Impressing us on your graduate school interview

You got an interview! You are so close to leaving behind the incessant tests and classes of undergraduate years and moving on to focussed research, accompanied by deep reading in the areas you love. Your undergraduate debts will wait as you move slowly through graduate school, if only you can pass the interview to full admission, with a fellowship.

First, there is one thing above all else we look for in you: a passion for research. We want to see fire in your belly that will sustain you through hot days in the field, or nights where you need to add an enzyme to a reaction at 3AM. We want to know you have the grit and determination to be a fabulous scientist, a future leader in the field. We want you to turn repeatedly to research questions, though your professorial day may be filled with meetings, teaching, seminars, or writing reference letters. Show us your research passion and we will fight to admit you. The rest of this piece should help you see how to do this.

Don’t worry if you had a Skype interview – we take them very seriously. Some of our best students come from other countries, making an in-person interview hard. We discuss our Skype interviewees just as much as the others. The standards for getting a Skype interview are the same as for in-person interviews. You can shine here just as well, and follow up with email questions if you like.

What exactly makes for a great interview? First, I should say that if we are taking the time and money to interview you, we’re interested. Most universities admit 50% to 100% of the students they interview. You look good on paper; you performed well in classes and research, and you convinced some busy professors to write you reasonable letters. We like your essays; we are disposed to like you, to think you will be a perfect fit in one of our research laboratories.

We hope you are interested too, or you wouldn’t have taken time out of your schedule to fly across the country to be questioned and entertained by us. So, the interview is basically a situation where we both evaluate the match. In the best circumstance, a good fit for you is a good fit for us. Then we admit you, you accept our offer, matriculate, then five years later leave to an excellent postdoc in a different but related field, several great publications under your belt, along with a deep understanding of your field and how to do science.

There are also several kinds of bad fits. The main one is that no one at our institution may do the kind of research you say interests you. We then have to politely wonder why you came. Did you not look at our web page? Did you think we hid our best faculty? Maybe you applied to the wrong department?

The interview has structured and unstructured stages, with different demands from each. During the unstructured times, you should try to get to know people. Ask them about their work, their life, the pros (and cons, but only a little) of grad school here, of living here. Work the room like a politician, talking to different people every quarter hour or so. On the field trips, do the same thing, mingling. Get to know the other applicants, some of whom may become friends for life, even if you don’t end up going to the same grad school. This will be easier for outgoing people than for shy people, but both can succeed at mingling. Remember, it is as important to ask others about their work as it is to share yours.

Surprisingly little of your time will be spent talking to professors, so make the most of it. You will have several formal interviews with faculty, lasting half an hour to an hour. Prepare carefully for these times. Read the faculty member’s web page. See if there is anything unique about the person, or the group that you are curious about. Look over the places they work, the kinds of questions they ask, where and what they publish. Plan out five to ten questions specific to each professor. These can be about anything, but they should be fairly focused. Most should be about research. It is better to choose one of their papers and read it in detail than to read the abstracts of ten papers. I recommend doing both, for the abstracts give you an understanding of the person’s breadth of research, while the full paper lets you ask some detailed questions. Pick a recent paper in a good journal and work though it. What are the questions of the paper? What are the methods? Do you agree the conclusions are supported? Is there something you didn’t understand, or something you would like to hear more about? Ask!

Take charge of the conversation, without being aggressive. When the discussion lags, ask another question about research, or volunteer information on something you have done that relates to research in this group. Ask for advice on something. But if you are with someone who is taking charge of the conversation themselves, let them, only occasionally initiating the discussion. We are busy, often don’t do our homework, don’t necessarily remember why we are interviewing you, so help us out. We’ll be impressed. Your advance list of questions will help you with this. We are likely to have to fill out a questionnaire on your interest in our work, what you said about your work, and what we thought overall.

From our perspective, one of your biggest weaknesses will involve focus. You are likely to lack focus, or to be convinced you have found your life’s work in a very narrow project your undergrad advisor provided. What to do? In my matriculating class at University of Texas at Austin, we had both kinds of student. The ones sure of what they were going to do seemed a bit full of themselves. In the end, I don’t think a single one of them actually continued that undergraduate project. Thinking they were going to slowed them down. The ones that lacked focus generally found it. There were successes and failures in both pools. I was someone who always knew exactly what I was going to do, though it vacillated wildly, until I came upon a project that was both feasible and fascinating. Then nothing could tear me from my beloved wasps (except social amoebae, but that was decades later).

