How to Nail Your Grad School Interview
In this blog post, GradMAP co-founder and mentor Weaverly Lee enumerates her personal tips for doing grad school interviews based on her experience of applying to Stanford University in the US.
General structure of interview weekend
Interview invites are usually sent out between 3 weeks to 1 month following the submission of your paper applications. Some schools will send out all their invites at the same time, but others will do it in batches. Gradcafe is a useful resource for interview schedules/ admissions results. Some PhD programs will invite you to interview in person on their campus, but this is less often the case for international students.
For US schools, interview weekends usually last 3-4 days long. Once you receive an invitation to interview, you are often allowed to suggest names of faculty you would like to interview with. I personally had 8 faculty interviews (split into two days), each approximately 30 mins long. Between faculty interviews, I spoke with current students, watched lightning talks, participated in social events (game nights, yoga, etc).
You will receive a list of faculty a few days before your interview. Do your homework and learn who they are:
Check their website and find out what they work on. I read the abstracts of their latest papers and prepared a 2-3 sentence summary of what they worked on. I don’t think it is necessary to fully read their papers.
Prepare questions you might want to ask them. Questions can be research related, but also program-related. I personally also prepared questions about my own project, specific to my faculty interviewers. Ex. If faculty X specializes in non-coding DNA, I’d ask what he/ she thought about a specific non-coding sequence, relevant to the disease I studied.
Interviews typically last 30 mins. The first 15-20 mins are usually spent talking about yourself, previous research experience, why you want to go to grad school, and what you want to achieve there. Prepare an elevator pitch for this (more on this later). The last 10 mins are usually used by the professor to talk about the ongoing projects in their lab. Try to engage in the conversation about their research (it’s ok to say you don’t know or understand).
Before the interview ends, professors will often ask you if you have any other questions for them about their labs/ program. Remember that as much as you are being interviewed by them, you are also checking to see if the faculty and program are good fits for you! So don’t be afraid to ask hard hitting questions about the program.
The Elevator Pitch
You will almost always be asked to give an elevator pitch of you (as a person) and your research project, so definitely have this already prepared and ready to go.
Do not assume that your interviewers are experts in your field; explain everything thoroughly, eliminate jargon, and focus on the big picture questions. There’s no need to focus on technical details; your interviewers can follow up on those with questions if they are interested.
How I structured my elevator pitch:
I’m from the Philippines, where I did my undergrad in (degree program).
As an undergrad, I became very interested in (topic) because of XYZ. This led me to work on (research project). Brief summary of research project (research question, results, challenges/ limitations of study, outstanding questions).
If you have more than one research project, describe your research experience in chronological order, always explaining what led you from point A to point B.
Spend the most time discussing your main research project, and always focus on the WHY’s (WHY did you pursue the project, WHY was the study important, WHY did you do A vs B, etc…). No need to focus on the technical details unless your interviewer asks you to.
What’s your next step? If you had all the money in the world, what would you do next? This is a really good opportunity to show off your creativity. None of my faculty interviewers asked me this question, but I brought it up anyway. (“Actually, I was thinking about doing XYZ and was wondering what your thoughts are on it…”). My interviewer later told me that he really enjoyed this and liked the way I thought!
Be forthcoming about the limitations of your project. Use this as an opportunity to show that you can think critically & come up with alternative methods.
Keep your elevator pitch as brief as possible. Remember, your goal is to start a conversation, not a lecture.
Draft your elevator pitch on paper and practice out loud, in front of a mirror or with friends/ family.
Try to arrange your workspace so that you have a neutral/ non-distracting background.
Be present during interviews. Don’t google while talking. Turn off all notifications.
Make sure your laptop is fully charged.
If you are planning to share screen/ slides, practice this beforehand.
Wear a professional attire (I don’t think business formal is necessary, I just wore a plain black shirt + black jeans)
Use the mute button when appropriate (in a group zoom, when interviewer is speaking for long periods, etc)
Zoom interviews are becoming more common in the backdrop of the current pandemic
Commonly Asked Questions
Here is a list of questions commonly asked to grad school applicants:
How did you get into science?
Why do you want to go to graduate school?
What kind of research are you interested in pursuing in graduate school?
What excites you most about research?
Tell me about your favorite undergraduate class.
Tell me about a paper or talk you found interesting, unrelated to your own research.
Ability to deal with challenges/ failure:
What have you found most challenging about research
Describe a challenging experiment or failure you had in science
Tell me about an outreach program you’ve been involved in.
Tell me about a time you were a teacher or mentor.
What do you see yourself doing after graduate school?
Review your personal statement & CV. Many faculty members will only glance at your materials briefly prior to your interview. Don’t assume they know the ins and outs of your application materials, but at the same time, be prepared to be able to talk about any of the things you’ve written about. I had one professor who asked me about a very small outreach experience I included in my CV!
Be prepared to talk about non-science topics. They want to get to know you outside of science! In some of my interviews, I had fun conversations about sci-comm, outreach, and other life experiences.
Conversations with students/ social activities. Students aren’t there to grill you and see how smart you are BUT in some cases, they do have a say in admissions. Don’t say or do anything stupid, even if you’re in a social setting with no faculty around.
Don’t be arrogant. Take ownership of your work, but give credit where credit is due. Praise the team of researchers that helped you get there.
Weaverly Colleen Lee is a PhD student in Biology at Stanford University. Prior to this, she was a research assistant at University College London, where she engineered knock-in and humanized mouse models of the Filipino disease X-linked dystonia-parkinsonism. As an advocate for increased Filipino representation in STEM, she co-founded GradMAP in 2020.