How to ace a grad school interview

Eli Sone: My name is Eli Sone. I’m a professor of Biomedical Engineering at University of Toronto. I’m also appointed in Material Science and engineering and in the Faculty of Dentistry, my lab works on biological and bio inspired materials. So we try to look at materials in biology and understand how they work. And then we can apply that either to solving diseases related to that particular problem. Or we can also use some of the principles that we’ve learned to design materials for new kinds of applications.

Now, let’s say a student wants to join your lab. And they’re emailing you, what do you should look for in their applications?

Eli Sone: Obviously, I’m looking at what their background is, right? What, they did their degree in, and what their research experiences. But I think beyond that the number one thing I’m looking for is, why did they contact me? So why are they interested in doing a PhD? And or graduate work in general? And why are they interested in working in my lab?

And how do you make that decision on whether someone have passed that bar or not?

Eli Sone: You know, the number one thing I’m looking for in an email is that it’s directed to me, right, I get a lot of all of us, I think, get a lot of emails that look like they’ve just been sent out to the entire faculty. And I’m trying to look for people who have clearly looked at my background, read some articles, and have a specific reason why they want to work in my lab. So I’m looking for people who have articulated that in their email.

I think that’s a great lead in into the interview process itself. How does that work? Let’s say you do find a student that you think is a good fit they are doing research, or they have past experience that fits into the research that you do in your lab, and they also have a genuine interest in doing graduate school. What do you do next?

Eli Sone: Yeah, so usually, I’ll start by arranging an interview. And one of the things I’m looking for in the interview is what kind of connection is there, because ultimately, if a student is going to be doing graduate work in my lab, we’re going to be working together for several years. So I’m trying to get a sense of what it’s going to be like to work with the student. And give the student a sense of what it would be like to work with me in my lab. And then the other thing that I’m looking for is trying to go beyond what’s on paper, try to get a get a sense for get the student to talk a little bit about the research experiences that they’ve had try to get a sense for what was exciting for them about it, really try to get a sense for what is motivating them to come to graduate school, and why they’re interested in working in a particular area.

What do you usually see students struggle with when they’re answering the questions in an interview?

Eli Sone: Yeah, I mean, every student is different. But you know, you will see students who have had research experience, but struggle to explain that to you, and probably struggle to really communicate what they’ve done. And so that might suggest that they weren’t all that involved in the research, perhaps. Or it’s just harder for them to communicate it, and I’m looking for students who really have strong research experience. And usually that means that they can talk about it well, and that they’re excited about it in some way, meaning that they can explain to you in some kind of detail: what the challenges were, maybe how they overcame them, or what the exciting part of the research was for them, I’m looking for students who really have a genuine motivation to do research. A graduate degree is a big undertaking. And so, I want to find students who want to do that for the right reasons. So that’s definitely something I like to ask as well.

So how does someone show that they are interested in doing research as opposed to kind of regurgitating this templated response that most people have when they’re applying for graduate school?

Eli Sone: Yeah, it’s sort of an sometimes it’s a little bit of an intangible thing. But for me, I think the the biggest thing is, what kind of preparation that they’ve done for the interview is really important. So have they already gone and read some papers from our lab? Do they have questions about those papers? Do they have good questions about life in the lab in general? What other students are in the lab and what other projects are going on? Whether they’re prepared in terms of explaining their own research. And so I feel like that kind of preparation goes a long way.

So to me that kind of sounds like the student or the interviewee have to demonstrate some kind of initiative, or have done some kind of background research by your lab before even going to the interview. And that tends to show through in the interview as well.

Eli Sone: Yeah, absolutely. I think the best students have prepared, right? If you’re really interested in the lab that you’re interviewing with, then you need to have done some work to know that you’re interested. So you want to see some evidence of that.

Hmm, do you mind giving me some typical interview questions you will ask the students?

