(Made rebloggable by request)
Joe’s Tips on Grad School Interviews … for the Natural Sciences
Hi Joe! I’ve been following your blog for a while now and I really enjoy all of your posts. I actually had a couple of questions regarding grad school since I have a couple of interviews scheduled in February. How would you prepare for an interview? Up until now I have only read a couple of papers from professors whose research I am interested in, but other than that I don’t really know what to expect. Also, what influenced your decision to go to the school you are in now? Thanks! Elizabeth
Funny you mention grad school interviews. Blog’s been a little quiet today because we are hosting one of our recruitment weekends here in Austin! So anyone applying here can come drink with me. There are no hard and fast rules for grad school interviews. I can only tell you what I tell our own recruits, and you should take it with a grain of salt, because I am only one opinion:
- Your recruiting visit is not a comprehensive examination of your scientific knowledge. If someone turns it into one, then that person is having a bad day, or is a real hardass. They know your grades, your GRE scores and your experience, and they have an idea of your abilities already. In a sense, they have a big “file” on you. They want to see curiosity, signs that you are aware of what differentiates fields (like knowing the value of a developmental lab vs a biochemistry lab), and a willingness to ask questions and pick up on the answers. I mean, they invited you there and are spending money to entertain you. Clearly they are interested.
- When you’re meeting with faculty: It’s good to have a general idea of what they work on, but if you only interview with people you completely and totally understand, you can lose out on great opportunities in fields you haven’t been exposed to. Not to mention that even if you think you know everything about someone’s work, you really have no idea. You’re a n00b. So know in general what they do, but you don’t have to know their whole body of work.
- ASK THEM STUFF! Faculty love to talk about themselves (it’s a rule), so I would often lead interviews with stuff like “I’ve never worked with _________, but I am interested in how you are applying them to __________. Can you tell me more about where your lab is going?” That will take half the interview right there. You can also ask them about non-science stuff, to prove you are a complete human being and not a science cyborg. I talked about football for an entire interview once.
- You will run into people that come into grad school interviews saying “I am going to interview with X, Y and Z and I am going to work on this or that. Period.” These people are either rare geniuses (probably not) or they are afraid to think outside the box. Before grad school, chances are you havent really been that exposed to many subjects. So open your mind. Don’t be afraid to say “I want to try several fields, there’s so much opportunity out there.”
- Don’t say things like “I’m really interested in cancer”, because that is a meaningless statement. Say things like “I am really interested in how viruses can cause cancer and how the immune system fights them.”
- Talk to as many current students as possible. Find out what stipends are like, how often most of them TA, what insurance benefits are like, what average graduation times are, if there are any profs to avoid, how much does it cost to live there, are people social, are there programs to develop skills beyond the lab (presentations, writing, business), what do people do for fun? If “stipend” and “benefits” bring up confused looks, run away and do something else.
Imagine shopping for graduate school like shopping for a mail-order bride. Because you’re gonna be married to it for years, and you want to knoweverything that you’re getting into.
You don’t have to know all the answers on a visit, just prove that you are willing to find them out.
Lastly, a disclaimer: Remember that I do not have my PhD yet (but will soon) and I have not published in Science or Nature. I’m just a guy who talks about science on the internet.