Acing the Graduate School Interview

Aug. 30, 2017

When graduate programs invite you to campus for an interview, they are testing their hypothesis that you are a stellar candidate based on a positive review of your application. The campus visit gives you a chance to demonstrate your knowledge and scientific thought processes, and allows institutions to showcase their programs, current students, and surrounding attractions. Graduate programs make a sizeable investment to fund your travel, accommodations, food, and social outings because they believe that you will impress their faculty. Itineraries will often be full of exciting activities, but at some point you will meet with faculty to discuss your scientific aptitude. Preparing for these meetings takes a lot of effort on your part, so you should definitely plan ahead of time so that you can impress your interviewers.

Develop Your Elevator Pitch

Practice explaining your research experiences clearly and succinctly. Know and understand the methodology and explain the results and conclusions of any research you conducted prior to the interview. To organize and synthesize your thoughts, prepare a brief summary of your research experiences ahead of time and practice it as your "elevator pitch". To get started:

  • Cogently explain why your research is important.
  • Summarize key methods used and be sure you understand why these methods were employed. Interviewers will ask!
  • Summarize and interpret your results in the context of the problem/gap being addressed
  • Describe how your results lead to new testable hypotheses and future applications.

Familiarize and be Comfortable Discussing the Work of Others

It is important to be able to discuss research with faculty that may not directly work in the field of the applicant. Faculty interviewers assess your ability to think through a project, even one that you may not be working on! When you meet with faculty interviewers, pretend like you are interviewing to work in their lab. To prepare:

  • Familiarize yourself with this faculty member's research. Peruse the lab website, and read a recent review paper that came from the faculty member's research lab.  This will give you an idea of where the faculty member thinks a particular field is heading. You can also read abstracts of recent publications from that laboratory.
  • Imagine a project you would do in their lab that matches your own research interests and technical experience as much as possible. Discuss your experiment ideas with the interviewer, asking the interviewer for advice along the way. The interaction should be a structured thought process, but comfortably conversational. You may not present the most groundbreaking idea to them, but you will show them that you can discuss their research in a collegial manner. And that's what matters.

Prepare Questions for Each Faculty Interviewer Ahead of Time

Interviewers vary with how much they control the conversation. However, be prepared to fill any gaps with questions to show your continued enthusiasm! Some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Pick one of their papers and go through it ahead of time. Come up with questions about anything that you didn't understand.
  • Ask questions about dynamics of their laboratories, departments, or graduate school. How would a new student be expected to participate in various projects in the laboratory? Would you be working together with other people? Is there an opportunity for you to explore a common research project that you can branch off of for your own project? Is there a potential for a smaller project to turn into a Ph.D. thesis project? What are the risks associated with each project? What milestones are expected from all graduate students? What kinds of support and resources are available for the milestones in graduate school?

During your visit, you may find that your time is limited for interview preparation, so be sure to do most of your homework beforehand! Enjoy your trip and happy interviewing!

Author: Caleb McKinney

Caleb McKinney
Caleb McKinney is Assistant Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Training and Development for Biomedical Graduate Education at Georgetown University Medical Center.