Interviewing Tips & Advice for
STEM Graduate Programs

by Catherine Amaya & Daisy Duan


First, we want to congratulate you all for advancing to the interviewing stage of the Ph.D. application process! Getting this far into the Ph.D. application process is a huge accomplishment, and you are 75% of the way there (yes we really do mean 75%). The remaining 25% of your journey is demonstrating to the faculty members and current graduate students at the school(s) you will be visiting that you are a dedicated scientist and you are passionate about scientific inquiry.
 
Note: This is written for STEM programs structured with rotations, when you apply to a program before committing to a research lab. This applies to most programs in the biological sciences but may differ in other fields.

You can also find some additional tips in our blog post, "How to Ace Your Graduate School Interview: Communicating Your Research Competently and Confidently".

Shortcut Links to Contents

Preparation in the weeks leading up to visitation weekend

Questions you might be asked by faculty

Question you can consider asking the faculty / graduate students

Video meeting etiquette tips

Interview attire

Finance topics  (only applicable to in person interviews)

Preparation in the weeks before

  1. Prior to your visitation weekend, the program administrator(s) would have likely contacted you via email for your list of faculty members you most wish to meet. If you haven’t received this email, do expect one in your inbox soon! This is a list that can vary in length, typically of 5 to 10 professors.  For the 5 to 10 professors you list, try to look into what their lab focuses on and list the ones you really are most interested in meeting. You can typically go on their Google Scholar page for their list of most recent publications. Lab websites are not always up-to-date, though they recapitulate a majority of the research questions the labs are currently tackling or have tackled in the past and it is a good idea to browse their website to get the big picture idea of what the lab studies. We recommend listing more than 5 professors - if some on your list are not available, you may end up being paired with someone else in the department who's work you may be less comfortable discussing.
     

  2. Keep in mind that although the administrators will do their best to make sure you meet with professors you are interested in, you will not get to meet them all and will likely interview with professors not on your list. Do not take this as professors not wanting to meet you. The program administrators are doing the best job they can in providing you with as many interviews as possible, and they have many schedules to coordinate. Many professors might have prior commitments, such as other conflicting meetings, teaching classes, or traveling!
     

  3. Do not worry about knowing every scientific discovery these professors have made. The faculty will tell you all about their research during your 1-on-1 interviews, but do browse their lab pages to get more comfortable hearing about topics outside your main field. If you go through research articles, it's best to focus on the most recent ones - and don't worry about understanding all the technical details (sometimes reading the abstract and/or introduction/discussion is enough to give you a good idea of what the paper is about). Please note that although some programs may provide your interview day schedule 2 weeks ahead of time, some may not provide this until a day or two before your interview. In this case, really do not worry about knowing much about their research.
     

  4. Meetings will usually last 30-45 minutes. Although having more than one student meet with a faculty member at the same time is uncommon, it does happen. The first few minutes will be focused on introductions to ease you into a conversation, at which point the professor may begin to ask questions. Please note that a faculty member may need to cancel your interview due to unforeseen emergencies, e.g. last minute meetings, being stuck in traffic, family emergencies, etc. Be ready to mentally accommodate such possibilities. In such cases, you will likely be interviewed by an available faculty member or a faculty member from another departmental affiliation whose research interests do not lie within your STEM discipline. For these reasons, you will need to be able to explain your current, most relevant research project concisely and effectively as to help faculty who may not be familiar with your project understand! In rare cases, it is possible you may be interviewed by a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow in the lab of the professor you were interested in meeting. 
     

  5. It is ok to have a small notepad and pen with you so you can take notes between interviews to remember what you discussed with each professor. 
     

  6. It is helpful to have friends ask you questions so you can practice mock-interviews. It’s not a skill practiced very often so any help you get is great! This will help boost your confidence when you do come face-to-face with faculty during interview weekend.

