How do I get ready for these grad school interviews and what do I wear?
January 2, 2013 3:37 PM   Subscribe

I've been invited to interview with a few grad schools for biochemistry and biophysics doctoral programs. Hooray! What should I expect? How do I prepare? And what the heck do I wear? Complications: extremely poor and wardrobe consists of t-shirts and blue jeans with one proper "job interview" outfit.

The interviews are multi-day and consist of numerous faculty interviews along with lunches and dinners. I'm not certain of how fancy the dinners are going to be.

First, while I'm confident in my enthusiasm for the subject matter, I'm wondering if there are specific ways I should prepare. Read up on recent papers on the particular research topics that interest me? Read the papers of the professors I hope to see (I don't know which ones I'm seeing yet)? Anything else?

Second, is there anything I should expect? "Gotcha" questions? Things you wish you'd done for your grad school interviews? Things you want to see from grad students interviewing with you?


Finally, I'm concerned about my wardrobe. I have one outfit I've been using for job interviews. Black flats (though I have high-heeled pumps), gray suit pants, black button-up type shirt. I don't have anything else in terms of office clothing. I go to school in Old Navy blue jeans, ratty Converse knock-offs, and gym t-shirts. I figure this would be inappropriate for these interviews. But I'm not sure if I need to all-out job interview style. Will I need changes of clothing between the day interviews and the dinners?

I've never done a wardrobe overhaul because I don't have extra money and I haven't had the fashion sense or time necessary to put together a cheaper wardrobe by combing through thrift stores on a regular basis. Adding to the difficulty is exceptionally broad shoulders, large thighs, and no sense of personal style. I've never assembled outfits beyond "Pants, shirt, shoes." I don't know how to accessorize or anything. I want to look professional and put-together though. So I am freaking out. The saving grace is at least I only need three days worth of clothing.

I have two weekends until the first set of interviews to get ready. I'm willing to put clothing on credit cards, though I can't do anything expensive and ideally they'll be at thrift stores (also I'm losing weight so I don't know how long they'd last me).

Hope me?
posted by schroedinger to Education (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Read the papers of the professors I hope to see (I don't know which ones I'm seeing yet)?

You should 100% absolutely do this, and if you don't, it will put you at a disadvantage.
posted by deanc at 3:44 PM on January 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do you have any friends who would enjoy helping you put together a "business casual" wardrobe? This is something I would find a fun afternoon to help someone out.

If you don't have time to comb thrift stores, Kohl's and JC Penney usually have decent sales and clearance racks where you can get things pretty cheap. Target can be good for tops too - get a cardigan or two and some plain, professional T-shirts or tank tops for underneath.
posted by nakedmolerats at 3:52 PM on January 2, 2013

I'm in a slightly different (lab science) field, but fwiw: You could wear the grey suit pants every day and no one would notice if you rotated shirts. Flats should be fine and should be close-toed so you can tour labs.

Go to thrift stores and look for 2-3 other nice shirts like the button-down but in other colors. If you find button-downs difficult to fit because of your shoulders, there should be shirts made of slightly stretchy material.

To dress up a shirt that might be too boring or if you're wearing all neutral colors, you could try a colorful non-bulky scarf (I like the way that involves folding it in half), also likely available at Goodwill.

And yes, read papers! Ask professors AND their students about their advising styles. Be prepared for current student(s) to take you out at night.
posted by ecsh at 3:52 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

1. Read the papers of the professors you hope to see and work with and have a rough idea of what is covered in the department- that way if you end up with a prof you didn't expect to interview with you're not caught flat footed.

2. The outfit that you have is fine, but I would recommend you get a back up. You do not need to go all out job interview style, but you do need to look presentable. If your clothing needs ironing- ensure it is ironed. Sticking to black and gray is perfectly fine (particularly if you are nervous about spilling something on a white shirt)

3. As you are loosing weight, I'd actually suggest a pencil (or whatever sort of skirt is flattering) skirt worn with dark tights- a skirt is easier to get to fit properly (no hemming). Depending on your area, you should be able to find an ann taylor or something along those lines in a thrift store. Again, go dark, and you'll be able to use it multiple times. I'd get a second blouse to have as backup. and have a cardigan on hand. Lots of places have sales right now, so you might be able to pick up something new for cheap.

