February 3, 2020 –
I recall interviewing for graduate school with great and horrible clarity. I flew onto university campuses the night before, often ogling the beautiful campus scenery, while at the same time not being fully able to enjoy the experience due to crushing. waves. of. anxiety. Instead of getting rest before my interviews, I stayed up all night out of pure fear, then joined the prospective applicants in the lobby the next morning with a casual air of fake nonchalance. Oh yeah, my teeth are totally chattering due to the freezing California weather (?).
But I made it in! I received notices of acceptance a couple days after interview weekends, so apparently my preparation methods, fear-induced or not, really paid off.
- A confident persona (I called mine “Confidence Yang”). If you naturally sport one of these, you can just be yourself.
- A small notebook that can fit into your palm and in the pocket of your dress pants
- A paper towel or some other absorbent material to sop up sweaty palms.
Methods of preparation, in order of importance:
- Read over your written components, especially if it’s been a while since you wrote them. There’s a good chance the interviewing faculty member will reference your personal statement, so don’t be caught off-guard.
- Be able to talk about what you’ve contributed in your past research experiences, in the format Lab Background → Hypothesis → your experiments to test hypothesis → results → if you have a publication, mention that too. But keep it brief and smooth. You don’t want your interviewer’s eyes to glaze over, and you don’t want your nerves to get the better of you and then end up stumbling over explaining what you know best. This is especially important if your interviewer is in your area of expertise – he/she/they may want to “grill” a little, and it’s good to be prepared to answer questions.
- Be able to form a 2-3 sentence statement about your research interests, and try to craft a statement that is neither too specific (which limits you) nor too broad (makes it seem like you don’t know what you’re talking about). I struggled with this, so I ended up preparing 3-sentence-statements for two different fields. Ex. “I’m interested in mechanisms of X disease; especially in how _____ and ______ (develop, interact, etc).”
- If one of the people you’re interviewing with happens to be someone whom you hope will be your future principal investigator, make sure you tailor your statement from (3) to active areas of research in the lab.
- You will usually get a list of faculty members you will be interviewing a day beforehand. Visit the faculty members’ lab pages in great detail to learn what the current active research projects are, and if you have time, read the most recent paper published in the lab. Generate 3-5 specific questions (but the more, the better) about that faculty member’s research and write them down in the mini notebook. Some good questions usually start with “I noticed on your lab page that you’re studying X, Y, and Z. Have you ever looked at or considered ____?” You can also ask specific questions about the experimental methods they use, ex. “In what contexts would you gavage mice instead of cohousing mice for fecal microbiota transplants?”
- Generate a list of “generic questions”, such as “I noticed your lab does a lot of (insert type) work. Are new lab members expected to have (insert type) skills already developed, or do they develop them as they go?” “Will you be accepting rotation students this fall?” “What’s the lab culture like? Does each lab member have their own project?” “I saw that you’re doing work in X, what are some ongoing research projects?” and write these questions down in your notebook.
The morning of the interview, spend some time memorizing all the questions you wrote down (I had to do this, because nervous wreck me has no thoughts going on inside her head, and conversations won’t happen organically when I’m super nervous). I called these questions my “S.O.S. list” (specific) and the “Backup S.O.S.” (generic) list, which I would casually pull out when the conversation reached a lull. In one or two interviews I didn’t use these questions at all. I relied on some of these questions for most interviews. And in one interview, the faculty member asked me at the start to spend the whole 30 min session asking HIM questions. Boy, was I glad I came prepared!
- Before you walk in the door, take a moment to calm down and dry off those palms. Flip your mini question notebook quickly so those questions you generated are fresh in your mind.
- Walk in with your Confident Persona on, shake hands, introduce yourself, and make some comment about the campus.
- Try to treat the interview like you’re having a conversation with someone.
- Thank the interviewer for the time and stand up. As you stand up, shake the interviewer’s hand one more time
Lastly, don’t forget to send a follow-up thank you email or letter not more than 1-2 days afterwards, to the interviewers and to the people who organized the interview weekend.
For those who are very anxious people like me, I hope this level of preparation helps with not being sabotaged by the Roaring Blank of Nothingness when getting nervous.
Best of luck,