How to Ace Your Graduate School Interview: Communicating Your Research Competently and Confidently

It happened. You received an invitation to an interview weekend for a PhD program. You’re overjoyed, but also worried? You’ve never been to one before. The few grad students you’ve spoken to tell you, “Interviews aren’t stressful,” or “You’ll be fine, getting the interview is the hardest part!” That can’t be right; you’re still nervous. You’re worried you won’t be able to hold your own in the interview, that you’ll be grilled to no end in the confines of some tenure-track corner office, or that your passion and dedication to your science won’t come across to the admissions committee.


This article is for you. Here, we will outline how to become an adept communicator and present our tips for excelling in your graduate school interview through effective and confident conveyance of your research.


What are the characteristics of a good communicator?

While being able to spit jargon-heavy sentences is impressive and shows your knowledge of the field, its impact for most audiences usually ends there – unless you are able to demonstrate a deeper knowledge and mastery of your science. The goal of communication is not for you to impress people, but to effectively convey knowledge so your audience leaves with a better understanding of the topic. A good science communicator actively adapts to the audience and is able to convey complex ideas at many levels in a clear way. Improving communication skills is ongoing work, but with practice it will become easier and more comfortable.


Know your audience

In the interview, you will encounter different groups of people and it is important to adapt your conversational style to match each situation. Let’s talk about who these groups are and how communication with them throughout the interview experience may be different.


Faculty (and maybe ‘The One’ professor you’re hoping to work with)

This is perhaps the most intimidating of the groups you will come into contact with on interview weekend. Interactions with faculty can vary from formal (the actual interviews) to informal (a chat at lunch or dinner). While interview sessions are arguably the most important part of your recruitment process, you might find yourself discussing your science with professors outside of the interview as well. If you are given a list of interviewers ahead of time, research them and check out their publications and lab websites. This will give you an idea of the research questions they are interested in and the methods they use. Additionally, it will give you a feel for their base of knowledge/scientific background so you can determine the scope of your communication. Most faculty enjoy being asked questions about their own work, so bonus points if you have a few questions ready for them about their research (e.g. their broad research question or use of techniques/models, etc.).


Current graduate students

These are your future classmates and peers. Be ready to quickly discuss your research with them, as most interactions with them will be informal (e.g. during meals and activities). While these are great opportunities to discuss your research, conversations with current students can also be incredibly informative. These current graduate students are here to help and provide you with invaluable insider information about the school, graduate program, and individual labs. Feel free to ask them about their pre-graduate experience, current research, and life as a graduate student. During the interview, you are also examining the school to get a sense of the program’s strengths, weaknesses, and overall atmosphere to determine if it will be a good fit for you.


Fellow interviewees

Just like you, they are excited and nervous to be here. Some people have been waiting for months, or even years, for this opportunity! You will see them a lot throughout the interview weekend and often, at other institutions’ interviews. Whether you end up at the same graduate program or not, it is important to remember that the fellow interviewees you meet are your new scientific peers and colleagues. Your discussions with them will less likely be centered around research, but don’t be afraid to strike up an interesting conversation anyway!


Communication among these groups can be highly variable, and you might encounter some surprises along the way. Not all conversations will be focused solely on your research. In fact, you will spend a lot of time learning about others’ work too! By understanding your audience and asking plenty of questions, you’ll be unfazed as each conversation develops its own unique flavor.


Know your key ingredients

When discussing your research, there are a few critical elements we think help with clearly and logically communicating your research to any audience.


Think of yourself as a chef and your research is your signature dish. Now, everyone should enjoy your signature dish (it’s wonderful, you made it yourself) but some people may have different dietary restrictions (knowledge bases). You will need to tweak your signature dish for each person, or audience type. Your recipe for clear and effective communication boils down to a few “key ingredients,” but you may need to tailor them or make substitutions for those with different dietary needs (all your different audiences).


Let’s briefly walk through our “key ingredients” for a great talk/poster/scientific conversation.


(1) Context: As researchers, it is easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of your project and day-to-day work. Introducing your research in a larger context – for example, implications for expanding scientific knowledge in a field or contributing to understanding and treatment of a particular disease or disorder – helps the listener comprehend the importance or significance of your work.


(2) Overarching or "big picture" question: Much like context, introducing the overarching question (think along the lines of the general focus of your lab) helps give the listener something to connect to in your research. When done effectively, it will leave the listener wanting more, excited to hear how your project fits into the grand scheme of things.


(3) Specific question or particular area of interest: Here is where it starts to become critical that you know your audience. The level of detail you use when explaining your specific question will be highly dependent on who is listening. Now is a great time to also explain what excites you about your project – enthusiasm for what you do can go a long way when describing your work.


(4) Hypothesis and approach/methods/techniques: Your hypothesis is your guiding question – it should be based on what is known and what you seek to learn. The experiments you run and the data you collect should all link back to this central question. It is critical to know what kind of techniques you use (e.g. imaging, electrophysiology, biochemistry, etc.) and what the data they yield can tell you. While you most likely won’t need to know the nitty gritty of the analysis, it will behoove you to understand the advantages and limitations of any technique you use. Be explicit about any techniques you specifically learned and executed in the project.


(5) Results and interpretation: Results should tie back in with your hypothesis – these are usually fairly straightforward: either you saw an effect or you did not. How you interpret those results can take many paths or directions. When explaining your interpretation of your results, it is essential to think about your data from all angles – alternate explanations are always a possibility.