4. You don't need changes between interview and dinner.

5. review the archives at Academchic- they are more liberal arts oriented, but they should give you a good idea of what is appropriate attire. They even have a section on interview attire- and I'd personally aim for non suit like attire, but well put together. they have pictures! with examples!
posted by larthegreat at 3:52 PM on January 2, 2013

Congratulations! For most programs, if you're being invited on the interview weekend, you're somewhere between 50% and 99% accepted. I'm a recent graduate of a top program in a biomedical field and when i interviewed, they all worked basically the same way:

Thursday- interviewees arrive, maybe some showcasing of the program, dinner in some casual way, probably with students. Clean, not-torn jeans and a shirt that is a 1-2 notches nicer than a T-shirt would be entirely acceptable.

Friday- The only real high-stress day. You will be rapidly shuttled from faculty office to faculty office and taken on tours and lunches and that kind of thing. There are no gotcha questions. You should know something about what the faculty do. Unless these are programs with direct admissions to specific labs, you don't need to be an expert in everyone's work. Have a vague notion and look up the key terms. Be VERY well-prepared to talk cogently about your own research experience. The faculty are looking for 3 things basically: 1. you understand your own previous work and interests well enough to talk coherently; 2. you are smart enough to listen to them talk about their research and catch enough of it to ask a reasonable question or two; and 3. you're not a big weirdo who they wouldn't want in their lab. Seriously, in most programs, they're going into the interview thinking you'll probably be admitted, and they're looking for red flags. The interview outfit you describe would be a totally normal choice and you will blend in perfectly with the other students. Everyone will wear the same thing for the dinner with faculty as they do for their interviews. You probably wouldn't even have the option/time to change.

Saturday- Fun outing of some kind with students to see what the city and student culture are like. You can dress totally casually for this. Students don't usually have too much say on who is admitted, but if something really awful happens, it'll filter up to the admissions committee. Be friendly, sociable, don't get too drunk or racist or anything.

Good luck. This stuff is fun! Oh, and one piece of advice: Come up with some canned questions you can ask people. People will be trying to make conversation with you all day, and they will constantly say "Do you have any questions?" Make their lives easy by asking them something. Where they live and how much they pay, how much most students publish, which faculty are in-demand. ANYTHING. It makes you seem like a nice person who is really interested in the program.
posted by juliapangolin at 4:06 PM on January 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

I had an answer all typed up, but juliapangolin hit all the key points I wanted to hit. The only additional thing I would add is that you should ask a ton of questions from the current students - they are absolutely your best resource for deciding whether a given program will be a good place to spend the next ~6 years of your life. Ask them about lab culture, about funding, about the gym - this is a big decision!

Regarding reading up on professors' research - you definitely don't need to stress out about reading papers from all of them. Everyone understands that you might be going on a half-dozen such trips in quick succession, with maybe 3-4 interviews at each. However - if there's a specific subfield that especially interests you, or specific professors yuo would like to meet, definitely do let the administrators know ASAP.
posted by kickingtheground at 4:22 PM on January 2, 2013

I did my PhD in biophysics at UCSF and am currently faculty here. The folks above basically have it. Your one outfit sounds totally fine for interviewing - at least on the west coast people are not very style conscious and so long as you look like you put some effort into your clothing you'll be fine. I don't think the east coast faculty are much different either. As juliapangolin says, you probably only need to look relatively formal on the interview day; the other days are probably pretty casual.

Do read up on the faculty you meet with. Being excited about their work and asking intelligent questions goes a long way. Ideally, you should go into it excited to learn about new, cool research and excited to talk about your work. Hopefully, you'll get to meet with a lot of the faculty you asked to meet with and you have specific reasons you wanted to meet with them. faculty are basically looking for smart students who are excited about science and who would be a good fit for their lab/program - they want to filter out both the unmotivated people and the people who are difficult to work with.

