In the last couple of posts, I have talked about the grad school application process, choosing a lab, and choosing a mentor. So at this point, I will assume that you have been invited to interview at the school of your dreams and have been given a list of professors you will interview with. Great! Now that all of that legwork is out of the way, let’s move to the actual interview process.
When it comes to the interview, the most important thing to remember is this: The interview starts the moment you step on campus! (or the lobby of the hotel). Schools can (and have, from what I’ve heard) ask the front desk clerk at the hotel to keep notes on interviewees! Random people you meet may end up being involved with the process or work for a PI that you interviewed with. Appropriate attire and best behavior all the time. Full-on interview mode the entire time! Which means a polite smile to everyone you meet, handshake, be humble, positive, especially about the school you are at. I would not discuss other interviews unless you are asked, and even then, few details and no phrases like “loved it” or “hated it.” Neutrals people! Don’t compare schools openly. Keep your cards close to your chest. You want to be able to choose the school you go to and to do that you need more than one offer. In that vein, never assume that you are getting in anywhere. So you loved “School A” and you think they loved you…. well, they may not have, and if you act like a jerk at your other interviews then you may not be going to grad school this year. Just remember, many of these people may be your future colleagues (even at other schools that you don’t attend) and you don’t want them to hate you. You might need them down the road.
The phrase “Be professional” encompasses everything here. Business formal attire during interviews, business casual at all other times. (Leave your “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt at home!…also come on, that was like, 15 years ago). This next part is critical because there is always at least one, and you don’t want it to be you, do not get drunk (or order the most expensive thing) at the dinner(s) you will be invited to, or the bar that they will take you to…or the happy hour they will have (there’s a lot of opportunities for this). Don’t do it, don’t you be “that guy.” A good way to make sure that you don’t get accepted to a program is to get hammered and then carried out of a bar. I’ve seen this happen, it’s not pretty, and you will be talked about by everyone. Remember, this is not undergrad, you are not really a student and in many ways this is more of a job interview. You are a professional trainee and will be expected to conduct yourself professionally. So, have a beer, or two (literally two, max). Sip slowly, mingle and talk. Show your passion and interest in science, engage with the PI’s that will be there. Ask about their work. Just remember, this is a test. They want to see how you act. It’s not a Greek week kegger, and free booze doesn’t mean you should try to empty the whole bar. Professional. It’s the word of the interview weekend.
Note: Graduate students will report back. You will have a chance to meet with graduate students without any administrative people or faculty around. This is a test. These graduate students are asked to, and will, report back to someone, all the above rules apply. If you get drunk WITH the graduate student(s), admission boards will still find out. Don’t let the fact that they are almost peers throw you off your game.
So, the last thing to add is that during your interviews you should talk to the people in the labs you interview in, without the PI within earshot. Get their opinions and ask questions. A few to ask would be: Do they attend meetings (or how many meetings have you attended?), How many people are in the lab? How often do you meet with the PI? Who do I go to for help/questions? Etc. You may have to do some detective work here and read body language. If they hate it in their lab they will not come straight out and tell you. Do they seem happy? Also take stock of the people in the lab. How many post-docs, technicians, undergrads, and grad students do they have? If it’s a large lab (and you won’t see the PI often) then you will want post-docs and senior grad students around to bounce ideas off of or to help you when you can’t get something to work (which will happen). If it’s a smaller lab you will likely have more access to the PI and may not need as many other members there.
Finally, during your grad school tenure, and especially your first year, you will fail. Many times. And that’s okay! It’s how you deal with the failure that will define you. Pick yourself up, dust your shoulders off and get back in there. You can do this! A really good post-doc that I used to work with told me that if 15% of your experiments were successful then you were doing great! You will succeed! And have a great time. Grad school is stressful and hard, but also great fun and one of the most rewarding things you will do. Remember to take a few moments here and there to enjoy this time in your life!