PhD program application and interview tips and advice (with sample interview questions)
I recently graduated with my PhD in Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics from Harvard University and am reflecting on my time as a grad student. I dug up some old notes from when I was still in the application and interview stage and thought they may be useful for students currently going through the application process.
A little background about my application journey: I applied to bioinformatics PhD programs during my senior year of undergrad at Johns Hopkins University where I studied biomedical engineering and applied math. I applied, interviewed, and was eventually accepted by Harvard BIG, Stanford BMI, Columbia C2B2, Yale CBB, Princeton QCB, and MIT CSBI, and ended up choosing Harvard BIG. As a grad student at Harvard BIG, I have also looked through applications and hosted social events for interviewees. Based on my experiences, I have compiled these application and interview tips. Of course, the relevance of these tips will depend greatly on your field of study and whether you are applying to a program or an individual lab. In this post, I will focus on what I believe is most relevant for students in my field and what I have experience in, which is generally true for programs in the life sciences.
Philip Guo has already written an excellent guide as to what is a PhD program, how does it differ from other grad school programs, why you should apply, etc. So I will refer you to this post if you are still considering going down the PhD track: http://www.pgbovine.net/grad-school-app-tips.htm
1. Tell me about your research experience. Not a sob story.
Most programs will ask you to submit a Personal Statement. A Personal Statement should be interpreted as an account of your research experience, not a biography. Do not write a long sob story about how your grandma got cancer and that’s why you’re so interested in cancer research. Feel free to include one sentence about the motivation behind your research interests. But what the professors who review your application will really want to know is what technical qualifications and educational training do you have that will enable you to actually perform or prepare you to perform this cancer research to move the field towards a discovering a cure for grandma. If you are truly interested in cancer research, explain how you went and did cancer research in a lab during the summer. Tell me about the genetics class you took, how you learned about the role of TP53 in cancer pathogenesis, and how you hope to use new next-generation sequencing technologies to discover more private driver mutations in people like your grandma. Don’t just tell me you’re excited. Show me your excitement with concrete examples of actions.
2. Ask for your recommendations early. Don’t be shy about sending reminders to your recommenders.
3 months before the deadline to ask for recommendations is greatly appreciated. You never know if a professor will have a particularly busy travel schedule and won’t be able to get to thinking about your letter for a few months. Sending reminders 2 weeks prior and 2 days prior to the due date is also not a bad idea.
Feel free to include a list of notable accomplishments or interactions that you would like your recommender to highlight. At this stage in your academic training, most professors will not ask you to write your own recommendation - a practice that will become more common - but they generally still appreciate a few hints.
3. It’s ok to have failed or have failures in your track record.
Did you get a bad grade that one semester due to a family emergency? Did you spend lots of time doing research but have no publications to show for it? These things happen. Don’t be discouraged or not apply because you don’t think you’re good enough. That’s not up to you to decide. If you feel like an explanation is necessary, include no more than 2 sentences defending yourself. Focus on promoting your strengths, not defending your weaknesses.
I didn’t have any publications going into grad school interviews - a statistic that made me a bit of an outlier and gave me a lot of imposter syndrome anxiety. But now in hindsight, I really didn’t need to worry so much about it. These things happen. Professors are people too. If they are reasonable (and most are), they will empathize.
4. Ask advisors to ask their colleagues to look out for your application
If you have a research advisor from doing undergraduate research or an academic advisor in a similar research field with whom you have a good relationship with, ask them if they’d be willing to ping their colleagues to look out for your application. I was fortunate enough to have an amazing academic advisor Joel Bader and research advisor Rachel Karchin who were able to do this and I genuinely think it made all the difference.
5. Apply to multiple programs and if possible also to multiple fellowships
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Apply to multiple programs because, if for no other reason, programs will want to know what other schools you’re considering. Also, apply for an NSF GRFP fellowship to show your dedication and interest in research. Most of the essays for all programs and even fellowships are quite similar anyway so you can reuse what you’ve already written.
Know at least 3 people you would be interested in working with in the program. Never go to a school for one PI because maybe they will move, maybe they won’t have the funding for students your year, maybe you just won’t like them!
If possible, read a few papers by your interviewers before your interview. Some times you won’t find out who your interviewers are until the day of the interview, so you can just peruse some of their abstracts to get a sense of their research interests and judge how your research and experiences may fit in. Use something like Google Scholar or bioRxiv as opposed to their lab websites though, as lab websites are rarely updated.
Ask your interviewer about their research. PIs loooovvveee to talk about their research.
Tell your interviewer about your research or research interests, especially as it relates to their research.
90% of your interviews will boil down to you talking about your research and your interviewer talking about theirs. Once in a blue moon, you may actually get an interviewer who has prepared a set of questions. These are some notable questions I got when I was interviewing for grad school:
Common questions (basically asked in some form or another in nearly all interviews)
“Tell me about yourself and your research/research interests.”