(6) Next steps: What is the future of this project? What are the follow-up experiments? Who will do the follow-up experiments? These are questions worth considering since most science is never really complete. Just as you have thought a lot about the past and current experiments of this project, it is equally important to consider what the project has contributed to the field and where it can go.


In order to be particularly engaging when communicating, incorporate information about you and your experiences with the project – this includes what excites you about your research, what you specifically contributed and where you envision the project and your career going in the future. Complementing your key ingredients with your experiences and personal flair will help you stand out from the crowd!


Know your scope

A competent scientist knows their project at many different scales. An effective communicator is able to use this knowledge to share understanding to any audience. As a trainee, you have a magnifying glass and know the precise details of your experimental protocols, while your mentor sees the project on a much larger scale. What knowledge gap is being filled, and what “macro-level” question is being asked? If you need help understanding this, don’t be afraid to ask questions!


Consider asking your current PI/supervisor to recommend review papers, book chapters, or show you the project grant. This high-level knowledge is essential for research communication and serves as a great introduction to your work. Should you encounter an interviewer that works in an entirely different sub-discipline than you, you will likely spend most of your time talking in these broad, conceptual terms. Likewise, if you encounter an interviewer with highly similar work to yours, you will have an opportunity to delve into the more familiar details.


Another part of research communication is representing the history and rationale behind the approach. By reading previous literature, you will understand some of the successes and failures that brought the field to where it is now. Highlight the findings and conclusions that motivated previous work with awareness of their respective strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, be able to communicate the future of your research, even if you will leave the lab/project. What advances will your work contribute to the field? Learning about the past and future of your research project may seem intimidating, or even humbling – most scientists feel this way. However, this is a sign of maturity as a scientist to recognize that you stand on the shoulders of giants.


Practice!

Finally, and unsurprisingly, one of your priorities should be to practice the interview itself. The above suggestions will be tremendously helpful during this step, and you should use this time wisely. If your PI or lab mentor is willing to help you practice, write out what you want to say ahead of time and share it with them if you are comfortable doing so. Your written ideas should not be mistaken as a script to be memorized; rather, this exercise should help you identify the main points that you want to communicate. Keep in mind that the length of your conversation or interaction can be highly varied (could be 30 minutes, could be 3). You may not always have time to discuss all the details of your research.


Rather than overwhelming your audience, just focus on the key ingredients – short conversations may not accommodate much more than that. Practice speaking out loud as often as you can, and eventually the concepts will flow more candidly. Don’t worry if you find this step difficult – academia makes public speakers out of the shyest of people, and it does get easier over time. Additionally, practice with any friends or colleagues who are willing to help. Each interview experience is unique, so you will benefit from practicing with different people.


Why is effective communication such an important skill?

Scientific communication doesn’t happen on its own. Researchers are often siloed within their specific sub-discipline and often even within their own lab. Because of this, it is important to be equipped with the proper tools as you set out to share your work with the research community. The concepts covered here will help you effectively communicate your research on your interview day(s) and beyond.


Interviews and other types of research communication outside your comfort zone require adaptability. You will interact with different audiences, including professors, current graduate students, and fellow prospective students. Remember, the commonality that ties you together is your passion for science, and this is a great time to make connections and learn from others. Above all, be curious about the program and its opportunities – graduate school will be one of the most transformative experiences in your life, so your evaluation of the program is just as important as its evaluation of you!


Additionally, be able to adapt your scope of communication. Understand the broader ideas that inspired your project, and use your highly specialized knowledge to your advantage when an interviewer asks followup questions. Be able to explain the findings preceding your project, and where it might be headed in the future. Finally, practice talking about your work as much as possible. Keeping written notes of your main ideas (including your key ingredients) will be very useful when you are getting started. Use this time wisely and be open to feedback from peers and mentors. Ultimately, effective communication will help you leave a lasting impression during your interview.


If you’ve ever written a grant, these tips may seem very intuitive and familiar – we are not reinventing the wheel. Instead, we hope to emphasize that the same structure used often in written scientific communication can be translated into verbal scientific communication as well. The real benefit of an interview is its interactive nature – you have the chance to adapt and adjust your key ingredients in real time. Even though the beginning stages can be challenging, remember that this is a lifelong skill and your perspective has value in the scientific community. If you make the effort to know your project thoroughly and practice the strategies listed above, your unique communication style will eventually shine through and continue to drive you forward as you tackle new challenges in your academic career.


FEATURED AUTHORS

Eden Barragan


Eden is a graduate student at UC Davis in the lab of Dr. John Gray where her research focuses on mechanisms underlying synaptic plasticity and the specific changes in neuronal activity that occur following learning. She is a Southern California native who enjoys propagating houseplants, knitting, whipping up a fire batch of beans, and making neuroscience research accessible and exciting to those outside of the immediate scientific community.




Rose De Kock


Rose De Kock is a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis working with Drs. Wilsaan Joiner and Julie Schweitzer to study the link between cognition and action in an ADHD population. She values interdisciplinary work, and aims to use integrated methods from motor control and clinical psychology to better understand psychiatric conditions. Outside of the lab, she enjoys art and music, the outdoors, and participating in outreach activities to make STEM more accessible and inclusive.




Sasha Mikhailova


Alexandra (Sasha) Mikhailova is a 4th year Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis and a recipient of the NRSA F31 Fellowship. Previously, she worked on translational stroke research in her Bachelor’s Degree at UC Davis, and as a technician at UCSF. She currently works on neuroimmune modulation of early brain development. She is originally from Russia and grew up in the SF Bay Area. She is passionate about education and outreach, sourdough, embroidery and complexity science.


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