In the days leading up to the visitation weekend: Our best advice for you is to relax. Remember that this weekend will mainly be faculty members trying to impress YOU with all the perks of the program in hopes that you will matriculate if an offer is extended! The visits will be filled with poster presentations, faculty talks, and exciting casual conversations about their science, your science at the current institution you are at, and potential science topics you might be considering in pursuing. Once again, we want to congratulate you for getting to the next stage of the Ph.D. application process.

Questions you might be asked by Faculty

​Read through our following list of potential questions faculty may ask and think of potential answers. If you can, practice speaking your answers out loud with your lab mates, your PI, your peers in science, and friends you know who are currently in Ph.D. programs who may be more seasoned to ask you challenging questions.​
 

  • “Tell me about your research.”

    • Have a 3-5 min explanation that hits your project aim and conclusions in a concise manner. 

    • Be ready to elaborate on details when asked about methodos you used and reasons as to why you were interested in tackling the research topic. 

    • If you graduated from college a few years ago but wrote about your undergraduate research in your Statement of Purpose, review your research and be ready to talk about this, too, as the professor might have your statement as well as resume/C.V. on hand
       

  • ”What was a difficulty you faced in any of the research experiences you have pursued, and how did you overcome it?”

    • Be prepared to elaborate on a single, but significant, struggle that is illustrative of your resilience. 

    • This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your persistence in science and an opportunity to help steer the conversation towards being more “human”.

    • Earning a PhD requires 95% persistence, 5% intelligence. Demonstrating to your interviewers that you have struggled and you overcame these struggles upon elaboration of the process reflect on your strong character as a scientist.
       

  • “How would you continue your current research project?”

    • Think of one or two follow up experiments or expected conclusions from your current research.

    • Perhaps even propose an alternative experiment that may elucidate questions that have been left unanswered or cannot be answered by current experimental tools. This demonstrates that you are thinking creatively and scientifically, always strategizing as you are keeping in mind, “What next?” 
       

  • The faculty may present a current small problem they are working on in their lab, and ask you what you might do to approach this problem.

    • This may be an intimidating question to anticipate, but they just want to see that you were able to follow what they were saying and/or capable of coming up with independent ideas of your own

    • Ask clarifying questions that restates what they told you e.g. “If I understand correctly, you said…” and use whatever tools you know, e.g. western blotting, immunoprecipitation, and structure solving, to propose example experiments.
       

  • “What would you do if you weren’t pursuing a PhD?”

    • This is a more infrequent question, but can be expected. Be perfectly honest, even if it’s going to cooking school! You might find a common hobby with the professor and cooking school uses very similar skills in a different way, organization, learning quickly, creatively using the skills you’ve learned to move the field forward.
       

  • “What do you hope to do after graduate school?”

    • This is an important question for the faculty to understand what your goals are post-graduation and that you are committed to the journey of a PhD. 

    • It is not a trick question, rather, it gives the faculty an idea what your long-term career goals are, e.g. becoming a faculty yourself or a STEM educator at a science museum so that you are able to inspire next-generation scientists about what higher education looks like!
       

  • “How did you choose the lab you work in?”

    • Refrain from making your responses come across as blissful accidents, nor too purposeful. 

    • Here is an example of a scenario: During your freshman spring semester, your biology professor expressed he/she has an opening in the lab for the summer. You were at his/her office hours when you found out. Upon asking you if you wanted to pursue the research position, you said yes, so that you can gain research skills over the summer due to desperation from not hearing back from any other summer program — this is a case that is not compelling nor exciting. 

    • Telling the story that demonstrates you are a decision maker is much more compelling because graduate programs seek students who will make autonomous decisions based on the skills they are trying to hone or are passionate to pick up. Responses such as, “I thought organic chemistry was really engaging my sophomore year. After learning some basic mechanisms, I wondered how much bigger the world of possible mechanisms were. I asked my professor after class if there were any summer positions available where I could learn more. Since that summer, my interests in Chemistry have grown, I get to answer my own questions with research and generate new questions in the process”.