Dinners here are pretty casual - in my program it used to be a potluck at the program coordinator's house; in one of the current programs, it's 3-4 faculty with 6-8 interviewees at a nice (but not super-fancy) restaurant.
posted by pombe at 4:24 PM on January 2, 2013

You can pick up some tidy long sleeved jersey shirts and a pair of black pants in Old Navy or Target for almost nothing. You can probably get away with wearing the same pants a couple days in a row. People show up in a range of clothing - ratty jeans aren't a good idea, but you may well see someone do that during your interviews.

Interview advice: This isn't a stress interview; they're just making sure that you're not awful. Scientists love talking about their own research, just get him/her talking about what they do and ask occasional questions.

If there are people you're really interested in, definitely at least read their research descriptions on the department webpage and if you're really really interested in them, read some papers. You will likely be given the option to request specific people to talk to: you will only get to talk to some of the people you want to. Some of the people you talk to will be completely out in left field. If you want to ask something that you might describe as a "stupid question" use the phrase "naive question"; you're new to the field, you get to ask naive questions so you can understand things.

You will be taken out drinking or provided with alcohol at dinners - don't get too drunk. Everyone remembers the guy/gal who got wasted at interview weekend. Don't hook up with anyone. Everyone remembers the guys/gals who hooked up at interview weekend. You will be seeing the same people at multiple interview weekends. Make friends. They may be colleagues someday.

Ask questions about stipend, teaching, health insurance, but don't be too aggressive. Back when I was interviewing, there were major discrepancies between programs in terms of this kind of thing. I don't know if that is still true.

If you're being interviewed, you're almost accepted. I remember being completely terrified going into my first interview. My flight was delayed and I didn't get to change into nice clothing before I had to go to dinner and talk to some people. No one cared. I had a great time talking science with faculty and students - remember you love science, they love science. Somewhere on the third day, me and my student host ended up sneaking into an opera. Interviewing is fun.

Good luck. You'll kick butt.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:30 PM on January 2, 2013

Check the weather where you're going. You may be able to pass with a nice sweater in addition to a couple more shirts.
posted by infini at 5:12 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I second the get a couple scarves, maybe a pashmina or two, in colts that flatter yor eye color, and hair color. You can do this for around $20 at the right thrift stores. Look for silk that is opaque. Scarves and pashminas are for female business attire what a necktie is for male business attire. It can dress up a look for evening, and keep you warmer if need be.
by adding a little spash of color. I would go for very traditional paisley type prints on the scarves. Pashmina can come reversable, also, brief-case, not a purse or a tote, if that can be managed. Don't carry both.
If your budget can stand it, have your hair done in an easy to maintain style.
Good Luck! Go get'em!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:13 PM on January 2, 2013

Old Navy has some v-neck cardigans that can dress up a plain shirt pretty well. I have at least five and I wear them over tanks in the summer and long-sleeve crewneck t-shirts in the winter. I don't wear scarves, but other people would add a scarf or necklace to this to get that put-together look you're after.
posted by aabbbiee at 6:15 PM on January 2, 2013

I came to say something similar to what juliapangolin said. Usually people don't get admitted after the interview only in the case of big red flags. Examples of big red flags:
- not being able to clearly explain your past research projects
- not asking questions/seeming interested in the program
- when asked what your research interests are, talking in depth about a very specific research area not represented in our program
- getting drunk and behaving badly at the social events

If you are enthusiastic about your research and the research at the program where you are interviewing, you should be fine.
posted by medusa at 8:27 PM on January 2, 2013

What professors want in a grad student is either someone who can speak english, or someone who is not crazy (both is a plus) so they can get a lot of work out of them. The university wants someone who will go on to be famous and make them look good. They also don't want to waste an offer on someone who has already decided to go somewhere else, so asking questions about what it's like to live there and such let them know you are serious.
posted by 445supermag at 8:42 PM on January 2, 2013

