Step III: Interviews
By Ya’el Courtney
Neuroscience PhD Candidate,
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The ultimate goal of submitting an application to a PhD program is to be invited for an interview. This is not only a chance for the school to determine if you are a good fit, but a chance for you to decide if you would actually want to spend the next 5-6 years of your life in that city/research environment.
If you’ve been invited to interview, congratulations! You’ve made it to the next step of the application process, and it might be good news to you that only the top 5-15% (depending on the school) of applicants get invited. The schools will pay for your expenses as you fly out, stay for a couple of days, and are given plenty of free food (and often alcohol). I heard back from schools about interviews in mid to late December, and interviews started mid-January and continued through the beginning of March.
Interviews are your time to shine in person! By the time you’ve been offered an interview, the school has concluded that you’re “good enough” to attend, now it’s about evaluating fit. The interview is your chance to add your personality to all of the facts you’ve presented on paper. Many people are much more nervous than they should be (I certainly was), but after your first few interviews, you’ll realize that it really is just a conversation. There are only a handful of PIs that might want to make your life hard and ask annoying questions (e.g. “What do you think about consciousness?”), but the majority of them sincerely want to get to know you better and see if you’re really a good fit for the school.
I’ll also add that if you are invited to interview at more than 2-3 schools, you’ll soon realize that you are seeing the same people over and over at these interviews. Top applicants tend to apply to the same programs, and these programs all want the top applicants. It can be a really fun experience making interview friends along the way, as they will likely become your science peers throughout grad schools.
Interview weekend schedule
Interview weekends are first and foremost an opportunity for you to show the school that you’re even better in person than on paper, and a chance for you to see if you actually vibe with the research environment/PIs/labs that you were interested in.
Most interviews take place over a long weekend, typically from Thursday-Sunday. You will interview with anywhere between 3-8 PIs, and the schools usually ask who you would like to meet before they curate your personalized schedule. Think about this list carefully, and make sure to include PIs that you’d actually want to work with, instead of just including the 3-4 most famous researchers at that particular school. Some schools make your do all your interviews on one day, while other schools spread them out over 2 days.
I found it hard to get a sense of what interview weekend was going to be like until I actually got my schedule, so here’s an example an of interview schedule that I had:
What to wear
Business casual was the standard at most of the interviews that I attended, although many programs did not specify any type of dress code and just told interviewees to dress comfortably. Most girls wore nice blouses, shirts with collars, blazers, and slacks, but rarely wore heels (there was too much walking around involved). Most guys wore nice collared shirts, sweaters, blazers, and khakis/slacks, but I rarely saw full suits. My style was a little funkier during this season - I was proud of the fact that I had thrifted all of my interview outfits! I typically wore a nice button-down shirt (I had a thing for patterned vintage silks) tucked into a pair of jeans or slacks with loafers or sneakers.
What to bring
I brought a small notebook just to jot down stuff during or between interviews, or in case I needed to draw stuff to explain something (but most PI’s offices had whiteboards), and a bottle of water. But other than that, there was no need to bring anything, including printouts of figures/your laptop/your CV (they already have that anyway).
Structure of the Interview
You have ~30 minutes to shine and make a positive impression while also getting as much information as possible to help make your grad school decision.
Interviews are typically structured like this:
Tell me about you/your previous research:
▻ This is your research spiel—the same one that you wrote about in your personal statement. I found that at best, a PI might have glanced at your application/PS, but likely did not remember any details. In any regard, it helps them to hear about your previous research experience firsthand. They might interject and ask you about some details if they know your subfield well, or ask you about your individual contribution to the work if they’re less familiar with the details. PIs want to see that you are knowledgeable about what you have done and that you understand how your work fits into the bigger picture.
What do you want to work on in grad school? Or what’s an example of a experiment you’d like to run?:
▻ The goal isn’t to make you commit to a topic–PIs know that research interests change over time; rather, they want to see if you can think creatively (asking you to explain an experiment you could run), and also to see if you/your research interests would be a good fit in their program/school. It wouldn’t make sense to admit you if the research topic you are interested in is not being investigated by anyone at that school, so they want to make sure you’re not attending the wrong program either.
I’ll tell you about my lab/research:
▻ Make sure you give your interviewer time to talk, too! Just like you enjoy talking about your science, PIs LOVE talking about what they do. Especially if you’re interested in their lab, this is often a very
important and telling part of the interview.
▻ Don’t just passively listen—this is a great time to interject, ask questions about their research, and get a sense of what they’re excited about. If you’re not so interested in the lab for your thesis, or the PI works on a very different topic than what you have experience with, keep an open mind and take this opportunity to learn about really cool science from a very cool researcher. And keep in mind that that’s still an opportunity to be inquisitive and eager—traits of a “good” grad student.
Do you have any questions about the program/school/etc.?
▻ As the interview wraps up, the PI will likely ask if they can answer any questions from you. This is your opportunity to ask the questions that will really help you figure out if you want to attend that school over another. This will largely depend on what you consider as important factors for choosing a school, and will vary from person to person.
▻ What’s important to you? Here are some example questions:
What’s the culture of the department/students?
What does a rotation in your lab look like? How do you decide with the student what they
will work on?
How long does it usually take students to graduate from your lab?
How often do you meet with students?
How often are students co-mentored?
In your opinion, what is most important thing to get out of graduate school? What is your training
Other Interview Tips
▻ How many of a PI’s papers should I read before interviews?
If you’re really excited about a lab, feel free to read papers! However, you definitely don’t
▻ If you don’t know the answer to a scientific question, just admit it! Don’t make something up. It’s a strength to be able to admit you don’t know something.
▻ Do not, under any circumstances, badmouth a subfield of science, other schools, or any PIs. Even if a certain technique is not your favorite, all avenues of scientific inquiry have value to a field. In terms of specific PIs, it is poor professional etiquette to gossip in this way - don’t do it!
▻ If an interviewer asks, it’s totally okay to talk about what other schools you’ve applied to, but never hint that another school is your top choice. Every school should feel like they’re a top choice for you.
To conclude... Interviews take a long time (the entire Spring semester, basically), and are quite emotionally and physically taxing. But they can also be incredibly rewarding, as it’s a chance to meet some of your future peers and mentors, and to be treated to great food and drink. Enjoy yourself, and feel
privileged that you get to be extravagantly courted by all these schools!
I’ve found that it really helps to jot down your gut feelings about the school after the interview weekend. Recount what you liked/disliked about each place, so that you can use these thoughts later when choosing where to attend. I am a verbal processor, so I also benefitted greatly from talking at length about the interviews with my friends.