The 30 min grad school interview

February 4, 2013

‘Tis the time of the year for interviewing graduate school candidates. The exact purposes vary from a significant selection process to “just make sure s/he isn’t completely bonkers, okay?”.

Michael Eisen asked on the Twitts:

what do people think are the most useful things to ask in a 30m grad school interview?

After a wisecrack or two I came up with a serious one.

“tell me about the moment you first realized you weren’t the smartest person in the room?”

What would you suggest, Dear Reader?

No Responses Yet to “The 30 min grad school interview”

  1. jipkin Says:

    “Why do you want a PhD?” would have set me aback. But I guess you’re not trying to scare the recruits…

    Don’t know if the smartest-person-in-the-room question would do anything for me – I’ve been around people as smart and smarter than me since elementary school. But the only time I’ve felt like the dumbest person in the room has been in grad school 🙂


  2. zb Says:

    “smartest” is too broad. I do know people who don’t think it has happened yet when they applied for grad school and for whom it actually hadn’t happened (two people I can think of right now). The problem is that “smartest” doesn’t mean anything specific enough for a very capable person. Thereal question is something along the lines of, describe a moment when you realized you had something important to learn, or that something important could be done better by someone else in the room.


  3. Grumble Says:

    I always ask extensive questions about the research projects they’ve been a part of. If they can’t answer the most basic why/how/what does that mean/what would you do next if your had your own lab/etc type questions, and/or if they sound unenthusiastic about their own work, I’m very unlikely to give a recommendation to accept.


  4. miko Says:

    How bout we stop pretending it matters who we let get a PhD?

    Pick a couple arbitrary cutoff criteria, randomize.


  5. zb Says:

    But, part of DM’s big plan is to restrict who gets PhDs. If we’re going to randomize then, why not just randomize earlier — college? high school? elementary school? We could pick a “PhD” track with 5 year olds, randomly, and then have them be the only ones who get to go on to their PhDs (though I guess there’s some value in doing that only with people who already say they want a PhD).


  6. miko Says:

    “But, part of DM’s big plan is to restrict who gets PhDs.”

    No it isn’t, it’s to restrict how many. Big difference.


  7. dr24hours Says:

    My advisor asked: “Are you intelligent?”


  8. For people who do work with live animals (not just as bags of cells): What is your favorite animal and why? This can sort out both the cute-kitten types and the it-doesn’t-matter-what- we do- to- them (as long as I get a thesis and a grant and a job). Asking how they “feel” about animal work does not elicit the same amount of truthiness.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    Interesting Dr24Hrs…I have this growing suspicion that those in the more math/engineering/Comp Sci side of things are positively obsessed with how smart people are. Biomedical stuff isn’t immune of course, but by the very nature (I assume) of the work it is more important to think about accomplishment . i.e., the whole scooping/priority game is about who gets there first ’cause it is pretty much assumed any Tom, Lin or Prithee could get there eventually, given the interest.


  10. Grumble Says:

    “it is pretty much assumed any Tom, Lin or Prithee could get there eventually, given the interest”

    Really? Maybe in your field. Intelligence and creativity actually matter in mine. At least sometimes.


  11. My question: Tell me about something you’ve failed at.

    If they’ve never failed, or are unwilling to admit it, grad school is going to be a brutal shock.

    I agree that the smartest person in the room question would have been a pointless question for me: my sister and I have competed for the title of “smartest” in every subject my entire life. Also, I’ve been in a room with my grandfather, a man who completed 2 undergrad degrees and a PhD in less time than I will likely complete a PhD.


  12. anon Says:

    My favorite question from my being interviewed is of the same flavor as the “smarted person question.” After basic questions, the interviewer said, “Your interested in X. Tell me what you know about the basic principles of X.” I gave a 1 minute answer & the interviewer pushed to to explain more detail & then more detail until I said something like, “Um, that’s about what I know right now.” I then commented that the interviewer was the first person to bother to check whether I knew anything regarding what I claimed to know. The interviewer responded that he didn’t actually care what I did or didn’t know, & just wants to see how people react when they reach the edge of their knowledge since that is were most PhD research is done. Are they comfortable there? Do they start making things up? Do they get offended that someone dares to question their knowledge?


