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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Spectrum Launch: What makes a good graduate school interview?

by  /  11 January 2023
A hand holds a compass against a blue background.
Illustration by Laurène Boglio

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Kevin Bender knows how to conduct an interview. He has been on graduate admissions committees for at least 10 years, he says, and has chaired them for about 7. The work involves poring over scores of applications to find graduate students who will bring enthusiasm, skill and diversity to the neurology department at the University of California, San Francisco, where he is associate professor. The top applicants visit the university to meet faculty and current graduate students during a series of on-site interviews.

These meetings, however awkward, are supposed to be fun, Bender says. “You get to meet people and talk science all day. If that’s not fun, you need to think about whether you want to do this.” Some of the best interview conversations have even spawned ideas for new experiments in his lab — cases in which “we are definitely trying to recruit that person.”

But interviewees don’t have to inspire new research to make a good impression, Bender says. He’s mostly interested in how the prospective students engage with the science: “We want to know if you’re the type of person who can think on their feet, think critically about what you’ve done, and enjoy thinking about it,” he says.

That often becomes apparent during conversations about a student’s research, Bender says. Many students come prepared to tell interviewers about their work, he says, but the best can go deeper. “It’s the follow-up questions where you separate the wheat from the chaff,” he says. “That’s where you actually identify who really is thinking about what they’re doing, and who, in contrast, is just really well-rehearsed.”

One way interviewees can demonstrate deeper knowledge is by providing context about their work, Jennifer Heemstra, professor of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, wrote on Twitter. “When you’re really excited to share about your work, it’s easy to go first to what you did, but in the context of an interview (and most science communication) it’s important to first outline *why* you were doing the project,” Heemstra wrote.

Interviewees should also consider how they feel about the department they’re visiting, Bender says. “Is there a sense of whether the environment is supportive?” he says. “Is this a part of the world that you want to live in for five, six years?”

To that end, it is helpful to prepare a list of questions to ask the faculty and students. Julie Cristello, a clinical science Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University in Miami, has even compiled a list that interviewees may want to keep in mind.

As for what not to do during an interview? For starters, don’t be a jerk — at any time, Bender says. Prospective students are invited to gatherings with current students, chats with administrators and plenty of other informal conversations. Racist, sexist or generally rude comments in any of those settings could influence a decision, he says. “If someone is a punk, that person — no matter how good they are on paper — they do not get admitted,” Bender says. “We’re looking for good citizens.”

Jobs, trainings and funds:

  • The Center for Integrated Cellular Analysis, a collection of six research groups across New York City that use single-cell genomics to understand development, welcomes applications for its 2023 Undergraduate Summer Research Program. The program lasts eight weeks and pays an $8,000 stipend.
  • Rebecca Saxe, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is hiring a postdoctoral associate for her lab.
  • The Allen Institute in Seattle, Washington, plans to offer multiple workshops, starting in June, for early-career researchers, including a Neuropixels and OpenScope Workshop and a Summer Workshop on the Dynamic Brain, which will focus on “the neurobiology of sensory processing, coding and neural population dynamics.”

Recommended resources:

  • Many early-career researchers struggle with time management, but assessing big-picture goals, regularly reflecting on progress and tracking weekly tasks can help, writes Maya Gosztyla, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, in a Nature Career Column.
  • If you don’t get that academic job you applied for, it may be because of something entirely out of your control, wrote Paul Schofield, associate professor of philosophy at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in a lengthy Twitter thread last month. For example, Schofield wrote, the committee may think you’re too similar — or not similar enough — to others in the department, or they may have someone else they already plan to hire. The thread serves as a reminder that hiring committees are made up of human beings.

  • Stepping away from graduate school does not equal failure, writes Jacqueline Forson, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in an article for Science, in which she recounts her experience taking medical leave from her Ph.D.
  • Jenny Mai Phan, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke about moving into autism research, receiving her own autism diagnosis and prioritizing good science over fast results, in a conversation with Shannon Des Roches Rosa posted on the site Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.
  • Do you have any academic resolutions for the new year? Andrew Wood, who is in the final year of his biology Ph.D. at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, does — and he outlined three of them in an article for Nature.
  • Anthony Fauci, former chief medical advisor to the president of the United States, reflected on his career path and offered advice for future scientists in an essay he wrote for The New York Times ahead of his retirement. The next generation of clinicians and researchers can help repair public trust in science by ensuring that policy decisions “are driven by the best available data,” he wrote.

Any suggestions for how to make this newsletter as useful as possible, or recommendations for what topic we should cover next? Send them to [email protected].

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