PhD Interview Weekend: A guide for aspiring scientists
By Michael Whaby
First of all, if you’re here because you’ve been invited to interview for a PhD program: Congratulations! If otherwise, then I hope to offer some useful information to any considering or currently applying to graduate school. Last year, I applied to five and was invited to interview for four different PhD programs—three were biomedical science programs; one was a systems biology program. Each interview weekend had its own little twists, but they all essentially contained the same events on the schedule.
I’m going to try to guide you through some of the inevitably awkward dinners and other social interactions that will likely take place during the interview weekends. I am also going to help you see into the future to imagine what the interactions with interviewers might be like. From my experience, there are definitely some mainstream topics to expect talking about with each interviewer. By the end, you should be supplied with an arsenal of general information about what to expect for the PhD interview weekend.
(The bottom of the page contains a General PhD Interview Weekend Itinerary. This is just one example of how an interview weekend can be structured.)
Talking through the awkward
During one interview weekend, after a morning introduction from the Dean, all of the faculty and students were gathered in one big room. After the faculty introduced themselves to the students, the students were to walk around the room and talk to those faculty members about their research. By far, this was the most awkward event that occurred during any of the interview weekends. The goal was to introduce yourself, talk quickly about research, then, finally, end the conversation and move on to the next faculty member. Kind of like researcher–student speed dating; more so just a really weird form of forced communication.
Traditionally, there are poster sessions held where students walk around and stop at posters that interest them—sometimes they even offer beer or wine to enjoy as you walk around and conversate with faculty members and current graduate students. In my opinion, the poster sessions are a much less awkward style of meeting faculty and talking about research. Also, if you’ve properly prepared for your application to that program, then you might even run into faculty whose research enticed you to apply there in the first place. Coming prepared and well-informed will make for easier, less awkward conversation.
Background information and curiosity will make for the best use of time during poster sessions. In fact, the background information will even help to boost curiosity should the topic at hand be of interest. Engage in conversation and ask questions about the research, the current students, past students, and the program itself. Remember, the interview is not just another assessment of your qualification-ness; you are also assessing if a particular program is the right fit. They want to make a good impression on you just as much as you want to for them. I denied offers from a few programs because I didn’t feel that they were good fits for me—even programs that were more “prestigious” than the one I finally chose. You ultimately should decide where you believe you will thrive.
The PhD interview weekends always include at least one faculty dinner. There is usually a dinner with current graduate students as well, but this is a rather less tense and more casual vibe than the faculty dinners. From my experience, the faculty dinners come in two flavors: they can be at a faculty member’s house...or somewhere else. If the faculty dinner with the interviewing students is at a faculty member’s house, odds are that the hosting faculty member is ballin’. The house will likely be beautiful (to me, at least). Great food, as well as beer and wine, were served at these house dinners. I’ve also attended faculty dinners in banquet halls or in a lobby with a lot of space; good food, beer and wine are also served in these settings.
Something about having a beer (or wine) really helped ease some tension and made the conversations with faculty feel more casual—especially if they were drinking too. During one interview weekend, I actually drank a whole pitcher of beer at a campus bar before leaving for the faculty dinner, where more beer was served (NOT recommended, but I actually did get into that program).
Bottom line, be yourself. You are a part of the interview weekend, which means you obviously have something in common with everyone there: a passion for science. And while the dinners might not be the best opportunity to talk about science, its a great time to gauge whether these are people that you want to learn science with and from for the next 4-6 (or 7) years of your life.
Interviews. The most stressful part of the whole weekend. Doing well in the interviews requires some homework beforehand. You will be informed of which faculty members you will be interviewed by sometime before the interview weekend. They try to match you with faculty that you have expressed interest in meeting, but this often doesn't happen. Regardless, before going into the interview, you need to know yourself and your interviewer. That sounds ridiculous right? Of course you know yourself. And how the hell are you supposed to know someone you've never met before? (If you read this post, then you would know!) Let me clarify:
You are going to be asked many questions about yourself. To name a few: Why do you want to pursue a PhD? (Read about why I chose to here.) Why did you apply to this program? What are your research interests? Tell me about your previous research. Why did you suck so bad freshman year of college? Why did you drop this class? It says here in your personal statement ________________, could you explain that further?
Basically, know how to back up all of the information that they have of you from your application. Be able to explain why you sucked freshman year, and what you did to get to where you are now. Be able to show in your GPA when you started to see the impact of your hard work or new behavior. You should even have stories in your mind for each topic you touched on in your personal statement. Also, know your CV.
Lastly, be able to think and talk scientifically. If you did research, make sure you know that research. Talk to your former research mentor if you think that you need help better preparing. I put emphasis on this, because one of my interviews did not go so well because I didn't know some of the science behind the research that I did well enough. I had only one interviewer formulate a hypothetical scientific scenario, where I was challenged with a genetics-related molecular biology question. Just have your scientific thinking cap on.
Know the interviewer
I remember telling one of the professors that I had in the Biomedical Master's Program at the University of Pittsburgh that I got my first interview invitation to a PhD program. The first thing he told me was, "know your interviewers' research focuses. At least read some abstracts." He couldn't have been more right.
The overwhelming majority of time during the interviews was spent talking about the interviewers' research—whether you want to or not. This is particularly challenging when the interviewer does research that is of little interest to you, but, if any, this would be a time to act interested. If you can walk into that interview with questions about the interviewer's research, you are off to a great start.
Lastly, know the interviewer's position and role(s) in the program, and ask them questions about the program, or research, or anything that you want to know. You might find that some of them aren't prepared with talking points to cover 30-45 minutes, so you being able to contribute to the conversation and knowing a bit about who you are talking to will really help you and them.
So, that's all I have for now. There are many other great sources out there. I'd recommend checking out some blog-style articles written in Nature or Science magazines. They always have good stories told from people with a wide variety of experiences.
General PhD Interview Weekend Itinerary
Day 1 (Thursday or Friday) – usually a day to meet people and get comfortable
12:00pm Arrive somewhere on campus or at hotel and get settled in.
1:00-6:00pm Orientation, seminars and poster session.
6:00-8:00pm Dinner with faculty and/or graduate students, with beer and wine.
Day 2 (Friday or Saturday) – usually interview day
8:30am A light breakfast with other students to have something to throw up after interviews.
9:30am-10:00am First interview.
10:15am-10:45am Second interview.
11:00am-11:30am Third interview.
11:45am-12:15pm Fourth interview?
12:30pm-1:00pm Fifth interview??
3:00pm-3:30pm Exit meeting.
4:00pm-6:30pm Relax back at the hotel, or wherever.
7:00pm-8:30pm Dinner with faculty and/or graduate students, with more beer and wine.
Day 3 (Saturday or Sunday) – usually a tour of the campus surroundings (“things to do here”)
9:30am-11:30am Tour of campus and the surrounding environment.
1:00pm You made it. Go home.
Good luck everyone! Hope this helped.