Eli Sone: Yeah, so I don’t have a set of questions that I, that I follow, I try to let the interview kind of take its course. But certainly, I’ll always ask the student to describe some of the research experiences that they’ve had. So from the CV, I might pick out one or two that look interesting or relevant, and ask them to talk about what they did, what their role was, in the project with the main findings were any kind of special challenges or surprising things that happened in that in that research? So that’s usually how I’ll start the interview, why they contacted me? How they found my lab? What sort of interests they had? What kind of where do they sort of see themselves doing in graduate school? What kind of project they see themselves doing? And off and off the most about? What are their plans beyond that? So why do they want to get a graduate degree? And where do they see themselves going with that?

For some people coming into graduate school, they really just want to, to get that degree. And the degree itself, I think, have some kind of selling point, either when it comes to promotion later on when their industry position, or it just shows like a level of prestige. Is that a legitimate answer in trying to get into graduate school?

Eli Sone: Um, I mean, I think it’s legitimate. Everyone’s welcome to have whatever motivation they want for going to graduate school. But if you’re really just after the letters after your name, then you may struggle with the kind of commitment that’s required for research. Research is not an easy undertaking. Many people during the course of the PhD, are going to have ups and downs and times when your project is not going well. And from my experience the best students are ones that really want to know the answer to the research question, or questions that they’re asking. And I find that that’s really helpful and sort of sustaining them. And so I’m looking for signs that they’re generally interested in the research project,

What are the best practices when it comes to conducting an interview?

Eli Sone: So the number one thing is to prepare for it. I think I’ve touched on that before, but it’s worth saying, again the best practice would be to have read papers from the lab, to be prepared with questions about them to have insights and perhaps connections to some of your work and some ideas about what you might want to work on and what project sounds exciting to you. You know, the other thing that that’s a that’s certainly good is to write to be prepared to talk about yourself, and what you’ve done and what you’re interested in. It’s good to be prepared with questions as well to sort of if you’re not from U of T, or if you’re not from Biomedical Engineering at U of T to have some questions about the department or the lab to the graduate program. You know, just to sort of get the best information out of it for yourself and also to show that you’re sort of serious about picturing yourself in that program.

Of course, the last question is aside from the things that we’ve discussed before, and do you have any other advice that you would offer to potential graduate students?

Eli Sone: I think the biggest advice I would have here is to to really treat the interview. It is a two way channel of communication. The professor is trying to get a sense of who you are and how you would fit in, in the project and in lab, but you should really be interviewing the professor as well. And getting a sense for whether the project is the right project for you. And what I always tell students as well, is that you really want to get a sense for what the group is like, as well, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with that group with that Professor. And so you want to make sure to get a sense of what it’s going to be like to work with them, and what it’s going to be like to work with the other people in the lab, it could be a perfect project. But if the research environment, the work environment is not good for you, then it’s not going to be a lot of fun.

The second thing that I think is important advice is to try to get a sense of what the lab is doing in general. So there’s maybe there’s the one specific project that you’re going to be working on, but you’re going to learn a lot in graduate school, from your research group, and  from the department you’re in, but even more from the different people in your lab. And so it’s good if you kind of get a sense for what other projects are going on. And whether those are things that speak to you as well, and things that you’d be interested in learning. Because you’re going to realize, at the end of your time, getting good degree that you’ve learned a lot of other things that maybe weren’t exactly in your field, but were that you picked up from people around you. So you want to try to get a sense for what that’s going to be as well.

So I have a question about your point one. Which is that a interview is a two way street and the students should also be asking you questions. A common thing I find is, I think students are a little intimidated. They always feel like it is a one way conversation where we ask them questions, and they provide the answers. And that’s it. How do you encourage students to ask questions in a proactive manner? For their own interest?

Eli Sone: Yeah, I think that they should approach searching for a supervisor in a way where you’re not just trying to find anybody who will take you, right, you’re trying to find the right group for you. Because ultimately it doesn’t serve anyone if you end up in a in a lab or in a project that’s not good for you. So the professor’s trying to figure that out, but you want to be figuring that out too. And if you have an offer from a lab that you don’t think is going to be good, then it’s probably not a great idea to take it. And so you want to make sure that you’re getting the information that you need to be able to make that evaluation of whether you would want to accept an offer. And you know, hopefully you get into a situation where you might have more than one offer and be able to choose between those.

Awesome, thank you very much. I really appreciate your time and thanks for being here.

Eli Sone: Yeah, no problem. Hope this will help students apply