  13. Larry Moran Says:

    “Have you applied to Medical School?”


    “Why do you want to become a graduate student?”


  14. Interviewer Says:

    Close your eyes, what do you want to be doing right now instead of being in that chair. If the answer isn’t, “Developing the western blot I left over the weekend” then dont go to grad school.


  15. Joe Says:

    @miko ” How bout we stop pretending it matters who we let get a PhD?
    Pick a couple arbitrary cutoff criteria, randomize.”

    I have a friend who used to propose at the first admissions cmte meeting every year that we take the first 40 applicants and be done with the process. It would probably work just as well as what we do. A majority of my colleagues on the faculty say that they would never have gotten into our grad program, so clearly the criteria used are not the only (or maybe, best) predictors of success.

    I agree with Grumble that if you ask them about their research you will quickly learn how well they understand what they are working on and their level of enthusiasm.


  16. AmasianV Says:

    Hold up any number of the graphs you’ve included in your posts and ask, “What do you see?”


  17. Ola Says:

    I always ask the million dollar question – “Given unlimited resources, tomorrow, no restraint, any equipment you want, anything, all the people you need, and supplies, etc., what is the most interesting scientific question you’d like to ask?”

    The answers vary from the completely inane (and instant fail) “I wanna cure cancer”, through to the stupid “I want to do teleportation”, with a few people who can actually think on their feet interspersed. The lazy ones of course want to ask a question related to whatever they’re doing as an undergrad’ project (can’t think outside the box).

    My other main question goes something like this – “70% of grad students want to be tenure track professors, but only 30% will ever get there. What are your plans for making sure you’re in that 30% group? In other words, why are you better than average?”


  18. AA Says:

    I think “intelligence” (i.e. how smart you are is overrated). Intelligence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to get a PhD. My opinion is that anyone with a decent intelligence level (i.e. not a retard) can get a PhD as long as other factors like perseverance and resourcefulness are present. You don’t need an IQ of 200 to be in grad school…


  19. Hermitage Says:

    I would have been like ‘lol wut’ at that question…people consistently made sure for most of my life that I knew I was not the smartest person in the room. I might fall down in shock the day the reverse happens.

    To me, the most useful questions were to ask them to explain a recent research/class project they did. Seeing how much they bothered to push themselves in a situation where they had a little freedom/leadership is very informative, methinks…


  20. Bashir Says:

    “smartest” doesn’t mean anything specific enough for a very capable person. Thereal question is something along the lines of, describe a moment when you realized you had something important to learn,

    Totally agree. If you’d asked me the “smartest” version I would have said I’ve never been in a room with someone who could do things I couldn’t learn to do.

    The other question happens constantly. That’s how you know you’re doing things right.


  21. Bashir Says:

    The answers vary from the completely inane (and instant fail) “I wanna cure cancer”, through to the stupid “I want to do teleportation”,

    wait, why is teleportation stupid? I mean, that would be hot shit. Totally blow up physics.


  22. Lady Day Says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever been the smartest person in any room. There’s always something I can learn from other people, even if it’s an unintentional lesson in life.


  23. Lady Day Says:

    … and, there’s always something I can learn from my surroundings – by observing other beings or even inanimate objects – not just from people….

    What does it mean to be “the smartest person in the room”?… Hmmmmm….


  24. miko Says:

    There are many people whose whole identity is wrapped up in how smart they think they are. They range in douchery from MENSA-member epic levels to standard issue mansplainer.

    The only right answer to that question is “it’s never occurred to me.”


  25. drugmonkey Says:

    See? I’m right, even these short answers are really friggin interesting!


  26. DJMH Says:

    “Well, I can say for sure I’m the smartest person in THIS room!”

    Best accompanied by eye roll, and slightly aggrieved sigh.


    I like the idea of asking about previous research, and drilling down enough to find out how they respond. Equally good to ask about obstacles overcome.


  27. zb Says:

    Yeah DJMJ, me too. You’d have to precede the question with, “well, so you really want this job/acceptance/grant” and then ask the question. Iam smart enough to know that “that’s a stupid * question” isn’t going to fly.

