Saturday, January 25, 2014

What to ask biomedical graduate students during interview weekends

It’s interview season for graduate programs in the biomedical sciences! For current students, this means reunions with classmates who work in other buildings, a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of free alcohol, and, of course, many well-meaning but ultimately misguided questions from the eager scientists of tomorrow. After three years of careful recruitment weekend observation, I’ve noticed that most interviewees ask the wrong questions of the wrong students - questions about subjects that will have no measurable influence on the quality of their graduate career. This isn’t their fault; I’m sure I asked the same things during my own interview weekends and I ended up in a program well-suited for my personality and research interests anyway. However, in an effort to help prospectives make the best decision for themselves, I’ve put together a list of questions to ask current students that focus on the things that actually matter for graduate students. I hope the list is helpful for any prospective students who might read it, and I hope that this year I’m asked exactly zero questions about the average graduate school GPA. A boy can dream. Here we go.

ASK NO ONE about grades, qualifying exams, required courses, what percentage of interviewed students are accepted, or average time to graduation. Unsurprisingly, these are the topics we’re asked about most often, and I truly believe that the answers are completely irrelevant. I’m not saying that these factors don’t vary widely between programs (except for average time to graduation - every program you interview at will say 5.5 years, and you should expect to graduate in 6.5 years if you’re a realist). Rather, I’m saying that the differences in the number and quality of required courses or qualifying exams will have ABSOLUTELY NO INFLUENCE ON YOUR DAY TO DAY LIFE AFTER YOUR SECOND YEAR. First year students do not know this and will be perfectly happy to discuss the pros and cons of graduate genetics at their home institution at extreme length. Take it from a fourth year: no matter where you go, courses and exams will happen, you will be evaluated, you will pass, and you will not remember the details once you’re immersed in thesis research. There are more important things to talk about with current students, which I’ll discuss below.

ASK FIRST YEARS how their first rotation went, how their going about choosing their second rotation, and how the program supports students during the rotation process. Choosing a lab is the single most important event that happens during your first year, and during interview weekend, you should evaluate how that process works at a given program. You want to be in an environment where first years are critical of their rotation experiences, well informed by the institution about what future rotations will be like, and articulate about what they like and what they dislike about individual labs. Are there formal and informal opportunities for students to discuss their rotation experiences with each other and program coordinators? BEWARE if first years are evaluating labs based only on the potential success of a single research project. The program should teach them that mentorship and lab environment are of equal or greater importance in choosing a thesis lab.

ASK SECOND YEARS about how they’re deciding on a thesis project and what they’re most excited about scientifically. Contrary to popular belief, the qualifying exam is not the most important event in the life of a second year. That honor goes to choosing and delving into a research topic. Do students feel supported in this process by either the PI or (in larger groups) other members of the lab? How often do they meet to talk about ideas? What are the big open questions in their field, and how are they thinking about addressing them? Because they’ve been preparing for their qualifying exams, second years are the most well-read and most open-minded of the entire graduate student population. Scientific conversations with them are often the most fun, so take conversations with them as opportunities to learn about a new field. BEWARE if second years haven’t talked to many other people about thesis topics or can’t critically evaluate their project in terms of feasibility or impact. Faculty members in these programs aren’t doing their jobs.

ASK THIRD YEARS what they do outside of science. Third years are in a slump. Their experiments aren’t working, they aren’t seeing their classmates as much, and they sure as hell don’t want to talk to you about their cloning issues. This is your chance to evaluate how students in a program buffer the challenges of science. What are their other outlets? How often are they meeting up with friends? Are they actually interesting people or cleverly disguised robots? BEWARE if third years are dealing with failure by spending MORE / ALL of their time in lab. That’s evidence of a poisonous culture that will make you more likely to burn out in graduate school.

ASK FOURTH YEARS AND ABOVE what they like and wish they could change about their program, who they’re collaborating with, and whether they want to stay in academia. Older students have enough perspective to fairly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their program. They also give exactly zero shits about getting you to attend their program (unless, of course, they’ve decided that they like you as a person) and so they’ll be honest about their experience. The question about academia will give you some insight into the general interests, personality, and overall jadedness of the student population. As a fourth year myself, I can honestly (wink wink) say that these are the most important students to talk to...the only problem will be finding them. Programs tend to hide their older students away from prospectives. BEWARE if you leave an interview weekend without seeing or talking to a single older student.

Good luck to all the interviewees out there! I look forward to many honest chats (not about classes) over large amounts of free beer.

PS: Thanks, friendly gradcafe user, for surprising me with a shocking number of views with your forum post! That reminds me, I'll update this blog semi-regularly on topics I care about, so if you want to keep up, follow me on Twitter @benjvincent. I'll tweet new updates just like all the youths.

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