Succeeding in a Virtual Interview

As most, if not all, Biomedical graduate programs move toward holding virtual interviews for the Fall 2021 recruiting season, our faculty and students wanted to share their tips with you! For our 2020 interview season, we had to hold our last two IGP interviews remotely, so we have incoming students and faculty who have already been through the virtual recruiting process. Let their experience help you have a successful virtual interview season!

Did a virtual interview feel awkward to you? If so, can you explain?

FACULTY

No, felt totally fine, new normal.
– Ray Blind

Definitely feels awkward. I often have to take my Zoom meetings from my bedroom in order to have quiet and it is a very strange feeling to have complete strangers see your bedroom. They only see a plain wall, they don’t know it is a bedroom, but I know. It is also much harder to read body language over the computer and interviews can often become even more formal as a result.
– Fiona Harrison

No, felt fine
– Richard O’Brien

STUDENTS

Overall, the virtual interviews did not feel too awkward to me. This may have been because I had already gone through three in-person interview weekends at other schools beforehand, but I also credit the professors I interviewed with for Vanderbilt with creating a relaxed atmosphere and giving clear explanations of their research interests. There was the occasional awkwardness of talking at the same time as the interviewing professor and losing some of the conversation, but this did not happen too frequently.
– Nicky Eleuteri

I actually felt more comfortable. There is a little sense of safety when the person is interviewing you over a monitor, instead of in person. The notepad was also useful for taking notes during our conversation. Overall, the notepad + virtual interview gave me more confidence in my interview.
– Jorge Bahena

Did you prepare any differently for a virtual interview than in-person? If so, how?

FACULTY

I thought virtual interviews were better, perhaps less subjective.  I could be referring to CV and papers while student was telling me about research.
– Ray Blind

Preparation was the same – I read the file and make a few notes. I try to give all interviewees a similar interview so I have my questions prepared in advance.
– Fiona Harrison

No, usual preparation – I always make a list of key info on the person being interviewed
– Richard O’Brien

STUDENTS

I did not prepare too differently for a virtual interview compared to an in-person interview. I believe that I used the same strategies for both scenarios, such as reading through the professor’s lab website, thinking of questions to ask, and practicing my description of my research background and interests.
– Nicky Eleuteri

Not really. I just made sure I had my laptop charger nearby. I also pulled up web pages with details about my interviewing professor, in case I needed them as a reference during the interview.
– Jorge Bahena

How was the experience in a virtual interview the same or different to you as an in-person interview? Were you able to get to know the interviewee as well as an in-person interview? If not, why?

FACULTY

Virtual is the same as you can gather how familiar the student is with research vs. what they were told they need to know or the schtick they memorized.
– Ray Blind

It did not feel as personal so perhaps I did not get to know the interviewee as well as usual. But on the other hand, we were doing Zoom because of a global pandemic so we had a shared experience that became an easy thing to talk about.
– Fiona Harrison

Yes, not much difference for me
– Richard O’Brien

 STUDENTS

Some similarities with both experiences were the portion of the interview devoted to research descriptions from both myself and the professors, the friendly demeanor of the professors, and the opportunity to ask questions (even more important for the virtual interviews!). Some differences included minor technical difficulties (I had to speak with one professor on the phone) and the inevitable impersonal nature of platforms. I felt that I was able to ask enough questions and hear about each professor’s reasons for choosing Vanderbilt and what they enjoyed about research in both settings.
– Nicky Eleuteri

I think so. I think as long as the interview is sufficiently long, and the interviewer makes a strong effort to reach out to the student and present their research thoroughly, a virtual interview is not a hindrance to getting to know each other.
– Jorge Bahena

Any other general advice/tips?

FACULTY

Having a mic with a headset makes the sound quality a lot better.
– Ray Blind

Treat it like a real interview. Get dressed appropriately, try to find an appropriate background for your interview, do your prep work about the interviewer, and be ready to answer questions about your research. If you think you may be disturbed (family, pets, wifi issues) mention it in advance and show that you are prepared (‘my wifi has been intermittent recently, if we get cut off please would you call me back on this number’). For all interviews, online or not, show that you have read something about the interviewer’s lab and work. Let the interviewer do some of the talking and ask questions about what they say. We want to know that you are engaged and interested in science in general even if it is not your chosen area.
It’s fine to ask questions about Vanderbilt, the graduate program itself, and Nashville. We want to be sure we have students that are going to be happy here and thrive so it is important that you ask lifestyle questions too. This is particularly important if we are losing the in person visits where interviewees would ordinarily have toured the campus and the city and met current students.
During interviews we are looking for reasons to accept the student, not reasons to reject them. Tell us all of the great things that you have done so that we can easily put this into our written reports and recommendations. Trainees often forget that even a ‘failed’ summer that did not generate good data can be framed in a positive manner that looks impressive to an interviewer – “I spent the summer trouble shooting a Western blot protocol. I tried 2 different extraction methods after looking up alternate ideas through pubmed, and three different antibodies. In the end it turned out that there was no difference in expression between the control and the experimental group which was disappointing but I am now extremely experienced in designing and trouble shooting that kind of experiment!”.
– Fiona Harrison

STUDENTS

I was lucky enough to have access to a private room where I could settle down and prepare mentally for the interviews, which was incredibly beneficial. Also, I came dressed professionally and had my research description and any questions well-prepared beforehand.
– Nicky Eleuteri

Relax. Make sure you can have a detailed conversation about your own work. Definitely read up on the interviewing professor’s research interests/projects. This will help make the interview more interactive and the student will get more out of it. Don’t worry about understanding the details of a professors work (this can become exhausting when you have multiple interviews at multiple schools), just the big picture.
– Jorge Bahena

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