    • This presents a confident version of your story that still holds truth. Take caution from getting too grandiose!
       

  • “What research are you interested in?”

    • Faculty are not probing to see if you want to join their lab. Rather, they want to know if you have an idea of what you’re looking to study in graduate school.

    • Refrain from saying you are open to studying anything. This is a red flag because it shows lack of specific interest Every institution has a plethora of amazing labs, but it’s important to show you’re interested in some field. For example: “I really am excited about the cytoskeleton. I could imagine studying how it organizes organelles on the cell level or differentiates neurons on the tissue level” or “I am committed to solving protein structures. I think structural biology is the key to understanding molecular mechanisms.

Question you can ASK faculty / graduate students

 
 

Prepare questions that you want to ask the faculty or graduate students. After the professor has asked you some questions, they will most likely ask if you have any questions. Here are some questions that may be helpful in deciding which grad school is best for you.

Check out this useful infographic with more questions to ask potential advisors!

  • “You mentioned [insert assay here] in order to address [insert research topic here]. How did you decide to use this approach to solve [insert current relevant research topic/problem]?”

    • This question would be a great follow-up to ask the PI throughout his/her research talk. 

    • Not only will this give you clarity how the professor remains engaged with current methodologies, this demonstrates you were attentive and thoughtful throughout his/her research talk. Remaining engaged means not just listening, but showing your interviewer you are able to think scientifically about his/her work.

  • “What are ongoing projects in your lab? What are future directions you see your research program going?"

    • Remember, depending on the field, the publication cycle can take a long time from the conception of a research project to its publication -- so chances are there's lots going on in the lab that you wouldn't have a way to know a whole lot about!

    • Gauging where a faculty member might want to steer their projects going forward is also a great tip to which direction your project would go if you were to join.
       

  • “What are some career-oriented opportunities this program offers to its graduate students? Where do students who graduate from this program generally go next?” 

    • This may come across a bit vague, but this open-ended question will give the faculty the opportunity to interpret this and answer it the way they perceive the program. 

    • Their response will give you a good idea of where successful Ph.D. graduates have gone off to upon graduation: 

      • Universities where they were offered professorship and eventually received tenure, leading their own research groups

      • Biotechnology/pharmaceutical industry

      • Healthcare consulting

    • A lot of strong graduate programs will have reputable training grants, curricula, facilities, as well as financial resources devoted to the success of their students -- this is useful information you can grab from your interviewer! You want to have a good understanding of how you can be well supported by current students and faculty at the institution.
       

  • “How do you mentor your students?” 

    • Different PIs take different approaches to mentorship: they might be very “hands-on” and want to see you every week one-on-one or they might be very hands off and only give one-on-one time every six months. 

    • It’s fruitful to know beforehand what the mentor expects of you, especially if you know you prefer one situation over another.

    • If they have a larger lab and are more “hands-off” adopting a laissez-faire approach, would they pair you up to a Postdoctoral Fellow? These are inferences you want to make confidentially from their responses to this question. As much research experience as you’ve had may not fully prepare you for jumping into a PhD project alone, it is important to know you’ll have support around you.
       

  • “What made you decide to become faculty here?” 

    • Just as you are deciphering what factors are compelling and not, the faculty likewise were in the same shoes, deciding whether or not they would pursue a teaching position at the same institution. 

    • As it is important to understand what the experiences for current graduate students are like, it is likewise important to understand what the impressions of the faculty were like coming into the school. You may even find out that you both have overlapping interests and the conversation can go from there!
       

  • “What are your favorite features of this program?”

    • This may give you a broader insight into how the faculty feel about the program, and why they remain part of it.

    • Avoid asking about the strengths and weaknesses of the program, which may come off as a pointed question. 
       

  • “Do you think [insert city/town name here] is a good place to be for a PhD?” Or “What are some of the highlights of living in [insert city/town name here]?”

