How to REALLY prepare for grad school interviews

Graduate school interviews are unlike anything you’ve done before, so how do you prepare? You’ve also probably heard that biomedical graduate school interviews are just as much about recruiting you as interviewing you. What does that mean for what you should expect during these conversations. Here are some tips from our best interviewers and interviewees so that you know whats coming when you start on the interview trail.

What did you focus on in preparing for individual interview?


An in-depth look at the applicant
-Dr. James Patton

Research experience, letters of recommendation, and personal statement
-Dr. Michelle Grundy

Prior research experience, general overview of undergrad grades and GRE scores, personal statement, letters of recommendation
-Dr. Tim Cover



Learn enough that you can hold an intelligent conversation or at least show interest in it. They know about you and you should look in to them. This doesn’t have to mean knowing every aspect of their papers but know what they work on, who they might work with, what techniques they may use, etc. Be prepared to ask questions.
-Chris Hofmann

I studied my interviewers quite thoroughly. Even though I didn’t understand everything I tried to dig through their most recent publication to get a sense of what they studied and know a little background on their research.
-Christian Marks

I did the basic background check through NIHreporter, NCBI, and the laboratory webpages. I also made sure I had at least 3 good questions to ask them about their work that could spark discussion.
-Teddy van Opstal

What are the most important things you are looking for during the interview conversation?


1. Communication skills and logical thinking
2. Level of understanding of previous experiences
3. Knowledge and level of interest in Vanderbilt and graduate school
-Dr. Bill Valentine

1. Ability to explain research project at high level
2. Ability to teach me something new from their project
3. Ability to ask a meaningful question about my research
-Dr. James Patton

1. Can the candidate engage in a dialogue about their research experiences and demonstrate that they really understood what they were doing and why they were doing it.
2. Do I feel that the candidate is picking up concepts that I try to teach them during the interview and engage in a dialog about my research program.
3. Motivation for going to graduate school and choosing Vanderbilt to apply to.
-Dr. Todd Graham


1. Why they chose to stay at a given institution
2. What makes a given program superior
3. How does a program take care of its students?
4. Quality of life, personal and career, for students?
-Wyatt McDonnell

1. Does the interviewer talk positively about the department and the students?
2. The interviewer was interested in me and my interests, and advised me what aspects of the department, university, or city aligned with those.
-Jessica Tumolo

1. Overall research atmosphere (rigorous but collaborative research environment)
2. Whether my interviewers seem interested in getting to know me
3. What my interviewers think about the institution or the department
-Thao Do Vy Le

What was the typical format for an interview conversation?


1) small talk, e.g.. anything we have in common and general info and questions about Vanderbilt and Nashville to break the ice, 2) provide the student the opportunity to elaborate on previous research experience and education with questions interjected by me, 3) allow applicant to ask me questions 4) discussion of applicants graduate school and career goals, if the applicant is able to maintain a conversation, articulate their experiences, and has interest in Vanderbilt that more than consumes the allotted time
-Dr. Bill Valentine

Welcome….relax talk about anything that concerned me in the application. Ask how much time they have spent on average in the research lab. I always ask what the overall goals of the lab are. I ask what someone else is doing that they think is interesting. Then I discuss their work in the lab, and in some detail. Then I try to relate this to what people are doing here and finally I ask if they have any questions I might be able to throw some light on.
-Dr. Roger Chalkley

What made you want to go to grad school? What makes you excited in the lab? What are you looking for in your next steps? Can you draw this for me? (in terms of your research project) These are my science/career questions targeted at gauging the applicant’s passion/level of experience etc Then I ask about the applicant and whether they have particular questions about the program, the lab, Vandy in general and then the conversation can take different avenues
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou




Mostly, I’d be asked about my research experience and the PI would ask me questions about it. The biggest chunk of time would be spent (as a general trend) listening to the PI tell me about their research, with me asking questions about it whenever I could get them in. The last 5-10 minutes would be spent discussing any questions about the school/program that I’d have.
-Lorena Infante

Typical interview questions: “Tell me about yourself/your research/this publication/what you actually did in lab?” “What do you most want from grad school/this department/this program?” “What do you want to do long term?” “Why do you want to go to this university?” “Why should we take you?”   Would also learn about current research being done in the lab/university and was expected to ask questions to show understanding or interest.     I also asked for a tour of the lab whenever possible.
-Erin Breland

Usually the interviewer would ask how the interview has been so far, and might ask where else I have interviewed or plan on interviewing, and then what I am interested in studying in grad school and what research projects I had been involved with as an undergrad. In some cases, I was specifically asked why I thought I needed a PhD. After that, the interviewer would start talking about their research. In some instances they would ask if I had any questions for them, which in my mind translated to are you going to ask me about my research now? In that case, I would prompt them about their research and try to ask questions as they came to me. In other cases, the interviewer would just launch into what their lab works on without any prompting, and then they would ask me at the end if I had any questions for them, and depending on what we had already talked about I would ask about the department, the students, or the city.
-Jessica Tumolo

What makes a good impression on you during the interview?


Scientific savvy (includes a clear understanding of their project and the career of doing science), clear research into Vanderbilt resources. I love it when applicants are real…when they know they don’t know everything yet and are okay with that. When they ask questions instead of put a facade of perfection.
-Dr. Beth Bowman

Ability to convey excitement about current research project, ability to ask a good question about my research
-Dr. James Patton

Makes a good impression if applicant seems enthusiastic and motivated, communicates clearly, has good understanding of a previous research project, and asks insightful scientific questions.
-Dr. Tim Cover


When faculty get out data and are excited to talk, introduce you to members of the lab and have them seem excited
-Whitney Miller

Genuine interest in my “story”/desire to do research.
-Gabrielle Rushing

When the interviewers had looked at my application beforehand… made it feel like you were important. Ease of conversation and excitement over their research and current students.
-Sierra Palumbos

What makes a bad impression on you during the interview?


If an applicant doesn’t ask any questions, it suggests that he/she is not inquisitive.
-Dr. Tim Cover

When an applicant doesn’t eventually settle into a comfortable conversation. I know this is asking a lot (it is an interview after all!), but we just want you to be real
-Dr. Beth Bowman

(1) If it feels like I have to coax every answer;   (2) if the candidate cannot address specifics about the research he/she has carried out (i.e. “I cloned a gene” – Which gene? – “I don’t know. My professor gave me the vials” – did you ever ask? – “I took the project over from another student” (3) When it is obvious we are considered a safety school and the candidate is not really interested in the school
-Dr. Christine Konradi


No eye contact, long pauses, one sided monologue by interviewer
-Andy Perreault

If the person was disengaged, or just didn’t seem interested in talking to me. One person shut down the conversation almost immediately once we realized we didn’t have very overlapping interests.
-Laura Colbran

Long spiels on the PI’s science that were over my head with no attempt or recognition that I was not understanding- its intimidating to ask lots of questions, but a significant portion of the time people were talking- i was lost and there is only so many questions you can ask before you just feel dumb (even if that’s not the case and you are just not in the same field)
-Monika Murphy


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