“Who are you interested in working with and why? What are some projects you may be interested in pursuing?”
“What are you looking for in a grad program? In a lab?”
“What other programs/schools have you applied to?”
Less common questions
“Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”
“If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?”
“Graduate school is a series of failures and one success and therefore requires a lot of tenacity; how have you prepared to handle this?”
“Why did you change from [this research field; in my case wet lab] to [new research field; in my case dry lab]? What does [new research field] have to offer?”
“What is your favorite algorithm [or other aspect related to your field]?”
“Explain this detail related to your research project.” (Most interviewers will ask for a broad overview but if they are in your field, they may ask for more details out of curiosity / not to grill you)
Unusual questions (asked by 1 interviewer only)
“Why do you think [this school] is a good fit for you? Why do you think you are a good fit for [this school]?” (This is actually a fairly rare question because most interviewers are trying to convince you that their school is a good fit for you, not the other way around.)
“At the end of the interviews, we have to write a report on each of you and vote on whether we think you should be accepted. Convince me to vote for you and not against you.” (Just a very direct question)
“Derive this equation.”
1. Keep in mind that you’re interviewing them as well!
It’s a two way street!
2. You will be spending the next 5+ years here. Make sure to ask about the practical!
These questions may not make or break your decision to join a program, but they’re worth taking into consideration or at least being informed about.
- Where do the current students live? What’s their cost of living?
- Do people drive or take public transit? Walk? Bike?
- Where do they buy groceries? Do most students eat out? Is there a dining hall or cafeteria?
- What is the approximate stipend rate? Does the school provide additional scholarships or paid time-off for parental/sick leave? Don’t go somewhere where you can’t live within the means they give you.
- What benefits such as health, dental, or vision insurance does the school provide? Is there a gym? Are students eligible for reduced fare in public transit or other social activities/events around town?
- Will you be happy in this location? Is it really far from family? Does this matter to you?
- What is the teaching obligation if any?
- What is the course load like?
- How is the qualifying exam? How many tries do you get?
- Is it generally easy for students to get rotations / get into their lab of choice?
- What administrative support is there for students to find rotations, grants, or other academic development opportunities?
3. Take note of the other interviewees and current students
Can you see yourself getting along or being friends with the current students? What about the students interviewing with you? Take note of the vibe you get from the current students during your visit because if you didn’t like them, likely that program will keep recruiting the same type of people.
Along the same lines, make sure you not only consider how “good” a school is but also how enthusiastic the students are for research. At some institutions, you don’t see the grad students at all outside of class because they don’t go to colloquiums and seminars and they aren’t inspired to or don’t have the ability to take advantage of the opportunities to learn about something new, which is really important, especially for newer burgeoning fields and for less experienced students.
4. Pace yourself!
Some interviews span days, others span nearly a week. And most likely, you will be interviewing at lots of different places over many many months. The entire process is reallllyyy tiring and can take a toll on your grades if you’re still in school, or your job if you’re still working. So pace yourself. Space out your interviews if possible. Some times programs will have multiple potential interview dates. Rushing off from one interview to do a redeye interview for another is not fun…believe me.
When I was on the interview trail, for my last interview, I had already sat through so many of the same questions and was getting so tired of the process that when my interviewer remarked ‘Oh you’re from Baltimore. It’s a lovely city.’ I actually unwittingly snapped back ‘Is that sarcastic?’ Not my best impression for sure!
5. Have fun!
Grad school interviews are (generally) super fun! Programs definitely go out of their way to show you a good time so enjoy! And they’re (generally) all expenses paid.
The people you are interviewing with and the students you will meet will likely be your future colleagues if you all stay in the same field (which is surprisingly very likely). So make some friends and keep in touch! Maybe you’ll be collaborators some day.
What to expect afterwards
Some programs will interview students in multiple cohorts across many months. So if you are in the first cohort, you most likely won’t hear back with a decision until months later since other cohorts still need to be interviewed. Generally, after all students are interviewed, professors will get together and discuss the applications. They will essentially vote on which students they think should be accepted or rejected.
If you are accepted, you will likely receive a phone call first from the department chair, letting you know that you’ve been accepted. You will then receive an official acceptance letter or email with further stipend information and instruction on how to accept or decline the program’s offer. Programs understand that you may be waiting on other offers as well so do take your time and consider all your options.
If you are really on the fence, you can even email the current graduate students or people you interviewed with for their opinions and advice. But when you do make that final decision (and its not their program), just be sure to send a kind thank you email.
If you are rejected or wait-listed, don’t feel bad. Some times it really is just the luck of the interviewer draw. Maybe you had a grumpy interviewer who gives bad reviews to everyone. It definitely happens!
As long as you go somewhere where you’re excited about the research and have the resources, opportunities, and support to do the research, you will be fine.