    I wanted to ask students what the integral of e^x was, but everyone told me that would be obnoxious.


  28. becca Says:

    Did your parents really raise you like that DM? What a weird thing for them to do. Explains much.


  29. drugmonkey Says:

    “Raise me like” what? To ask interesting questions? Probably.


  30. becca Says:

    Well, either they raised you to think you were the smartest person in the room, which lacks a certain… humility.
    OR they raised you to enjoy watching the less powerful than you squirm as you ask them impossible questions. And when did you stop beating YOUR wife?


  31. drugmonkey Says:

    Wait…so it is a parental *mistake* if their kid just happens to be smarter than they are? Because otherwise I’m not seeing where you come up with “raised you to think” part.

    It is not, in fact, an impossible question as many in this thread have just demonstrated.


  32. Boehninglab Says:

    I am practically a professional grad applicant interviewer and chair an admissions committee. It is really quite simple. Ask them progressively more difficult questions about their previous research project(s). If their field is significantly different from mine, they should know more than me. The rest is filler.


  33. NatC Says:

    I ask what their favorite and least favourite things are in the lab.
    How they answer is as interesting as the specific things. Some have techniques, one said hir favourite part was when a project started to come together.


  34. Dave Says:

    Who cares who is the smartest? May as well drop your trousers and compare member size if that’s your approach to interviews. You don’t need to be smart to do biomedical research. The only things that are important are a willingness to learn, commitment to science and a passion for research, an understanding of exactly what is involved time wise and an appreciation of career issues in academic research


  35. miko Says:

    So… what exactly is the point of any of these questions? What are admissions committees looking for? Whatever it is, why do you think it’s important?

    Remember, the majority of these people will never be professional research scientists.


  36. Spiny Norman Says:

    Why would you want to do this?

    Do you understand that it’s not a safe career path, even if you are a really good student and you get you degree from an elite school?

    I ask these questions in most interviews.


  37. Brugg Says:

    Back then I was asked:
    1. “What will you do, if during/after the first year you find out this isn’t for you?”
    2. “You’ve had neither real bench experience nor co-authored no papers. How do you know you would like basic science research?”


  38. becca Says:

    DM- it’s a parental mistake to not foster your child’s education. That includes facilitating appropriate challenges for optimal mental and emotional growth. One of the easiest ways to ensure that for a smart kid is to get the kid in a room where ze is not the most academically gifted at a much earlier stage than grad school. Another important feature in educating a child is teaching them to differentiate between “the most academically inclined” and “the smartest” (and also “not academic or smart but someone I can learn from”). The selection process that leads people to appear at a grad school interview is predominantly along the academic inclination dimension… which says little about quick-wittedness, or breadth of understanding, or wisdom, or ability to learn in a wide variety of settings, or ability to integrate empathy with intellect in the way necessary to act ethically, or any number of other important dimensions of “smartness”. Very few people are gifted in everything. And nobody starts out that way from birth (especially on wisdom and ethics), so everyone who is aware of this has years of experience of not being the smartest person in the room.

    So, while it is not impossible to answer your question diplomatically, it would be necessary to do so by politely pointing out it rests on an incorrect assumption.

    Unless, of course, what you really care about is how someone responds when they are asked a question that rests on flagrantly incorrect assumptions. Which is probably useful, but it’d be a lot smarter to get at that by asking them to tell you a story about how they learned to diplomatically point out someone’s flagrantly incorrect assumptions. Because A) if they are smart, they will likely be able to identify a good example B) it’s a lot more of a pro-social (read: less dickish) way of getting at the same info.


  39. Dave Says:

    2. You’ve had neither real bench experience nor co-authored no papers. How do you know you would like basic science research?

    Which is why a demonstration of commitment here is a key factor. How much research have they done as an undergraduate? When I was applying back in the day, the best places were reserved for those who had done some sort of research internship during their studies. Do they understand the (often) monotonous nature of bench work?


  40. physioprof Says:

    Ask them progressively more difficult questions about their previous research project(s).

