How to interview for PhD programs (or anything)

The worst thing you can do is be an asshole. The second worst thing you can do is be forgettable.

Interviewing is a lot like trying to sell a used car. It's inherently uncomfortable (at least for non-sociopaths) to sell something that you know has flaws and imperfections. Will they ask how the front door got dinged? Will they notice that the AC smells when you turn it on?

For interviews, it's even weirder, because you are both the used car salesman and the used car. You're trying to sell yourself. And while most of us know what someone is looking for in a car (low mileage, no accident history, and so on), you've probably never hired someone.

I was very anxious before my first "real" interview at Octant.1 Fortunately, this led to my first "real" job there, where I got to take part in several dozen interviews across all areas of the company: software engineers, synthetic organic chemists, office managers, and so on. From the other side of the table, I learned that an effective interviewer essentially wants to learn three basic things:

Often times, especially for the awkward crowd attracted to graduate programs and technical work, interviewing can feel like a crapshoot. And, in fairness, sometimes it is.

But people often undersell themselves by simply repeating what's on their CV and reminding the interviewer that they meet the job qualifications. To torture our used car salesman analogy a bit more, this would be like stepping onto a lot and the salesman mumbling, "so here's the red Toyota Corolla with 40,000 miles. Any questions? Ok, thank you for you for coming."

A company (or academic department) wouldn't be interviewing you if you didn't meet the minimum qualifications.2 Your job is to remind them how well the car works with Apple CarPlay, or talk about all the experience you gained from designing a CRISPR screen.

Putting the car salesman to rest now, how do you prepare to "sell yourself" as a graduate student?

For Big Question 1 (are you the same guy on your CV?), you should know your research and projects well and be prepared to talk about them in depth. Be upfront about what you did versus what your mentor or manager did, but understand why each decision was made. (Why are you using this cell line versus another? Why are you using this reporter? Why are you using this algorithm?)

Understand the context in which that project sits, and be prepared to venture into adjacent areas. If you're studying chemotherapy resistance in colorectal cancer, be prepared to talk about melanoma or discuss alternative therapies. Nobody likes a bullshitter, and it's ok to say something like "I don't know." Or better yet, give the interviewer something to work with like:

"I don't know, are the driver mutations in melanoma similar to those in colorectal cancer?"


"I haven't thought about that specifically, but I do know that combination therapies have similar issues in the clinic..."

You shouldn't assume that the interviewer has read your CV, but you should go beyond regurgitating your CV and provide a more rich picture of your work.

For instance, when an interviewer says, "tell me about your undergraduate research." The default answer might be:

"I studied chemotherapy resistance in colon cancer."

This isn't particularly informative and doesn't give the interviewer much to work with. Instead you can say:

"Well, I wanted to understand what drives chemotherapeutic resistance in colon cancer, so I worked with my mentor to design a CRISPR screen in colon cancer cell lines, and then subjected them to a battery of different compounds. I found several key mutations that conferred resistance to drugs. We're following up on this assay to confirm our results, which I would be happy to talk about but I'm also happy to explain how I executed this more."

It's important not to ramble here, so be succinct and give the interviewer a chance to probe in different directions. But by structuring your answers as an anecdote, you're facilitating further conversation. You're also making yourself more memorable to the interviewer because the human mind craves a narrative.

For Big Question 2 (will you bring value to this team?), you should learn everything you can about the university, department, the lab, and the interviewer in advance. For the department, what aspects of its curriculum does it like to emphasize? What do they value in graduate students?

For the interviewer, read everything you can about their work online. This isn't so that you can start talking about their mother's maiden name and where they went to high school, but rather for you to know where their research is going and where it is heading. Grantome is a helpful resource for this.

With this knowledge, you can better tailor your answers to their questions and ask pertinent follow-up questions of your own. You will feel an incredible rush when your follow-up hits the nail on the head and the interviewer says, "actually, we were just thinking of an experiment like that."

