After graduating with my Bachelor’s degree in December 2020, I moved to another state to begin an internship with the state lab. A month and a half into it, I was given the position of Microbiologist 1 (which was super exciting!).
During that time, I went through several graduate school interviews – for both Ph.D.s and Masters degrees. I was accepted into three Ph.D. programs, and one Masters program. After much deliberation, I decided to move half-way across the country from my home state to get a Ph.D. in microbiology (my absolute favorite subject) at 20 years old, and I couldn’t be more excited! The best part (other than the degree being in microbiology), is that I will be receiving a stipend, as well as full tuition – helping me further my education while staying debt-free.
In light of my exciting news, I wanted to share 10 questions that impress your graduate school interviewer – these will show them that you have done your research. Depending on your field, these questions can also be modified to be used during a job interview.
- What are your expectations for your graduate students?
One of my interviewers told me that this was a very important question, and that I was surprisingly the only one that asked. You need to know what your professor (or even the people who are interviewing you) expect from their graduate students. Do they expect them to work every day, 9-5, or have a flexible schedule, so long as they get their work done? Do they expect you to also be a Teacher’s Assistant? Knowing what is expected of you will let you know exactly what you’re getting into if you get accepted into the program. It also shows that you care and are trying to find the best fit for you.
- What is your relationship with your graduate students like? Do you interact with them often?
Do you want an advisor who meets with you twice a week, and has entire lab meetings once a week? Or do you want an advisor that meets with you once a month? Are they in the lab often or would people be surprised to see them there? This is where you’ll find out how interested the advisor is in being around you and guiding you. Some professors just want free labor, whereas others want to see you grow and explore your field of study. You want to have an idea of which one you’ll be dealing with.
- What would the project for your Ph.D./Masters student look like?
Now, they may or may not have an answer to this question. For example, if you’re just being interviewed by random faculty members and not a potential advisor, then this question will not apply. My current advisor said he had so many potential projects and not enough students, that he couldn’t tell me what exactly my project would be, but he did give me an overview of the ones that he was planning. Others will know exactly what they would want their potential student to research, and can go more in depth. One word of caution: advisors typically have students work on projects that are closely related to what the advisors work with, so make sure you know what the advisor is working on beforehand, that way you’re not completely lost when they’re talking about retroviruses or the molecular mechanisms of gonadotrope cells (whatever those are).
- What is your teaching style: more hands-on or hands-off?
This question will help you determine if you’d be a good fit for that advisor, and will also help you judge what your time there will be like. If you like someone to constantly be around and advise you, then you want someone more hands-on. If you’d rather work by yourself with little to no guidance, then you want someone more hands-off. This will help you look out for someone who won’t give you space to explore your research field – if they are always around and telling you what to do, you’re essentially in a class lab – not a research one. Then again, you don’t want someone to never be around to help you when you get stuck.
- Who would be guiding/teaching me what I need to know at the beginning of the Ph.D./Masters program?
This is where you’ll learn a bit more about the advisor’s teaching style. Are they going to have current Ph.D. students/postdocs teaching you, or are they going to be in the lab guiding you along for a bit?
- Is there funding to support tuition, research, thesis writing, and conferences?
Some schools will put this information on their website (so just make sure you’re not asking a question that you could easily find the answer to…if this is the case, you could verify the information with the interviewer). You could also ask about housing, health insurance, and student fees to see if they are covered. Some advisors pay you off of a grant, so you’re going to want to make sure that they can guarantee financial support for multiple years while you’re obtaining your degree. You can also look at their profile/website to see who they’ve received grants from. Places like the NIH, USDA, and FDA are usually good signs.
- In your opinion, what one attribute makes [school/program] stand out far beyond other schools’ programs?
This is a good, general question to ask. Perhaps the answer will clue you in on a small college environment, great town atmosphere, or all of the fancy equipment in their new lab. This shows that you’re interested in the program and want more information.
- What is the average time for one of your students to complete their Ph.D.? (you can tailor this if you’re getting a Masters degree)
Most any professor will tell you that it takes an average of 5-8 years to get a Ph.D. You want to make sure you’re not going to be working with someone who will make you stay for ten years (which does happen). One potential advisor told me that if I couldn’t complete the Ph.D. in four years, I had no business earning one. Needless to say, that was the advisor and school that I chose (but you probably already guessed that).
- What made you interested in studying [insert something they are known for here, e.g. viruses in cattle]?
This is where doing your research on the professor and the school’s department that you will be in will come in handy. If you can show that you took the time to learn more about your potential advisor, then that makes you more memorable. Try to pick out something interesting, not just a generic fact that you found after looking at their biography for 5 seconds…because anyone can do that.
- I am very interested in your research with [what else do they do, or what else are they known for, e.g. developing novel vaccines]. Would you be able to tell me more about it?
Similar to number 9, pick a narrow topic that interests you that they have done and read their publications on it. You don’t need to become an expert at it, but show them that you put in a good amount of effort learning about their research topic. Feel free to ask them more specific questions about the subject as well (such as, why did you use this method/machine over that method/machine?)
With practice you’ll be just fine doing grad school interviews. I completed about 5, and I seemed to get better as I went along (practice makes perfect, remember?). Don’t stress too much over technical errors if your interview is virtual. For example, the internet went out in the middle of one particular interview and it took about 5 minutes for it to get back online…and he still offered me a position in his lab, which I accepted.
Here’s what you want to get across to the interviewer, the impression you want to make: that you’re hard working, dedicated, and if you were willing to put in a ton of research for just a 30 minute interview, just imagine how hard you;ll work for the Ph.D./Masters degree. Soon, I’ll write an article on things they’re looking for during the interviews and other things you can do to make a good impression – even if it’s virtual and you can’t give them a “firm handshake”.
Fun fact: Did you know that you can kill a cockroach in a washing machine? Another article to come: different ways to kill pests and a crash course in entomology (the study of bugs).
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