may have thought that the most strenuous, time-consuming,
and mind-bending process was far behind you after
taking the MCAT, completing the primary and secondary
applications, and begging your professors and research
advisors for those glowing letters of recommendation.
Unfortunately, as you reach the top of this first
series of hills, you suddenly see the awesome summit
of a mountain before you. That mountain is the infamous
your paper applications and letters, the admissions
committees will have formed a picture of your academic
strengths and perhaps some of your outside interests
and personality characteristics. But as we all know,
an applicant may look great on paper, but in real
life be a complete zero. Hence, we have an interview
process that attempts to screen out for malignant
personalities, inability to hold a conversation
or communicate effectively, and unclear or uncertain
goals or potential.
interviews provide more than a simple screening
process, however. Your interviewer becomes your
advocate (or worst enemy) on the admissions committee
during their meetings. At the interview stage, applicants
are more or less on even ground, as you have already
made the first cut, and therefore MCAT scores and
GPA tend to be de-emphasized. Instead, the interviews
provide a forum to personally assess the applicant’s
personality, interests, goals, and motivations.
Interviewers want to see if an applicant can communicate
effectively, expand upon items written on the paper
application, think critically, and discuss relevant
ethical and moral issues. In effect, they want to
see if you are truly a three-dimensional person
who shows signs of maturity and a potential for
a career in science and medicine.
fun begins with interview scheduling and finding
faculty that you would like to meet. Unlike medical
school interviewers who are largely faculty or students
on the committee chosen at random, M.D./Ph.D. interviews
are set up quite differently. Typically, you will
have 1-2 medical school interviews and 1-2 formal
M.D./Ph.D. interviews. At many schools, you also
have the opportunity to meet with faculty in your
field of interest for informal interviews. In many
ways, the interview process is about you finding
which programs you will consider when the time to
make decisions arrives.
You should visit the medical school web sites and
related links (see Appendix C). Valuable research
information is often buried among the sites of the
various graduate programs offered. There are often
links to individual faculty pages, which contain
brief descriptions of their area of interest, ongoing
projects in the lab, references to publications,
contact addresses and numbers, and other useful
information. If you have a specific area that you
are interested in, that will narrow your search
considerably. You may already be familiar with specific
researchers through your experience during college
or post-undergraduate education, in a research laboratory,
or by word-of-mouth. Literature searches using PubMed
can be performed from the National Center for Biotechnology
Information web site (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).
Try to find articles of interest written by faculty
with whom you could potentially work. If you interview
with them, it will be very impressive if you can
intelligently discuss one or more of their papers.
programs will try to coordinate interviews with
the medical school so that they fall on one or two
days. Programs vary considerably in how they schedule
applicants. Some have single days in which they
interview most, or all, applicants to their program.
Others schedule several groups of applicants together,
so that they can provide special meals and accommodations
on specific dates. Yet others interview applicants
individually. Some programs offer interview dates
that will conflict and you may be forced to reschedule.
Don’t worry, as this happens occasionally,
despite the relatively small number of M.D./Ph.D.
applicants. At some schools, you will meet and interact
with M.D.-only applicants, while at others you will
be isolated from them and interact only with other
recommend that you schedule interviews for early
in the admissions cycle (i.e. October-January).
Some schools have a rolling admissions system that
gives preference to earlier applicants. However,
many of the top M.D./Ph.D. programs are not on rolling
admissions and thus it is not as critical to interview
early at these places. Each program has a specific
application due date that may or may not be distinct
from the regular medical school application deadline.
Be sure to check with the programs to which you
are applying to ensure that you meet all requirements.
programs also vary quite a bit in terms of providing
meals and accommodations. Very few pay for airfare
or other transportation, but many will put you up
in a hotel or student housing and will provide meals.
Programs often have slush funds they use for recruitment.
Don’t be afraid to inquire. Unlike interviews,
most programs will fully fund return visits after
you have been admitted. However, for interviews,
be prepared to spend quite a bit of money for travel
soon be making trips to a number of different schools
and will likely experience a barrage of tightly
scheduled interviews. The first couple of interviews
will be nerve-wracking. After a few, you will progress
to a sense of competency. After several, you will
start to experience annoyance with the repetition.