When you're actually in an interview, it's tempting to come right out and say, "I am a collaborative and hard-working person who is good at cell culture who will make a good PhD student in your lab." Unfortunately, declarations like this aren't all that persuasive at all because it's easy to lie about what you are are or what you will do. It's much more believable when you let your accomplishments demonstrate your character.

You should thus work your anecdotes to highlight the qualities that the interviewer wants to see. For example, if they mention they like seeing their students collaborate, you may say:

".... For the CRISPR screen, the idea actually came from a conversation I had with Dr. X after attending her seminar. She put me in touch with her student, and the two of us designed the CRISPR guides..."

This is a more effective than an abstract declaration, because it allows the interviewer to draw their own conclusions and because the human mind craves a narrative.

For Big Question 3 (are you a cool person?), many people think that as long as you're not an asshole, you'll automatically land a spot. But maybe you'll be unlucky, and the interviewer will meet someone else who is also not an asshole. In these cases, the worst thing you can do is be forgettable.3

Before the interview, reread your notes on the interviewer's research. Listen to some synthwave. Summon an earnest enthusiasm for whatever your interviewer works on, and get excited when they talk about it. Smile, and be enthusiastic about the opportunity to talk to this person.

Have fun with the conversation, feel free to let yourself flow into more entertaining anecdotes. They may not remember your name, but they will remember the guy who accidentally flung a lab mouse on himself because the human mind craves a narrative.

As these examples all demonstrate, it's critical to think about anecdotes in advance. Meditate on your past experiences before the interview, perhaps writing down a few little stories that you think best show your character. The goal isn't to memorize these, but to have them fresh at hand.

The interviewer's questions might not explicitly call for an anecdotal response, and in those cases it's ok to answer in a straightforward manner. If you get a prospective question, you can add some retrospective flair to your anecdote.

For instance, if asked, "what would you want to work on if you joined this program?" Instead of just saying "cell signaling and cancer biology," you can say:

"Well, I think working on the CRISPR screen showed me just how much there is still to learn about cancer biology, and I would love to continue that work here with someone like Professor X. But, it's also given me an appreciation for the complexity of cell signaling, and I really enjoy the approaches that Professor Z's lab and your lab take to this problem."

This answer will stick in the interviewer's mind more and, again, give them more ideas to continue the conversation.

It's common for many faculty members to use the interview time to walk you through a PowerPoint presentation of their work. The professors are usually doing this with good intentions, after all, they want to recruit you as much as you want to be recruited. This, however, is also treacherous territory to be in, because if you sit through 50 minutes of a slide deck in silence, you will be very, very forgettable. In these cases, it's completely fine to smile and follow along with 90% of their presentation. However, if more than 5 or 10 minutes pass you should (politely) interject and raise a question. Look for an opportunity to demonstrate that you understand what's being presented. Ask about the implications of a figure or propose possible followup experiments. This can spark more conversation, and will show the professor that you can fit in this kind of intellectual environment.

And as a final point, while your brain may be racing in an interview, it's completely fine to pause to think about a question. You can take 5, even 10 seconds to rifle through your mind for the right words or an appropriate anecdote to share. It may feel like an eternity, but in a normal conversation nobody expects you to blurt out every answer right away. This is especially true of an interview.

For anyone preparing for an interview, just remember: you would not make it to this stage of the interview process unless they saw potential in you. Good luck!


  1. Prior to that interview, my father loaned me this dog-eared, oddly typeset book called "Interviewing: It's Your Big Deal". While aimed more at middle management and other white collar work, I suspect a portion of this post is inspired by ideas I read there several years ago.
  2. As the notorious Glengarry Glen Ross speech goes, "Guy doesn't walk on the lot unless he wants to buy."
  3. While I'm thankful to many people who guided me through the graduate school application process, I have to specifically credit my mentor Gray R. Anderson for impressing this key idea upon me.