Cracking the Ph.D. interview

As of last week I finished my interviews for Ph.D. programs in computational and systems biology, and felt it was a good time to share a bit of my newly minted wisdom on these topics. Though I’m not sure how many things I can say about interviews that you haven’t already heard, it won’t hurt to get some of the same information twice.  It is a really important process to apply for and decide upon a Ph.D. program, so the more informed you are the better it will be! Disclaimer: this advice is all my own and I do not claim any expertise in the Ph.D. interview process.

How I should have picked where to apply to Ph.D. programs. Image from http://www.phdcomics.com

If you aren’t familiar with this process, here is how it usually goes:

Thursday: You have dinner the night before your interviews with students and/or faculty. Be friendly and maybe use the time to find out about the program and the faculty you will be meeting the next day.

Friday: Get an introduction to the program and maybe hear a research talk from a current professor. Meet with between 4 to 6 current faculty members for about 30 minutes each. In the afternoon there may be more faculty research talks or a faculty or student poster session. Go out with the students at night for drinks at a bar or someone’s house. Be appropriate and remember that you are still being evaluated.

Saturday: Usually some optional fun activities to explore the city!

Make sure to ask some tough (but maybe more eloquently worded) questions to ask on your interviews. Image from http://www.molecular-biology.pomona.edu/gradschool/applicaton/app_process_interview.html

I have lots of advice that I wish that I had known at the start interviews, so here it is!

  1. My first piece of advice is that most of these interviews are (in most cases that I saw) more informational than evaluative. You should feel that each interview is in fact a wonderful sign that the program or department that invites you is excited about you and sees great potential for your future. Don’t doubt them – they’ve been doing this for longer than you have.
  2. See this as an incredible opportunity to talk to researchers working at the forefront of their field. You should always be prepared to talk about your research and have questions for the faculty about the program or their labs specifically, but think about other questions that you might want to ask. For example, one student I met on an interview weekend asked faculty for advice that someone in his position is too naïve to ask for. This is also a great question to ask graduate students and/or postdocs – they usually have more candid answers as well.
  3. For interdisciplinary programs, it is useful to know whether the faculty that you interview with are in one field or another (in my case computer science or biology) and to practice explaining your research across the aisle. Your primary evaluation is likely on how well you explain your research projects and I would argue the most successful way to do this is by knowing your audience and being able to assess what is interesting to them. If a researcher doesn’t buy the significance of your project because of a discipline barrier, it will most likely reflect poorly on you. Being able to really tailor your presentations is a great science skill not to be underestimated.
  4. Along the same line, learn how to gauge the interest of your listener. Overall I found that a little bit of flexibility in research interests and the ways of phrasing your questions/answers can make the interview flow more smoothly. This can (and most likely will) backfire if you try to fudge the truth or embellish. Just know that there are different types of professors and get a general feel for how to have the most effective conversations with them. Some will want to get a more of an in-depth understanding of your projects, while others are happy to just chat about the program, city, or their own research.
  5. Though this may not always work, see if you can find common ground between your interviewer and yourself or at the very least express interest in their research. If I had to do it over, I would try to ask if they had a project for someone with my background. Much like a job interview strategy of asking “if I had a desk where would I sit?” this allows the professor to picture you in their lab and almost always this will make them view you more favorably.
  6. Remember you are at the end of this process, you are looking for a program where you feel there are labs where there is a good fit in terms of research interest and lab culture. There were interviews where I didn’t click with the professor and I worried that I hadn’t “nailed the interview” but remember that these are mutual decisions. If a professor doesn’t like your answer to a question, it doesn’t mean your answer was wrong. I fell victim to this a few times, so don’t let it get you down! Not every interviewer is a good advisor match for you. This will very likely be obvious when it is the case.
  7. Don’t sell yourself short. You don’t know the person interviewing you or how much they know about your work. Make sure to have an elevator pitch handy where you talk about your projects with clarity and explain the big picture, what you did, and the results. Never suggest negatives about yourself unless prompted. I am terrible at this because I think a lot about what I do wrong. I thought this would be a positive because it means I am highly critical of myself, but it also means that you could be providing reasons to for a program to reject you. Interviewing season is no time to catch impostor syndrome. Remember likely most professors get to where they are by being pretty tough critics, but also acting as their own best advocates, so you should follow this model too.
  8. Some interviews will be all you talking about your research, some will be all you asking questions about the program, some will be all them talking about their research. Most will be a mixture of all of these. Be prepared to discuss all three of these things, and you should be fine!
If you see signs (literal or figurative) that many students are unhappy, run far away! Image from https://twentysevenandaphd.wordpress.com/2009/10/

Here are some numbers that give you a more quantitative idea of what the experience is like. “Times” refer to the number of times I was asked about something out of the approximately 35 interviews I had. If you are interested in my c.v., you can find a (somewhat old) copy on my website.

Number of interviews: 6

Total number of faculty interviews: ~35

Times I had to explain GRE scores: 1

Times I had to explain grades: 1

Times I had to explain classes: 3

Times I had to explain “why this program?”: 3

Times I was asked about my favorite paper: 1

Times I had to explain where else I was applying: ~40%

Times I was asked about publications: ~20%

Times it was all about what I wanted to know: 2

Times it was all about me: ~30%

Times it was all about the professor: 0

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