. University of Pumpkin Pie).*”Dear Professor B,My name is Chi-Chi and I’m a research technician in Dr. X’s lab. I was recently invited to interview at the University of Apple Pie for their Ph.D. program in crust making. I am e-mailing to ask if you would be willing to meet with me briefly to share any advice you may have on the interview process.Thank you for your consideration.”*You can also send this e-mail to a faculty member at your host institution if you’re planning to apply there. Be tactful about it. You’re basically asking for the answers to an exam withoutttttttttttt really asking for it.This isn’t an absolute must because you can pretty much infer what people will evaluate.- personality, are you enthusiastic? good attitude? treat people with respect?
    – are you articulate, well-spoken, communicate your science clearly?
    – do you seem interested in the community? are you excited about the program?
    – social interactions? etc.There are forms and questionnaires that people fill out so if you can get your hands on one of those, even better!
  8. Be authentic, be yourself, be kind. Tell your story and don’t try to say things you think people want to hear. If you’ve been offered an interview it means they want you and they want to learn more about you. The interview is about showing your best self, pieces of you that can’t be experienced from an online application.
  9. If there are professors you don’t have an opportunity to meet with, send them an e-mail!Relatedly, send follow up e-mails if you really connect with someone but make sure it’s authentic. If your host is really awesome, or one of your interviews goes really well and you’re super pumped, thank them in person and/or send an e-mail at the end of the trip thanking them for the interaction.i.e.
    “Dear Chi-Chi,Thank you for being such a wonderful host. I had a great time interviewing and am very excited about the possibility of attending the University of Apple Pie.I hope to stay in touch!All the best,
    Harry Potter”Something like that…you get the point.EYE personally did not send any follow up e-mails, just didn’t feel right for me. But if it feels right for you, absolutely do that. But please, for the love of everything good on this green Earth, do not send follow up e-mails for the sake of it. People can smell insincerity from a MILE away.
  10. Show interest in the community! This is something people don’t often consider. Ask questions about quality of life, things to do in the area. This shows you’re seriously committed to the program. If you’re interviewing at a school in New York and you say you hate the east coast and the cold and New Yorkers, that tells the admissions team you probably won’t attend and they’ll deny you admission – no matter how qualified you are – because there is someone else equally qualified who will be enthusiastic about the environment.
  11. You are also interviewing the program! You are the prize. Your goal is to determine whether the school, program, and environment are a GREAT fit for you. Think about what type of climate you desire and NEED to thrive and ask targeted questions during your interview.I.e. if extracurricular activities, student organizations, volunteering, dancing,  basket weaving, whatever is important to you – ASK what opportunities are available to do those thingsASK about professional development opportunitiesASK about mental health resourcesASK how many people successfully complete their Ph.D. AND go on to secure a good job

    ASK why people leave the program

    You get the point. Don’t ask for the sake of asking. Really think about what’s important for you and assess whether the school can provide that for you. 4-5+ years is a good amount of time to be in one place for a rigorous curriculum. You want to be happy while you’re there.


Wishing you all the best this graduate school season and congratulations on making it this far!

Comment below if you have more essential tips for interviewing or if you have any questions!

With Love,

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