Pandemic Interviews: The Right Way To Do Your Graduate School Virtual Interview

While the pandemic continues, most principles that we outlined in our Graduate School Interviews post remain solid and strong foundations for you to follow and succeed in your virtual interview. Read that article before moving forward with this post. Once you finish, come back and below, we outline the most important things you need to keep in mind before clicking that zoom link.

If you got an interview — that’s a good sign. It means the that the graduate school or institution wants to learn more about you before sealing the deal. As much as they want to learn more about you, this is your opportunity to identify whether this institution will be the right fit for you. In this post, we will help you succeed in your virtual interview.

In general, the way you should prepare for your virtual interview is by following these steps:

  1. Practice Your Science
  2. Study The Faculty And The Students
  3. Prepare Questions
  4. Dress Nicely
  5. Attend As Much As You Can
  6. Sit back and relax.

1. Practice Your Science

You will end up talking with faculty, postdocs and or students. This means people will be curious of what kind of science you’ve been up to. If you haven’t had the opportunity to do any lab work (because of the pandemic or other circumstances), that’s okay! You can discuss the projects you have worked on, even if they were for a class. Remember, the institution wants graduate students, because they keep the academic pipeline moving and the science and innovation growing. What you have to do is sell yourself as someone that loves the art of science and enjoys the day to day. The last thing the University wants to do is accept a student that won’t “produce”.

Yes. We just said the word “produce”. We also are at war with this toxic word. But, the reality is, the universal culture has not shifted enough to consider the negative mental health implications of “productivity” as a concept. Nevertheless, many institutions are trying to work towards building a culture that moves away from that toxicity. If this is something that matters to you, especially in how it affects work-life balance, then this is something you should bring up as a question to identify whether the institution will be a fit for you (more on that in Part 3).

How do you practice your science?

First, gather all the notes you have accumulated, any figures, or any visual “proof” you may have. While it sucks that you can’t go visit the institution for the interview, one advantage of doing a virtual interview is that you have a little bit more leeway in what you can screen share.

Once you have gathered your notes on the projects you’ve worked on, practice describing it out loud to yourself, family or friends. What you want to do is make sure that you can describe what you’ve done in the past without getting too technical, unless prompted to. Faculty and post-docs that will be running the interviews are also busy, have been doing other interviews, and will have a limited working memory capacity. The simpler you make it, the easier it is for everyone.

Our advice is to think about it like this:

  1. What was the problem? Your goal? Hypothesis?
  2. How did you try to solve the problem? Reach your goal?

The first point will provide the background of the problem, and the second point provides your approach. With this simple 2 step system, you will be able to take your listener from A to B. Whether the experiment or project was successful does not matter. Science is mostly failures that, through learning and corrections, lead to a success. It is an iterative process of problem solving. So, don’t worry if you don’t have a cool result to show. Again, remember, they want to learn about you, what you did, and whether they see you staying in the program on the long run.

If you want to make slides for this, go for it. But, limit yourself to 2 slides per project. We strongly suggest that when screen sharing your slides to: NOT ADD TOO MUCH TEXT. You want whoever is interviewing you to pay attention to what you are saying with the visuals as a supplement.

Try to ballpark your “presentation” to be at most 5 minutes. The virtual interview will end up being around 20-30 minutes and you don’t want your science to hog up all the time.

IMPORTANT: a note on not knowing an answer to a question

If you are not sure about a particular technique or there are some blanks missing for some of the things you did, that’s okay. That’s how it always is. We are human, and we don’t know absolutely everything. However, given that you have an opportunity to steer your listener, try to avoid those topics (if at all possible). Don’t talk about things you don’t know because you will risk making it up as you go. And that’s not good. If the conversation does reach those pockets, be honest.

Remember, you did these projects probably with excitement and eagerness and a curiosity to delve into the unknown. When you talk about it, try to make sure that comes out! Interviews are about cultural fit too.