Ultimately, you will end up wishing you could have
just tape-recorded your responses and played them
when needed. Believe us, by the time you are finished
with the process, you will feel like you will never
want to interview again. This is not really a result
of the interviews being all that difficult, but
that you are asked the same questions during every
interview, at every program.
typical formal M.D./Ph.D. interview ranges from
thirty minutes to one hour in length and consists
of questions on the following topics:
1) Your personal background and items on your application.
2) Why you want to get both the M.D. and Ph.D. degrees
(and why not one or the other).
3) Your research project(s), experiences, etc.
4) Career goals and interests.
is critical that you are on time for your interviews,
even though the schedules are packed densely. Faculty
members appreciate punctuality, as their time is
valuable. Despite one’s best efforts, however,
Murphy’s Law seems to inevitably take effect
during the interview season. Hosein’s experience
shows us that nightmares do come true:
eyes slowly open and I notice that the clock reads
9:15 AM. Another gorgeous day, I think to
myself, forgetting that I’m sleeping on an
old couch 3000 miles away from home. I’d
spent 9 long hours on a plane the day before and
was greeted at the Oakland airport by an old high
school friend, who was kind enough to let me crash
in his dorm at UC Berkeley for a few days so I could
take care of some business. I get up from
the worn-down couch, stretch my sore back, and breathe
a long sigh of relief as I realize that I’m
no longer in snowy Maryland but in warm California.
I try to recall what business I’m here for
and my mind draws a blank. Then it suddenly
hits me like a freight train.
M.D./Ph.D. interview at UCSF starts in 45 minutes,
and I’m way across the bay in Berkeley!
My heart drops as I realize that I’ve overslept
by a whole hour and a half.
Immediately I begin to panic, not knowing what to
do. I run to the shower but quickly turn back
as I realize that I’ll need to take a cab
into the city. So I yell at my friend to wake
up and call a cab, and he replies by mumbling the
names of sorority houses. After forcing him
to wake up and call a cab, I dash to the shower
and manage to get dressed in an astonishing 8 minutes
(a new record for sure). With shoes untied
and tie in hand, I sprint to the taxi and instruct
him to drive as fast as possible into the city…the
faster he travels, the bigger his tip. He
responds with a sharp thrust on the pedal, and we
begin to soar onto the freeway and head for the
foggy emerald across the bay.
seems that things will work out. We cross
the bridge and head over to UCSF’s Parnassus
Campus with the time being 10:05 am. No sweat,
I tell myself as I try to put on my tie in the bumpy
cab. The assurance only lasts for a few seconds,
however, once I realize that the cab driver is lost
and has no freaking idea how to get to UCSF.
The panic consumes my body once again. The
cab driver sees my panic and begins to panic himself,
so he stops in the middle of the road to ask directions
from pedestrians. As cars behind honk wildly,
I close my eyes and heave a desperate sigh for what
seems an eternity.
arrive at UCSF at 10:15 am, feeling that my life
has ended. Luckily, I had brought a map of
the campus and knew how to get to the Clinical Sciences
Building, where I was to meet a professor for an
hour-long interview. I make a quick dash into
the restroom to make sure my tie is straight, then
run over to professor’s office and, after
collecting myself, knock on the door. A middle-aged
woman opens the door and cheerfully greets me despite
the fact that I’m nearly 20 minutes late for
the interview. Her ultra-kind disposition
dissolves my panic away, and the interview (all
15 minutes of it) goes incredibly smoothly.
moral of this story is that one must always carry
an alarm clock during the interview process. Well,
actually, the real moral is that no matter what
happens, keep your calm and relax. Most M.D./Ph.D.
interviews are very laid back, almost informal,
compared to interviews for the regular medical school.
Albeit, M.D./Ph.D. programs may require significantly
more interviews than medical schools (I had seven
interviews at UCSF over a two-day period), and some
of these interviews may be intellectually intense.