So much great advice, thank you! One more probably stupid question: will I be perceived poorly if I bring notes to the interviews? I have a tendency to forget important questions when I start talking about research so it would be helpful to have a list in front of me, as well as notes on each professor.
posted by schroedinger at 11:30 PM on January 2, 2013

You will actually be perceived very well if you bring notes to the interview--that shows that you prepared for the interview. Taking more notes while you are there is great, too, for things you want to remember to weigh in your decision making process or names or topics to look up later.

Especially for faculty who you are interested in working with, having in your notes some specific questions to ask them is great. Questions could be about their research or techniques they use or about things like which meetings their students go to or what their lab alumni are up to now.

When I was in grad school, I saw prospective students who came for interviews get rejected for having ridiculously broad interests like "I'm interested in conservation biology" or for expressing really strong interest in something that nobody at our school did. Although I think the former is a bigger deal in organismal programs (where you are admitted directly into a lab without rotations and expected to start research right away), I expect that in biochemistry and biophysics you should have clear, specific areas of interest that match with multiple faculty members at the school. That doesn't necessarily mean that you've read everybody's papers, but it does mean, for instance, that you wouldn't be expressing interest in biophysics in a biochem department where no one takes a physics approach.

Most of all have specific ideas of things you might like to do, whether from your past research experience or from papers you've read. There is no reason to think that will ultimately be your thesis topic, but it shows intellectual maturity and an understanding that grad school is primarily about doing a whole lot of research on a really narrow topic.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:00 AM on January 3, 2013

will I be perceived poorly if I bring notes to the interviews?

If you want notes, have them in a notebook (a small composition or lab notebook), this will allow you to also take some notes (very sparingly). A fraction of very successful professors carry a notebook with them everywhere, and if you can associate yourself with that sort of ethic so much the better.
posted by 445supermag at 7:30 AM on January 3, 2013

Bring notes, if that makes you more comfortable.
Like people are saying, dress more neatly than "scruffy jeans", but full-on interview gear is kind of overkill. Academics/scientists like "neat and clean" but "fancy" kind of scares them/us. Beware of shoes that click loudly like secretary shoes; plain black loafers are preferable to heels, as well as preferable to sneakers. If you have a suit, leave the jacket at home, but suit pants are indistinguishable from any non-canvas grey/black/navy pants. Do bring jeans for the casual parts of the weekend (the best jeans, the dark ones with no holes that don't show skin at your waistline).

Similarly, don't bring a fancy professional briefcase/bag, or your ratty old backpack around with you. This is where it's awesome not to be a guy - get a purse/bag that is large enough to carry a half-size notebook. Get a half-size notebook (5x8 ish, with pockets that accept a folded 8.5x11 sheet) that will be your travel book for all your weekends.
You will be printing info they send you via email, (schedules, maps, meeting places) and printing out your travel arrangements and keeping track of how/if they're reimbursing you, and you can tuck that in the notebook.
You should look over the website, and know the names of all the professors who have worked in the sub-field you're interested in. Even if they don't advertise a project you're super-excited about, you'll probably be marked as "she wants to talk to the biomechanics guys" and you'll end up talking to all of them, or at least more than just your favorites.
Give each of your favorite professors a page in your notebook, and jot down the topics they've published on recently, and any information they have on their webpages that looks interesting. Don't worry too much, they'll be introducing themselves to a lot of students, and will have a 3-minute elevator pitch about what's going on in their labs.
Make a list of questions, and jot down answers if you want; personally I found it more useful to take a couple of minutes between appointments and jot down a summary and impression after talking with them, rather than during (sometimes this involved ducking into the restroom for a moment of unscheduled peace). Especially if you're getting a lab tour, it's pretty high-maintenance to be writing everything down as you go.
You asked about reading current research articles to be up to date in your field of interest. More important than knowing "science" is just having an idea of what the active topics/questions are, who the active researchers are, and how the prof you're talking to fits into that. No one will be expecting you to know facts, or answer questions, though it's great if you can ask relevant questions.
At some point they will probably ask you what other grad schools you're considering, which always made me panic, but they're not trying to be scary or pass any judgement on you. It's more that "oh, if this woman applied to Univ of X she's probably talked to the research group that scooped us last year. I wonder what she thinks of Prof. Y." If it's the admissions office asking, they might be trying to gauge the likelihood that you'll accept (if they're the best school or the worst school on the list) but there's no "wrong answer", and talking enthusiastically about other schools is just showing that you're interested in doing the science and aware of the community.
posted by aimedwander at 7:42 AM on January 3, 2013