What is your best strategy regarding focus? I think it is to show us you can think in a detailed way about a project, even though you might not actually do it. If you wrote an NSF predoctoral proposal, tell us about it. That is one place you can show you are focused. Tell us about the big questions, why you think they are important, and why your approach is feasible, creative, and novel. Imagine you have to work in each of the labs of the people that interview you. Imagine a project you would do in their lab that matched your interests as much as possible. Describe it in some detail, asking the professor for advice. Don’t fake it. Make it clear this is a thought experiment. We want to see how you think. If you want to do field work on plants, but are talking to a fly geneticist, you should still be able to think of something you would do. The key here is to show us you can get down to specifics. Try to show some confidence. This could be really hard, particularly if you have several interviews. You could end up imagining 10 or 15 different projects. Riff off one of the professor’s recent papers, or research statements. Try to tie it to what you have done. Ask for advice. Be clear that even though you are either very focused, or unfocused, you have the ability to think with focus in more than one area.

Be yourself, though a little more structured. Ask questions, show enthusiasm. Let us know what you have done, but don’t brag. We have read your file. We work with very smart, accomplished people all the time, who are also surprisingly humble. This helps make this the best job around. We want you to join us!

Current graduate students and post-docs hard at work entertaining our prospectives.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Graduate school, Managing an academic career and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Impressing us on your graduate school interview

  1. Margaret says:

    Good advice, all around. I’ll add a few things:

    1) Make sure to talk to the grad students in the lab(s) of the advisor(s) you’re considering. Ask if the person is a good advisor! Ask what their strengths and weaknesses are as an advisor. Ask what their advising approach is: hands-off-let-you-flail, micro-manager, somewhere in between? Figure out if the advising style fits you. Ask about any hidden relationships you might want to avoid — for example, I considered being co-advised by two faculty who were divorced, but I didn’t know it at the time — not an impossible situation, but one you might want to avoid. I only found this out by talking to the grad students in their labs. Ask about $ support. If you’re torn between two (or more) advisors, you might lean toward the one that seems to have consistent funding for their students.

    2) If you’re an odd duck, turn it into a positive. I came from a completely different field, and was very worried about that in interviews. I did not have even close to as deep a knowledge of biology as my peer interviewees. But I did have very good quantitative skills. So I made sure to point out that I could be an asset to the department from that perspective — that I wanted to *contribute* to the graduate program as well as learn from it.

    3) In addition to asking faculty about their recent papers, make sure to find out what they’re doing now. My favorite question to ask that was always received well was “I know you were recently working on X. What are you really excited about now?”

    • Jeremy Fox says:

      Your second point is an especially good one Margaret. It shows that you’re someone who will take the initiative to get the most out of your grad program, and *create* the intellectual environment you want to be a part of. Rather than just sitting back and passively waiting to be told what hoops you have to jump through to get your degree, or just putting your head down and beavering away at your own work without showing any active interest in what’s going on around you. It’s the difference between a student who starts a reading group, vs. one who merely joins one (or worse, doesn’t join one). The difference between a student who asks questions vs. one who waits to be asked. The difference between a student who seeks out funding opportunities vs. the one who waits to be told to do so. Etc.

  2. Jeremy Fox says:

    A further comment, for students: you should have been in touch with your prospective adviser well before your interview visit. The on-campus interview is not the time to be introducing yourself to prospective advisers.

    An an informational note: many schools don’t bring in all their prospective grad students at once, instead leaving it to individual faculty to arrange (and pay for) visits from the prospective students they personally want to meet. I visited several prospective advisers when I was looking for grad programs, and they were all this sort of individually-arranged visit. But the advice in this post is still good advice for how to approach such individually-arranged visits.

    BTW I liked the individual visits because I focused on the important stuff (talking to my prospective adviser and his or her grad students) rather than fun but unimportant stuff (like socializing with other prospective students).

  3. scientifican says:

    It’s unfortunate I was not on wordpress when you originally posted this – I think I was actually in graduate school interviews on the exact day of this posting. Luckily it made it through with only 1 bad experience and got in at my pick school 🙂 I think that bad experience was a “bad fit” school anyway, so I guess you live and learn.

    One tricky thing about “umbrella” style admissions (common in biomedical sciences I think) is that you can end up interviewing with people who work on things you have absolutely no idea about. I ended up interviewing with a computational cancer biologist at one point – I don’t have experience with either subject and could not even begin to decode their work.

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