The Tactical Interviewee: Do’s And Dont's Of Grad School Interviews
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The Tactical Interviewee: Do’s And Dont's Of Grad School Interviews

Making a good impression is easy, but making a bad one is easier.

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The Tactical Interviewee: Do’s And Dont's Of Grad School Interviews
Google Images/burningred

‘Twas the night after you submitted your last graduate school application, and for many of you, this is the season to impatiently wait for those fateful emails stating you landed an interview at your dream school (or schools). It’s honestly hard to believe that I myself was in that same mental state just a year ago. In the holiday spirit, I’ve decided to deviate from my usual writings about politics, science, and the intersection thereof, and try to post something of a little more practical use. Over the past year I found out more about my classmate’s own interviews and got to know the faculty better, and I realized that there were a few crucial details that I wish I knew about graduate school interviews. I’ll try to briefly outline those here.

1. Talk about your research or work experience, but don’t only talk about research or work experience.

I was definitely guilty of this in several cases. It’s easy to do if you’re not paying attention; sometimes it’s a tactic when you’re feeling nervous and you resort to talking about something you know a lot about. But it’s useful to keep in mind that (a) most of your relevant experience is already in your application, and (b) the person you’re talking to will probably not be as enthusiastic as you are about your achievements. Which brings me to…

2. Emphasize your own achievements, but don’t get bogged down by minute details.

Other online resources will no doubt remind you that you should explicitly state your achievements honestly rather than frame them as something your lab or the department did; that is excellent advice. But don’t get too caught up in listing every little step along the way. This is particularly common for scientists. Give your interviewer the broad picture: what was the result you got, and why is it a significant achievement? Don’t talk about all the different candidates from your genetic screens or all the troubleshooting you had to do for that protein purification. Remember, the interviewer wants to get a snapshot of you as a person, not be your thesis adviser.

3. Show interest in the interviewer’s own work, but don’t reveal how much you know about them.

This is something I remember doing and believe me when I say it was very awkward. Of course, you’ll be meeting with people whose own work interests you, but the point of that is to have something in common to start from. Tell your interviewer you found their work fascinating, but no need to go full-on fanboy/girl over them. Ask them where they see the field going in the future, and how the particular school or department is equipped to address those challenges. It’s not all about telling your interview about yourself, but also about getting an insider’s perspective on the program you’re applying to. In that vein, it’s also very important to…

4. Remember that the interviewer is human. Have a conversation, not a cross-examination.

Try to keep the tone light and conversational. I think it is very, very important to talk to your interviewer about a few things unrelated to your field of expertise. Ask about living in the area, local sports teams, fun things to do, even the weather if you can’t think of anything else. Feel free to tell them something funny that happened to you or about an observation that surprised you during the campus visit—as long as you keep it professional and classy. Which brings me to my penultimate point…

5. Be professional and courteous, even with your fellow interviewees. Don’t be an ass.

Be on your best behavior all the time. This doesn’t mean you can’t make some jokes at the wine and cheese reception, or let loose and dance a little at the second-year house party. But don’t do anything unforgettable by people who could very well be your classmates for the next five to six years. Don’t brag about all the other schools you interviewed at and how much bigger their alcohol budget was. Don't brag about all the cool research you did as an undergrad either. None of your fellow interviewees (who are all just as accomplished as you) are impressed by that and are more likely than not, extremely unimpressed by your attitude. Make friends, but don’t make a fool out of yourself.

[rebelmouse-proxy-image https://media.rbl.ms/image?u=%2Ffiles%2F2016%2F12%2F02%2F636162554241163642-916366174_L6c6CeV.gif&ho=https%3A%2F%2Faz616578.vo.msecnd.net&s=318&h=71d1c04a004e00608bf67a6b348b57bcbc5cbbd6b6f3d9dcd99cb4617d56d226&size=980x&c=4207688422 crop_info="%7B%22image%22%3A%20%22https%3A//media.rbl.ms/image%3Fu%3D%252Ffiles%252F2016%252F12%252F02%252F636162554241163642-916366174_L6c6CeV.gif%26ho%3Dhttps%253A%252F%252Faz616578.vo.msecnd.net%26s%3D318%26h%3D71d1c04a004e00608bf67a6b348b57bcbc5cbbd6b6f3d9dcd99cb4617d56d226%26size%3D980x%26c%3D4207688422%22%7D" expand=1]

Don't be this guy.

And finally…

6. Be confident. Don’t worry too much about how your interview went after the fact.

I’m not talking about exuding confidence to your interviewer, although that is also certainly important. I’m talking about self-confidence on a much deeper level. It’s natural to feel anxious and worried that you’re going to completely ruin your chances based on one interview. But keep in mind that the fact that you are invited to interview already predisposes to you to a very good chance of getting accepted to the program. In other words, you wouldn’t have gotten an interview if the admissions committee didn’t already think you were a serious and worthy candidate. Instead, enjoy the holidays and take some time to relax from the grueling experience of submitting your applications.


There are many resources available online that are meant to be more comprehensible, general guides to interviewing that are produced by professionals in the field, and are perfectly legitimate sources of information. One such resource that I found personally helpful was the presentation by the Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE) at the National Institutes of Health (where I worked), which is videocast here, with some slides available here. Another source where you can find some questions to prepare for is on the GradSchools.com website. One of the best places to get practical, individualized information is your own school or center's career guidance office. A simple mock interview can be extremely useful to identify areas of improvement. UC Berkeley's own Career Center has the option to schedule grad school counseling and mock interviews.

Although a lot of these resources tend to be more general, you should use your own discretion to figure out who to ask relevant questions. For example, if you are meeting with an admissions committee member you should ask the administrative questions like teaching requirements, internship opportunities, facilities, etc. If you are talking to a principal investigator of a lab you are interested in, ask them about the research and the science you want to pursue. Other useful tips like what questions to ask in return, body language, and attire are just a Google search away. The above list includes a few things that I felt were supplementary and worth keeping in mind. It may not all universally apply to individual scenarios, but I’m sure you’ll figure out what is valid and what isn’t. You’re smart; you wouldn’t be applying to grad school if you weren’t.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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