Thank you! Also, one more question, if the mods allow:

I applied to many schools (over 10). While I've only heard from a few there is still time before I should give up hope. I am also interviewing for jobs and will have my first interview shortly. If I have a full-time position and I end up getting many interviews what excuses do I give for the amount of time I'll need to take off? A friend suggested I ask the grad schools if I can come in on non-official interview dates. Is that OK?
posted by schroedinger at 7:49 AM on January 3, 2013

At least at my program, our ability to accommodate students who can't come on the interview weekend is extremely limited. We've done it a few times for international students, but in general, students who can't come to interview are simply written off. I would say asking to reschedule, without some incredibly strong reason like emergency surgery, won't likely be received well.
posted by kickingtheground at 8:19 AM on January 3, 2013

Agreed with kickingtheground. In general, students who can't make the time to come on the interview weekend are perceived as being not really serious about the program. They also don't tend to have as good of an interview experience because they miss out on the big planned group activities and meeting tons of people.

You can't possibly go on 10 interviews. Not only can you not take that much time off work, you'll have scheduling conflicts between the schools and drop dead from exhaustion. Prioritize which schools are most important to you. It's okay to cancel on your 10th choice school if your 1st choice wants to interview you at the same time. Recruiting costs a lot of time, money, and effort, and the program only wants to spend that on people who actually might accept their offer.
posted by juliapangolin at 8:31 AM on January 3, 2013

A small notebook sounds great to me - as a side benefit, for me, taking a few notes helps me focus on what's actually going on and ask more thoughtful questions, and it will really help keep everyone straight. The only odd situation I can imagine would be if you were glued to it the whole time, so just make sure to look engaged and make eye contact, etc.

You probably won't actually need >10 interviews to decide, and as juliapangolin says even the prospect is somewhat daunting - I had five and by the third, I knew which was the program for me (and I was also pretty exhausted) so I cancelled the others. Also, to slightly contradict what others have said, at least in my program, we did have two interview weekends every year, partly because it was a big department and we needed to split the recruits up, and partly to help resolve scheduling conflicts. If you have a real conflict you could at least ask the admin if there is an alternate interview weekend. I wouldn't try to come on a non-official date, though - scheduling that many professors is really way too difficult if you're not doing it at least somewhat "in bulk." The only exception I know was a friend of mine who didn't come to the interview because she was living abroad - I think they set up phone interviews, and she ended up joining the department.

But really, you'll be fine, and as juliapangolin says -- P.S., her advice is totally on point in this thread -- it is totally okay to cancel an interview if you have options that work better for you. If possible, try to do it ASAP before they book lodging/transpo for you - I ended up having to eat a plane ticket from one cancelled interview (they couldn't refund it, though I did at least get "store credit" for the fare on that airline) and if money is not abundant right now you probably want to avoid that.

Congratulations! You'll be awesome!
posted by en forme de poire at 9:32 AM on January 3, 2013

Where I did my phd, we had three interview weekends. You can certainly ask to reschedule between available interview weekends.

As said above, a briefcase is a bit fancier than necessary.
posted by sciencegeek at 10:12 AM on January 3, 2013

« Older Smells like SCIENCE   |   Looking for an app to track and time chores! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.