Practice to impress: Tips for science grad school interviews

Melissa Galinato

The first day of interviews started with a bus ride full of sleepy recruits going from the hotel to campus, taking in breathtaking views of the coastline as the bus wound up the scenic route. Meanwhile, a group of hungry grad students ate a generously catered breakfast of eggs, bacon, fruit, bacon, and pastries (and bacon) on campus as they waited for the recruits to arrive. After breakfast, grad students paired off with recruits and the games began. The recruit’s challenge: convincing world-renowned scientists that she was worthy of beginning the arduous journey through academia. Luckily for this recruit (me), she had received some great tips that helped her get accepted into the University of California, San Diego Neurosciences Graduate Program and earn her PhD. 

Grad school interviews can be extremely stressful, but they also can be unique experiences unparalleled by most interviews. Here are some tips to make the marathon of talking science more enjoyable for everyone.

1. Practice talking about yourself.

I did not practice enough at the beginning, which probably explains why I did not get into some of the first schools I visited. It is important to be able to speak fluently about your background and previous experiences that have prepared you for grad school. At my first interview, I stumbled over explanations about my experiments studying gerbil brains. Why gerbils? My answer: “Gerbils blah blah hearing blarg.” Not good. I sounded much better after practicing a few times at home.

Being able to confidently convey your motivations for going to grad school is key. The admissions team wants to find enthusiastic and motivated students who will maintain that motivation and stay in the program despite inevitable lab failures. When faculty members saw my resume covered with hospital volunteering from my previous dreams of being a doctor, they asked, “Why didn’t you go to med school?” Turns out, I didn’t like being around sick people. I was motivated by hopes of discovery and by the thought that my research could impact so many more people than a single patient at a time. Motivation is different for everyone, though, so it’s important to carefully consider your own unique reasons for choosing grad school.

Pro tip: Drink water. All that talking about yourself can make you dehydrated.

2. Ask thoughtful questions.

Sometimes I wish I could do interviews again so I could ask all my scientific questions knowing what I know now—and without the added stress of interviewing. The grad school interview season is a rare opportunity when you get to have one-on-one, uninterrupted face time with multiple accomplished scientists in one day. The important part is listening for a word or phrase that catches your interest, and then you can ask a thoughtful follow-up question that highlights your knowledge and curiosity about the subject.

Pro tip: Asking grad students thoughtful scientific questions is a great way to practice for your interviews with the faculty.

3. Don’t be a jerk.

This tip applies to everything in life. During grad school interviews, it means be polite and thank all the people who help you through the stressful process. Be culturally aware and sensitive. Send follow-up emails to your hosts and staff if you promised to do so. You are being evaluated during your entire visit. Even when you are singing karaoke or chilling at the bar with the grad students, you are still being interviewed, so be kind and don’t do or say anything regretful—and apologize if necessary. Grad students can actually have an impact on admissions if they feel a recruit is acting inappropriately.

That being said, try to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience! Kudos to you for making it this far!

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Melissa Galinato

I am a graduate student researcher in the Neurosciences PhD Program at the University of California, San Diego. I study how methamphetamine addiction affects the brain and how to reduce relapse behavior in rodent models. In general, I'm interested in anything related to brains, beaches, and burritos.

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