Monday, January 11, 2016

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: Preparing for Your Interview

Congratulations! You have been invited to interview for a chance to be a graduate student. …Now what?

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First of all, give yourself a pat on the back. Graduate student positions are highly competitive and as funding dries up, they are becoming even more so. Being invited to interview means that you have done all the right things to grab the attention of a Principal Investigator (P.I., i.e. the person that runs a research lab). At this point, the P.I. has already assessed your application and determined that you have the potential to be productive in his or her lab. Your primary job in this interview is to confirm this view. However, many people forget that interviews go two ways: Your second job in this interview is to assess whether this is the lab where you want to spend the next 4-8 years of your life.

A helpful way to think about interviews is from the perspective of the interviewer. What does a P.I. hope to do by interviewing prospective graduate candidates in the first place? Most P.I.s are limited in how much time they have for mentoring and how many resources they have to support students and their research interests. They want to know that the students that they accept will be motivated, capable, and realistic. They also want to know that anyone new to the lab will get along with current lab members. Ideally, new lab members would also bring in new energy and ideas. To gain insight about where you may fall with respect to these qualities, most interviews for graduate positions include a one-on-one chat with the head of the lab, social interactions with other lab members, and tours of the lab and parts of campus or the geographic area.

Your one-on-one interview with the P.I. is your primary time to convey your passion for what the research lab does and your motivation for being a part of it. This means that you need to do your homework beforehand: Read the lab website (if there is one) and know what the major topics of research are. Read several papers from the lab and have a sense of what techniques they use (The P.I. is usually listed as the last author of papers that are published by lab members). From what you have learned about the lab, have a few different ideas for projects you might be interested in working on if you were a student there. What qualities do you have and what experiences have you had that show that you would be capable to do such a project with adequate mentoring? If you can get the P.I. excited about an idea you pitch, you have a good chance of getting the spot. However, don’t get too attached to your research ideas: They may not be feasible for some reason or perhaps the P.I. only has funding for a student to work on a specific project, so you need to go in with a flexible mindset. You should also ask questions of your own during this time, both to show your serious interest and to assess if this lab and potential advisor are a good fit for you. Here are some questions you may want to ask:
  1. I know you have done research on X, Y, and Z from reading your website and papers, but do you have any lines of research you are currently working on or plan to work on that you have not published yet?
  2. How involved are you in helping your students choose their topics of study?
  3. How do your students learn research techniques?
  4. How are most students in your lab funded? (If you express a willingness to apply for your own funding, the P.I. will be impressed).
  5. How long do most of your students take to get a degree?
  6. Have any of your students left before completing their degree?
All of the lab members will try to assess how well you will likely fit in with the group. Don’t let this freak you out: Just be your natural self, but be careful which self you project: you don’t want to be the version of yourself that relaxes on the couch with friends slinging curse words like a drunken sailor (even if the other lab members are interacting this way with one another). Remember that you are meeting them for the first time, so be the friendly and slightly more formal version of your natural self that you present to Grandma or church. Also use this time to get the “real” scoop that you may not get directly from the P.I. Some good questions to ask lab members (when the P.I. is away) are:
  1. How is the P.I. as a mentor? Have you or anyone else had any issues with the P.I.?
  2. What are other lab members like?
  3. What is it like to be a graduate student in this program?
  4. What is the area like?
  5. Where do graduate students live? What is typical rent like?
  6. How hard is it to get funding as a R.A. (research assistant) or T.A. (teaching assistant)? How difficult is it to balance R.A. or T.A. responsibilities with classes and research?
Don’t forget that as the lab is trying to assess whether you would be a fit with them, you should assess whether they would be a fit for you. Are there opportunities to do research that you find interesting and to gain skills that will be useful to you? Is this a place and a lifestyle that you think you would be happy in for the next several years? And perhaps most importantly, does the P.I. have a personality and mentoring style that will help you grow as a person and as a scientist?

As for what to wear, dress business-casual and appropriate for the weather. There will likely be a lot of walking around, some outside. Scientists are a practical bunch and will not likely be impressed with your fancy outfit if it does not exhibit common sense. On the other hand, they will think you lack motivation if you show up in tattered jeans and a sweatshirt. Wear something semi-professional and comfortable.

Now get out there and knock their socks off!

For more advice on applying for graduate programs, go here.

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