    This is exactly what I do. I find all this bullshittio about “Why do you want to do this?” or “Do you think you are smart?” or “Do you know how painful this is going to be?” to be grossly offensive and irrelevant. I don’t give a single flying fucke about the stories people tell themselves about *why* they do or don’t want to do particular shitte.

    In large part, this is because people have very little idea themselves why they do or don’t want to do particular shitte, but also because even if they did, I really don’t fucken care why.

    What I care about is *what* people want to do and *how* they will probably do it.


  41. DrugMonkey Says:

    becca- you seem to assume all parents are suburban and have a tremendous group from which to select friends. Not to mention assumes a tremendous amount of wherewithal. How unusually classist of you.

    Dave, PP-
    The point is not to know a damn thing about how smart some kid is. It is that really smart people who haven’t realized their world is about to be filled with really smart people, smarter than them even, are at considerable disadvantage. Yes, the occasional person exists who is going to make it their whole life without this realization….some get the gist all by themselves (hi PP) and others are assholes like Watson.


  42. drugmonkey Says:

    Spamming is not a good way to keep your points posted, my pit denialism friend.


  43. lkkke Says:

    You are to “pitbulls” (whatever that means, you don’t clarify) as Jenny McCarthy is to vaccinations


  44. lkkke Says:

    delete all you want, kiddo


  45. lkkke Says:

    I wouldn’t expect any less of you


  46. lkkke Says:

    I don’t particularly care about pitbulls, btw, I just dislike the ignorant spreading of misinformation. It’s particularly irritating in this case as you purport to be a scientist, so you’re sullying our collective reputation.


  47. drugmonkey Says:

    Well someone is certainly the Jenny McNutbag in this scenario…


  48. drugmonkey Says:

    A reputation for letting a theological belief that pitbulls can do no harm overwhelm our ability to face facts? Sure, I’ll dismantle that.


  49. becca Says:

    DM- first, imparting an appreciation for diverse cognitive contributions from an array of people costs no money and requires no particular type of place to live. Having a questioning attitude toward what people mean when they say “smart” is also a minimal survival skill for getting through academia without being a douchebucket.

    Second, how to get kids appropriate academic challenges IS hideously wound up with classism, and racism and sexism, and every other social injustice I can think of. However, I know families with all types of incomes that struggle with how to best educate their kids (academically inclined and otherwise), and all types of solutions, many of which are not resource intensive.


  50. @Bashir
    Would that be your answer then or now as well? I understand the difference between people who just have a different skill set than myself and smarter ones, and yes, I was was pretty cocky starting grad school, but really, haven’t you run into the latter kind? The type that looking at data just “see” the important trend, not just because they are trained in the latest statistical techniques, but beyond that?


  51. Spiny Norman Says:

    lkkke’s repeated off-topic posting is a hallmark of a douchebag troll. Please forcibly uninvite him, DM.


  52. Eli Rabett Says:

    Tell me about your undergraduate research advisor’s style.


  53. wormsense Says:

    I ask the same four questions of every applicant. (This strategy is a called a structured interview process and some social science research suggests that it yields better results.)
    1. Where are you on the spectrum between “I gotta figure it out for myself” and “I need to apprentice with someone first”?
    2. When doing something you have never done before do you “read all about it” or “just try it”? Or somewhere in between.
    3. Give one example of an experiment you did that failed and how you figured out the reason and fixed it.
    4. What do you enjoy most about doing lab work? Planning? Collecting data? Analyzing data? Synthesizing results?

    IMHE, asking applicants to discuss their prior work just unleashes a very practiced shpiel that provides little insight into what they know vs. what they memorized for the interview.


  54. physioprof Says:

    IMHE, asking applicants to discuss their prior work just unleashes a very practiced shpiel that provides little insight into what they know vs. what they memorized for the interview.

    Then you suck shit at interviewing. Your four questions are much more subject to pre-canned answers than a Socratic probe into the limits of the applicant’s substantive knowledge of their previous research.


  55. miko Says:

    wormsense, I don’t see how anyone who hasn’t already done a PhD could answer those questions in a meaningful or informative way.


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