Still, the focus of M.D./Ph.D. interviews is the
research you’ve carried out, and no one should
know about that better than yourself.
interviews tend to focus more on your research than
anything else. This means you have to know what
you set out to accomplish in the lab, what you actually
accomplished, how you dealt with obstacles experienced
during your project(s), and how you presented the
results. This involves giving a clear and concise
summary of your project. It is a good idea to have
practiced in advance so that you feel comfortable
speaking in the somewhat stressful interview setting.
Often, your advisor or other members of the lab
will be willing to help you iron out any wrinkles.
They tend to be very familiar with scientific communication
and can give excellent feedback and suggest possible
areas of improvement. Some interviewers will be
more familiar with your area of research than others.
Expect to be quizzed if the interviewer is an investigator
in the same field.
surprisingly, interviewers are usually very adept
at probing an applicant’s motivations, experience,
and potential for a career in science. They can
easily tell if an applicant’s heart is really
into science and medicine, or if someone is just
trying to get into the program for the “free
M.D.” You should think quite a bit about your
responses beforehand and during the interview. Always
back up claims with solid evidence or examples from
your past experiences.
remember that while some interviews may seem like
grilling sessions, the interviewer is your advocate
on the admissions committee. Therefore, it is good
form to give thoughtful, intelligent responses to
questions that may seem to challenge your work.
Although you have no doubt put considerable effort
into your research, come to interviews with an open
mind. The interviewer may simply be trying to get
a point across and see how you react to the new
information. In science (as in medicine), the worst
thing you can do is to become agitated or upset
when confronted. Instead, try to give a reasoned
response, which will show your maturity and critical
as you may be asked to think on your feet. Take
Jeremy’s experience as an example:
had one interview which was scheduled as “informal.”
This was the last in a series of interviews at five
different schools in a three week period. I had
already interviewed with several faculty members
the same day. The interviewer began by talking rapidly
about his research for about ten minutes straight.
Exhausted from the previous several interviews and
unfamiliar with this particular set of experiments,
I felt my eyes slowly closing. Suddenly, the interviewer
stopped in the middle of his sentence and inquired,
"So, in this situation what experiment would
you do?" What a jolt! After scrambling for
a quasi-intelligent response and managing to conjure
up some harebrained idea for an experiment, the
interviewer voiced several potential problems with
my approach. He then asked me to come up with alternative
experiments. One-by-one, he shot down my ideas until
finally I arrived at something along the lines of
the approach his lab takes. After he was satisfied,
he continued his rapid discussion, giving me more
information. Then he abruptly stopped again and
prodded me for more possible experiments. We went
through this cycle every couple of minutes until
the whole hour had expired. It was one of the most
intense interviews I had during the application
interviewer will often finish the session by asking
if you have any questions. It is a good idea to
have several prepared in advance, so thatyou can
show interest in the school and the program. Try
to sound intelligent, but also try not to be confrontational
or abrasive. After experiencing many interviews
in which people all ask the same types of questions,
you may be tempted to shout, “No, I don’t
have any questions and if I did I would ask!!!”
Don’t give into the temptation. You want to
impress, not distress. So sit back, relax, and always
try to moderate your responses.
terms of the informal interviews, which consist
of meetings with individual faculty of your choice,
the key is to have some idea of the research that
goes on in his/her laboratory. Try accessing the
appropriate journal articles so that you can ask
meaningful questions and discuss the research. Think
about it from the interviewer’s perspective:
it is very flattering for someone to have read your
work and seem excited about it. Faculty are typically
very busy, so be sure to thank them at the end of
the interview and emphasize how much you would like
to work with them. They often are asked to write
evaluations, which are considered alongside those
obtained from the formal interviews.
it is good etiquette to mail notes to your interviewers
to let them know you appreciate them for spending
their time with you. While this may not affect admissions
decisions, thank you notes certainly can’t
hurt and they are appreciated by faculty and student
interviewers. It is not as easy to forget someone
who shows a little bit of thankfulness and kindness.