Interviewing for Neuroscience PhD Programs

Anyone who has applied for graduate or professional schools know that secret societies still exist. They make up the admissions committee of the countries’ most reputed graduate or professional programs. What impresses them? What is a red flag? How important are GREs? are the questions applicants discuss through 100s of pages in application forums like Grad Cafe and SDN. There are  also several articles “demystifying” the application process from members of the committee. The common theme from all of these articles is that there is no common criteria. So what do we do? We tackle it as any other research question with no set answer and try to find a pattern. We share our individual stories. So that’s what I am doing – I am writing about my personal experience during the interview stage of the application process.

Briefly, biological sciences graduate programs have two phases – the electronic application and the interview. Once the adcoms like you on paper, they want to put a face to that file. They also want you, the future scientist in the field, to know about their school, labs and city. Now interviews are not the common feature of all grad programs, but is very common in medical sciences/ life sciences. For the other folks out there whatever they have on paper decides where they end up. So, in a sense, we are amongst the lucky ones. We get to show to the adcoms who we really are, meet with leaders in our field in a amicable setting, visit different cities and best of all these are paid for by the schools. Given all these, you will still be evaluated during the visits so its worth looking at some of the strategies that I used and I think helped my application.

Here is how a typical interview weekend looks like (I have tried to delete all identifiers, but if you still can identify the institution please let me know). Let’s look at the two main parts:

The interviews –  Going into the interviews, I had the expectation of being asked questions about my research. However, it turns out that these are a lot more conversational than that. Typically, the interviewer will ask you if YOU have any questions (you will be asked this a lot, so keep a list handy). Then they will tell you about their research and ask  you about what your most important research project. I have heard from multiple professors that they look for people that can talk about their own research and not people who scored As in all courses (although it doesn’t hurt to have that).

I have also been informed by multiple faculty members that I asked good questions about their research. So I thought I would share the strategies I employed. In general you will be meeting with about 5 people, whose names you will get about 3 days before the interview. I made a short document where I had a research synopsis about each one of them that I went over the night before. However, I don’t think that helped me ask questions. To ask good questions about a topic that you know very little about, you need to listen. That, in my opinion, is the most difficult part of these interviews. You have to be focussed and with your thinking cap (hopefully filled with fluid intelligence) on for the entire time. The background knowledge from the  document helped me to know what to expect but asking thoughtful questions is impossible without active listening.

“Standing out” is a thoroughly overused term in the application process, but it probably has some value. My way of “standing out” in the interviews were preparing an in-depth abstracts of all the projects I had worked on (not redundant to the information already submitted with my application), along with my business card that I handed to the interviewers while talking about my research. The most commonly encountered question I faced while explaining my research was “What is the broader picture AKA why should anyone care?”. If your research is in a niche field as mine, it is worth preparing for this question. Irrespective of your preparation, chances are there will be some questions you cannot answer. It is important to say “I don’t know” in those situations. The more you interact with scientists, you will see even highly regarded people say “I don’t know” very often – such is science. When I  encountered those situations, I came back to the hotel and looked it up so that I could be prepared for it the next time. In one case, my interviewer became so interested in the question that he asked to  let him know if I find the answer to it. In that particular case, I sent him what I found while sending the thank you note via email. Sending thank you notes are definitely not the deal breaker (I sent these to 3 schools and didn’t send to 3, and got in at all those places). However, if you are really interested in joining/rotating in their lab it’s a nice way to keep the conversation going.

Socials – Attend these! Even if it says these are optional. This is the only setting where you will get to socialize with the graduate students and see how they interact with each other. Graduate school is not easy, so it is important to have compassionate and smart people around you. In these events you will also hear the current students perspective on the professors you are interested to work with. I used these events to ask a lot of questions – from did they live with roommates to did they get into their top choice lab after rotations. I also used these as an opportunity to see how (or whether) the current students spoke about science when they were not in an academic setting. It was great to meet people who played “What model organism will you be?” over drinks and who quoted Ben Barres like they were quoting people from a TV show.

Speaking of drinks, chances are there will be plenty of alcoholic drinks around. That tends to be a problem for both drinkers and non-drinkers. I have heard that some non-drinkers skip optional socials citing alcohol as the reason. Unless you are allergic to the sight of alcohol, this is not a good idea. The graduate students (and sometimes professors) that you will be going with are responsible adults who are not there to get drunk or get you drunk. Saying you are not going comes off as you being uncomfortable of them drinking and doesn’t speak well about your engagement. It is perfectly fine to socialize with a coke, even if everyone else is holding a bud. On the other hand, if you are a social drinker, it is important to know your limit. All interviewer and graduate students have stories about applicants getting drunk and doing something stupid – you don’t want to be that person. If you have no idea what your limit is, it is better to stick to one glass of wine or one beer.

Finally, you will hear a lot that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. This is true. If that is a person you are interested in working with, ask them if they are willing to host you as a rotation student or if they have funding to support you, should you join their lab. If you are called for an interview, chances are the schools are seriously looking into you and you are about 50-80% likely to get in. So try to be relaxed and not get intimidated by the other applicants who go to a named school or have twice as much work experience than you do. Besides looking into the engagement of the students and faculty, also make a note of the city during the city tours and evaluate if you want to live there for the next 5-6 years. It might not feel so, but before you know it the onus of making a decision will be upon you.



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