Repost: What are graduate school interviews like?

January 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Lots of people found this post from Jue Wang useful last year, so here it is again.  Comments welcome!

Jue Wang writes:

To help 2011 graduate school interviewees, I collected some advice from current Systems Biology graduate students.  Here are their thoughts:

“Relax, have fun, don’t try too hard to impress people, and don’t get drunk at Marc’s house!” [Marc is our Chair of Department]

“Feel free to interrupt a professor’s monologue with questions. Dress warmly. Don’t be scared if your first interviewer makes you perform calculations on the fly :p”

“Have a good ‘elevator pitch’ for any research you’ve done, so you can explain it clearly and quickly when asked. You won’t be asked to recall your entire thesis, coursework, etc.”

“Don’t get thrown off if it seems like the interviewer is quizzing you. They just want to see you talk through some science with them, and don’t expect you to know all the answers. Just be honest about what you don’t know, and they’ll probably help you along.”

Update: another tidbit someone sent me today: “You should interpret the interview invitation as ‘We love you on paper, we’d like to know whether we like you in person. Hey, we hope you like us, too!'”

To give the recruits a little context to these remarks, I’ll just add a basic description of the interview weekend as my murky, pre-grad-school memory has it: a sweet hotel room, a few hours of what seemed like shooting the breeze with faculty members, meeting lots of people who inexplicably seem really excited to talk to you, and free food and drink everywhere. Did I mention the free food and drink everywhere??

I realize some might feel a little nervous about the process, especially if you take the “interview” part to mean something akin to the med school or Wall-Street job interview process. In reality it’s much more laid back. I was fortunate/foolish enough not to have given this much thought, but my first interview was with a faculty who was much taller than I realized, and somehow I found this very intimidating. It didn’t help my nerves that someone told me he was in the middle of writing a grant proposal and hadn’t slept for 3 days, and he was slightly late so I had a good 10 minutes to just sit there and hope that if I said something stupid he’d be too tired to notice. As it turns out, neither my nervousness nor any evidence of his sleep deprivation lasted more than 2 minutes into the conversation, and we had a fascinating, sprawling discussion of his research and the things we were both interested in (with a slight bias toward the former). This is basically how most interviews go.

Some of my classmates had interviews in which they were asked specific scientific questions. This can be nerve-wracking, as at least a few of the G1’s can attest, but like my classmates mention above, it’s best to just take it in stride and talk through your answers. I’ve been told to avoid trying to seem like I know something I don’t, which is confusing advice because I can’t imagine many recruits who’d be consciously trying to mislead people in their interviews. My guess is that it can seem this way if you are not engaged in a conversation and just nod like a zombie, or if you gratuitously mention ideas and jargon out of fear. Another reason to sleep well the night before and have some kind of ‘elevator pitch’ for your past and future interests, so that you can speak plainly and concisely—and therefore seem genuinely interested—about science.

One other thing I remember is being impressed and therefore slightly intimidated by the other recruits. Maybe it’s a function of how diverse — and accomplished — Harvard SysBio’s recruitment base is, but it seemed like everyone was a star at something. Also, some recruits probably went to school in the area or even worked in the department during undergrad, so they sound like they’re already in grad school. These things are a net win though, because you end up having lots of great conversations (and some insider knowledge on the best places to get pizza and whatnot).

Finally I’ll reiterate the most important advice, at least for Boston, which is to dress warmly — the East coast is very cold in late January, and the weather is more unforgiving than any of your interviewers will be. Fortunately there will be plenty of chances to warm up with beer, food, and new friends during the whole experience, so enjoy it!

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