    • Location plays a significant role in your PhD experience more so than what people may expect.

    • You will be living in this new place for 5-6 years, and should also want to live there. Asking the faculty their opinions of the city is a good way to hear about some highlights of the environment you may be immersing yourself in.
       

  • “Do you have any advice on how to choose a lab?"

    • The lab you join and the research you conduct will have a greater impact on your PhD journey than the program you enter through. Interviews are a rare chance to get candid advice from faculty on how to tackle this responsibility before you are enrolled in a program.
       

  • “What is the post-doc to PhD student ratio in the department? What about the ratio of graduate to undergraduate students?"

    • This may be tricky since faculty tend to have associations with more than one department.
      The ratios will change from lab to lab, but if they have a sense in their main department of post-doc to PhD ratio, it will provide insight as to whether people actively join the department to continue their scientific passions. 

    • The PhD to undergrad ratio is important if you are interested in mentoring younger scientists. If there are many undergrads working in labs, then you will most likely have the opportunity to mentor someone. 
       

  • “Is there any advice you would give to a first-year graduate student?”

    • Professors may have some insight into career development you might be interested in. 

    • They may tell you something surprising! Every professor has a different path into academia, so this question may result in a diversity of answers.
       

  • “Are you still actively conducting experiments alongside people in your lab?”

    • Yes, it is not a myth that some tenured faculty still walk into a lab to clone something because they think it’s fun! 
      If they don’t (which is most likely the scenario unless they are junior faculty), they may just take this as humor and appreciate the opportunity to think about the possibility.

       

 

video meeting etiquette TIPS

This year, we expect the vast majority of interviews and visiting weekends will be taking place virtually. Therefore, we are including some general tips on virtual conference etiquette.
 

  1. Pick a blank or neutral space as your background. It is important to think about what the person talking to you will see, so we suggest trying to make sure there is a blank wall behind you or something neutral like bookshelves. We know it can be hard to find such a space if living in a small space, so one common solution is to hang a neutral colored sheet on the wall so that it looks like a blank wall. 
     

  2. Check your audio/ sound / internet connection. Zoom is prone to failures like any software unfortunately. Test your best audio setup a few days before. Do you need to use a headset for the person on the other side to best hear you? Do you need to set the volume or mic levels on your computer at certain levels to be clearly heard? This is important to check as you will not be able to tell how well the person can hear you without directly asking. Try to get a friend to Zoom with you to find the best settings. If on a campus with a possible ethernet connection, you may want to find out if your library or IT department can lone you an ethernet cable for a fail safe internet connection. 
     

  3. Nonverbal behavior/ Posture and Position: Sitting in front of a laptop for several hours is not the most fun process and we’re sorry you will have to go through this, but this is why it is important to make sure you have a comfortable set up ahead of time. Pick your comfy chair or pillow that will best provide you with the support you need for multiple Zoom meetings. This is because it will be really tempting to start slouching over time as we get tired. It is important to try to maintain proper posture to best portray your interest in speaking to the person. Since all they will see of you is generally your face and shoulders, your posture will be an obvious nonverbal behavior of your interest in speaking to them. Try to sit up straight as much as possible. 
     

  4. Proximity/ Facial expressions: You do want to test how close you should be to your laptop/ computer to fit your profile into the frame. You want your laptop camera to be placed such that when you look at the camera, you are looking at it at eye level so the other person feels like you are “looking” at them. We can’t control where the camera is placed on our laptop, so we can adjust the level our laptop is placed at to make this more natural. One easy solution is to stack your laptop on a few books until you have the desired height. Also, be aware of your facial expressions. It is easy for our eyes to glaze over after multiple Zoom meetings, so try to keep a drink or snack nearby to keep your energy up between meetings. 
     