2. Study the program and the students

One of the main drawbacks of having a virtual interview is that it is hard to get a sense of the environment at the institution. Each department has its own vibe, and it is important to learn about the dynamics within the department in order to assess whether it would be a good fit for you.

The first thing to consider is how much effort was put into the interview this year. Does it seem like the administrators took efforts to make your interview process smooth? Figuring out how to organize a zoom interview is not trivial. There are many breakout rooms, and sometimes things have to be figured out on the spot. However, does it seem like the program tried its best? Did you feel like you always had someone to turn to in case of technology problems? The amount of effort that schools put into conducting these interviews is a reflection of how much they care about the students. If it seems like they made a great effort in running the interview event, they are more likely to support graduate student training.

Did a lot of students participate this year? Did upperclassmen participate? One of the factors that I looked for during my interviews was whether I could feel a sense of community among the graduate students. I ended up being drawn to programs where it felt like the graduate students were all friendly with each other. One indicator of a strong community is the participation of the graduate students during interview weekend. Graduate students who care about the community and training environment often want to have some input in choosing their future colleagues. If they were very present during the interview process, that’s a great sign!

3. Prepare Questions

As we have mentioned before, it is important to learn about the graduate school during this process as much as you can. Make sure to ask a lot of questions. The answers will inform you about the program as well as show others that you are engaged.

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a program. Here a list of questions to help you get started:

  • What are the resources for career development?
  • What are the mental health resources that are available?
  • How does the program support teaching and mentorship?
  • What are resources supporting diversity and inclusion?
  • What are the leave of absence policies? For medical leave?
  • Is there data on the career paths of alumni?
  • Is there training for giving talks? Writing grants? Applying for fellowships?

You can ask these questions to graduate students:

  • How do you feel about the training you have received?
  • What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about the program?
  • What’s the environment of the department like?
  • Do faculty members collaborate?
  • What do you do in your free time? Do you have free time?
  • How do you like living in this area?

During your virtual interview, the faculty member will most likely talk about their own research. Make sure to be engaged and ask them questions about their work. This shows that you follow what they are saying and that you are interested in their lab.

If you don’t get all of your questions answered during the virtual interview event, feel free to email the program administrator, your graduate student host, or the faculty.

4. Dress Nicely

I know… it’s a virtual interview, so what does it matter what I’m wearing under the waist? Well, there’s something about “dressing up” for something that highlights it as more memorable than your usual virtual chat. This interview could lead you to land your dream University. It is a special occasion, so dress like it! Scientist don’t tend to wear fancy clothing, but for occasions like this, something nice (doesn’t have to be fancy), but nice, will go a long way. We recommend setting up an outfit (yes, including pants!) and shoes. If it feels like you are out of your routine with different clothes on, then you are doing it right. A different set of clothes for a special occasion will set your body and your mind up for success. Although a cliche, we do believe in the mindset built by “dress for success”.

5. Attend As Much As You Can

It’s likely that the graduate school interview process will involve attending some talks and some informal zoom or video-chat (i.e. gathertown and the like), to meet, greet and learn about different aspects of the University and its people. It is also likely that it was graduate students themselves that choreographed the majority of this process in collaboration with the faculty. These interviews are not easy to set up. Attend not just out of respect, but also to learn about the people you may soon call colleagues and friends! Culture, culture and culture! You may have the best science (or not) and you may think you are super ready and eager to start school, but that may not matter if you don’t fit culturally. You want to identify whether the school and you are a good match. It is a mutually beneficial learning opportunity to go to as many of these events as possible. I know… you may not be the most social or the most extroverted person, but try to put in the effort for this part of the process, it will reward you multiple times over.

6. Sit back and relax

When you have finished the whole thing, you should sit back and relax. The world is in flames right now and we need to make sure we keep our mental health in check. So, after this long process, which will be either a day or two (or more) long, you should reward yourself with some activity or treat. Get yourself some ice cream, eat a delicious pastry, Netflix and chill… whatever you choose, do it because you deserve it.

Best of luck. You. Got. This.


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