Over the last few years, I have found myself giving quite a few prospective EEB graduate students advice on applying to graduate school. I realise this subject is rather popular with academic bloggers, and there are plenty of other places to get advice on the process (here, and here, and here, to begin with). I’m therefore going to restrict my advice to one aspect in particular: how to show people how you think during graduate school interviews.
My memory of my own grad school interviews is starting to get a bit hazy, so I’m not sure which pieces of advice I was given and which pieces I happened upon during the process. In any case, at some point my formula for most interviews became trying to demonstrate to whomever I was talking with that I was capable of thinking. And because most interviews tend to follow one of a few trajectories, this became relatively straightforward to execute, in one of a few ways:
1. If an interviewer asks you what you want to work on in grad school, make sure you have a concrete idea for a potential project that’s related to the research of the lab you are applying to work in. The idea needn’t be big, the plan shouldn’t be detailed, and the project absolutely does not have to be what you will actually work on in graduate school. What this must do, however, is show that you can think of a question whose answers will extend what we know in a certain field or about a particular organism (see here for great advice to grad students on how to come up with project ideas, but remember you’ll probably be held to lower standards at the interview). Ideally this project should fall within whatever you’re claiming your broad research interests are. (Everyone knows these will change too, and that you will tailor your interests a little bit to the lab you’re interviewing at. That said, your interests must be somewhat consistent across interviews—don’t tell whoever you’re talking to that you’re interested in exactly the same things as them).
Your interviewer may push you to elaborate on your idea, perhaps by asking a question or maybe by pointing out a particular flaw with your plan. Hopefully you’ve done enough background research and thinking to begin to respond, but again, the goal isn’t to have a completely thought-out research proposal, so your answer doesn’t have to be perfect. Rather, see this as another opportunity to demonstrate how you think. Don’t be afraid to speculate or think aloud. You can always preface your answer with, “I haven’t thought this out fully, but what about….” That brings you and your interviewer into the territory of an actual back-and-forth conversation about science, which is exactly where you want to be.
2. Sometimes, the conversation doesn’t really take off when you’re talking about your own research interests and plans. In that case, make sure to find a way to ask your interviewer about their own research, but do NOT just sit silently listening to their answer. Ask a question that shows you’re thinking about what they’re saying. You can prepare for this a bit by looking up your interviewers’ research on their websites beforehand and thinking of questions you want to ask, but don’t depend on this—the websites may not be up-to-date, and they might feel like talking about something they’ve only just started thinking about or working on. Again, don’t be afraid to ask questions that you think might be silly—a silly question is better than no question at all, and odds are it isn’t really silly. If you’re worried it might be, preface it with “Just to clarify,…” or “This might be a silly question, but…” Again, the goal is simply to have a thoughtful conversation about science.
3. Some interviewers throw conventional interview formats to the wind, and instead seem to launch straight into a discussion about whatever scientific topic they feel like talking about. Don’t panic if this happens—as suggested above, do your best to ask a question.
A large part of your grad school interview is about fit—assessing whether you want to be a part of the program you’re interviewing at, and for the program to assess if you’ll be a good fit with them. The interview therefore involves lots of mutual information gathering—about the culture of the program and the lab, the place you’ll be living in, your personality, and more. (Here’s a great post from fellow Amherst-and-then-Harvard student, Ben Vincent on the right sort of questions to ask at your interview to gather some of this information.) That part just requires you to be yourself. But if there’s one aspect of whole interview that requires you to perform, that you should strive to get right, it’s showing that you can think like a future scientist. I hope this post makes it a little bit more clear how you can do that!