  5. Physical appearance: It is still important to show up looking like you're going to a job interview just to show that you are excited and interested in the program. Zoom can adjust to lighting in strange ways so also test what you look like with the lights in the room you will be in for these meetings such that your face is visible and not in shadow. If you have any lights behind you, those will likely cause shadows to form on your face so try to avoid this if possible. Since the interviewer will only see your shoulder and face, try to pick a top you feel comfortable and confident in, but still helps you look professional on screen. A nice sweater or top and cardigan, for example, are one way to go. 
     

  6. Powerpoint slides. Since you will be virtually connected, some people have suggested preparing one research summary powerpoint slide that you can share on your screen to more easily enable you to explain your research when asked.
     

  7. Graduate school materials. The faculty will be able to have your graduate school materials, like your statements, next to them. You should also print a copy for yourself for the respective schools so you can know what they are also referring to in your statements if something about your statement comes up. 
     

  8. Group interviews are still possible. You may have one or two other interviewees in your Zoom group. Hopefully the faculty will help navigate this, but as it will be harder to understand nonverbal cues from the other interviewees, try to be conscious of how long each person gets to speak so that you get to speak but also let the others speak.

 

Tips on interview attirE

  1. Prepare at least 2 interview outfits! Put together one professional outfit that you feel comfortable and confident interviewing with. But as we understand interviews occur in the months of January - February 2020, this means there may be unexpected weather conditions, so always remember to bring layers and appropriate shoes. The administrator coordinating the visitation weekend will likely send out an email about drastic weather conditions and alert you to bring what would be appropriate to wear.
     

  2. Your interview outfit should be business attire, a nice blouse/collared shirt/ sweater and pants are appropriate.
    Here is a breakdown of your visiting weekend, which typically lasts 2-3 days:

     

    • You will likely arrive towards the evening on the first day and have dinner with current graduate students. Though they will say it is not a formal interview and dinner will indeed be casual, they are still assessing how you are getting along with your potential cohort mates (other interviewees) and with the current PhD students. Wear whatever you like on this day as they know you have traveled a long way to get there!
       

    • The second day will be interview day which will be a long day of research talks, poster sessions, and a whole lot of science! It will end with a big dinner with both faculty and graduate students, when you get to relax. This is also a chance for you to see what the relationship between faculty and graduate students are like, and what type of friendly teaching environment the program fosters. 
       

    • The third day will be a very casual day filled with fun activities. It will involve campus and housing tours, optional activities, meeting more graduate students, etc., so wear anything you feel comfortable in. 

 

finance-related topics

This section is applicable when in person meetings were happening. 

Visitation Weekend Expenses and Budgeting: You will not be paying for your meals or hotel during your visitation weekend. Hotel and meal expenses will all be paid for by the program, but you should be aware of potential expenses and budgeting requirements.

 

  1. Programs may ask that you book your own flight of a set maximum cost and in the weeks following your interview weekend, the administrator(s) will reimburse you. Some schools may be in a better position to reimburse more than the allowed cost, but it is important to ask the program administrator about the policy for such situations before you have bought your flight so you can budget appropriately. Though all your hotel and flight expenses will be reimbursed, we caution that you take these into account as some programs may take up to two months to reimburse you, which will be a burden if you have other financial responsibilities. 
     

  2. You may have to bring a credit card as the hotels that you stay for recruitment weekend may need to put your card down in case there are incidentals. There are rare instances in which you may be preemptively charged for incidentals with a cost of $200-300 and reimbursed a couple of weeks later, keep this in mind as you begin to save for your travels.
     

  3. You may also encounter other unexpected transportation and other lodging expenses, especially due to unpredictable weather in the northeast, so it is best to save some extra money and have some peace of mind should you need to cover any extra meals or costs. Additional lodging costs will be covered by the university you are at in case of weather delays, but make sure to ask about meal costs. 
     

  4. For international applicants, interviews will take place virtually through Zoom or Skype rather than in person unless you happen to be working or studying in the U.S. already. 

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