Graduate school (biology) interview overview series: part 1

I feel like graduate school interviews are like a marathon (not that I’ve actually participated in a marathon… you’d have to ask Tammy about that) and that any interviewee deserves a ribbon or medal of some sort. Or cookies. Lots of cookies.

After getting my first interview invite, I started doing research about what they entailed and what I was supposed to do during them. And interviews are pretty much like a way for you to sell yourself to the professor (and school/program, but mainly the professors that are interviewing you) as a well-adjusted/sane individual who really knows his/her research inside and out, without coming off as arrogant. I had to go through various people/blogs/forums to get answers to my questions and it was a huge hassle. So I’m compiling an overview of my experiences that someone will hopefully find helpful in the future. The post will be tailored for graduate interviews in the biomedical sciences/biology/immunology but might be helpful for interviews in other programs/topics.

I’ll break this post down into parts This post got way too long so I decided to break this down into several posts: how I prepared, general/most common questions I was asked, what I (and others) wore, what questions you might want to ask and other miscellaneous things/tips.

under the cut: How I prepared (to talk about my own research and interviewers’ research)

1) How I prepared (to talk about my own research and interviewers’ research)

My own research:
You’ll probably hear this numerous times, but seriously, have an elevator pitch ready for each of your research topics that you mentioned in your personal statement/statement of purpose. For those unfamiliar with the term “elevator pitch,” here‘s a decent article describing what an elevator pitch is/should include or the tl;dr version, from the article: “It’s the 30-second speech that summarizes who you are, what you do and why you’d be a perfect candidate.”

I started by writing down a really broad summary of what my research experiences entailed. It seriously helps to write it down. I continually referred to my “cheat sheets” throughout my 1.5 months of interviewing. Also, you often get new questions about your research that you might not have thought to think about so this system makes it easy for you to continually add details to (that’s a long winded sentence because it’s late. hope you get the gist of it).
bullet point 1
: I studied stress resistance in C. elegans.

Then I started expanding and further expanding on that until you have a list of bullet points of nitty gritty details. It’s like the inverted triangle approach to writing.
E.g. continued
bullet point 2
: I studied stress and heavy metal resistance pathways in C. elegans.
bullet point 3: The stress resistance pathway is mediated by… blah blah… (sorry for the vagueness. I just seriously hope someone in my old lab doesn’t find this blog lol)
bullet point 3a-?: details
bullet point 4: The heavy metal resistance pathway is mediated by… blah blah blahhhh
bullet point 4a-?: details

For each research experience, I would also suggest knowing not only the details, but the big-picture/purpose/intentions/over-arching theme(s) of each project. You are likely to get a few questions about why you did certain things and how you would’ve done things differently. I also got questions about how I would’ve continued certain projects. You’re also very likely to get an interviewer that will keep asking you questions in increasing detail (and difficulty) and once you reach the point of unknown because you will, don’t bs. Just tell him/her you don’t know the answer.

Interviewers’ research:
Most schools will ask you for your professors (aka interviewers) of interest so even if you don’t get an itinerary before the interview, you have an idea of who you might be interviewing with. To prepare for individual interviews, I read each professor’s research summaries (most professors will have these listed through the school webpage or their individual lab pages which you can usually find by googling “[professor name] lab,” if they have one).

I wrote down the key points and any questions I might have for them about their research… which I only started doing for my last interview (lol) which I should’ve done from the beginning. It’s a great way to keep to the conversation going if there’s an awkward lull, and it shows the interviewer that you took the time to read up on them and critically think about what they do.

Personally, I did not read any papers. I feel like lab research moves quickly and if I read a paper, those details might no longer be that relevant by the time I ask. Also, most professors will tell you about their current research, and it worked better for me to ask them more general research interest questions while asking questions about their research during their spiel. However, I know some people were more comfortable going into interviews after reading a paper (or sometimes papers) so do it if that’s what works for you. Personally, I don’t/didn’t always know if I would be rotating in these labs after really talking to them, so I felt like it would be a waste of my time to read and figure out all the details of papers that I’d likely never have to refer back to again. On the other hand, it’s always best to stay updated on biological research on various fronts, but… I’m just lazy okay? Scientific papers are seriously difficult (I’ve literally fallen asleep to like 95% of the papers I’ve had to read. Scientists are bad and convoluted writers, man. And that other 5% most likely were under 3 pages and with many pictures.) for me to read, and I just did/could not want to put in the time unless I knew for sure it would be worth it. I’m sounding really defensive so I’ll just stop typing.

tl;dr version:
I wrote down key points and details of each research experience I had (to refer to and add to as interview season continued). Don’t bs. Just don’t. Know why/how/what-if.
Read about interviewer research interests and wrote down key ideas and questions. Did not read any papers.

Hope part 1 was sufficient. lmk if you have any questions. Will be back for part 2.




  1. I’m never going to have to do this, but it’s really cool to read through the process! (kind of reminds me of the process I went through with accounting recruiting)

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