Applying to Medical School

How to Make the Most of Your MD/Ph.D. Research Interviews

Research interviews can be the most unique and enjoyable part of the MD/Ph.D. application cycle. Make the most of your time and the interviewers’ time by preparing with these simple, yet often overlooked steps.

During research interviews, students have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, interest, and experience in scientific research. Plus, they get to meet with professors from a diverse range of disciplines, learn about exciting new developments, and get a sense of the opportunities that they will have as an MD/Ph.D. student. Here are some tips that may help:

Identify Potential Interviewers that Truly Interest You

Many MD/Ph.D. programs allow applicants to choose their research interviewers by submitting the names of several faculty members of particular interest as part of the secondary application. At institutions with hundreds of research faculty, this may seem like a daunting task, but keep in mind that your selections at this stage will have no bearing on any aspect of your studies in the future.

Starting with a list of faculty for a specific Ph.D. program of interest will help in narrowing down the possibilities. Try to identify researchers who share common interests, but don’t hesitate to branch out into other areas that you would like to learn more about.

Get to Know Your Interviewers Before Your Interview

Once you have received a finalized list of your interviewers, it is worthwhile to review their general research descriptions as well as the abstracts of a few of their most recent papers. Write down a few brief notes, a few questions, and a one- to two-sentence summary of their research to jog your memory before the interview. It is not necessary to study their papers in-depth since the interview will mostly revolve around your research experiences.

Don’t be Surprised at a Variance in Interview Structure

MD/Ph.D. research interviews will be the most variable of all the types of interviews you will encounter. Interviewers are free to structure the interview however they prefer, and most applicants are surprised that these interviews do not match their expectations of a rigorous “research interview.” In many cases, after getting a sense of your general interests and experiences, the interviewer may spend most of the time presenting to you about their most exciting research or even give you a tour of the lab. MD/PhD students are highly sought after in many labs, and the PI may hope to convince to join the lab. By showing your interest and enthusiasm, asking insightful questions, and listening attentively, you are certain to make a strong impression.

Other interviewers simply will allow you to direct the conversation. In these cases, having good questions to ask is imperative and will enable you to drive the discussion. You may even find yourself interviewing the PI about their lab’s work.

It is important to emphasize that this is a great opportunity for you to learn about new research and to demonstrate your interest in the field and in the MD/Ph.D. program. Your own research experiences were comprehensively described in your application, so you do not need to continuously emphasize your own achievements. Inquiring and listening are key to succeeding in these interviews.

Review Your Own Research Before Interviewing

In some cases, the research interviewer may have studied your work carefully and is ready to quiz you on the most specific minutia of your research. It is highly worthwhile to meticulously re-read all the papers in which you are a co-author, and ensure you understand each project as a whole: the motivation and background (the “why”), the hypotheses, experiments, methodology, conclusions, and importantly, the implications.

Practice giving presentations to your friends and family about a single project. You may be asked to present to your interviewer, or even give a chalk-talk to a committee, so being prepared to explain a project from start to finish will be invaluable in your interviews.

You may be asked details about experiments that you did not personally conduct or about background knowledge that goes beyond the project. Do not be afraid to clearly state that you don’t know a certain detail or that it is beyond the scope of your role in the project. Interviewers often look specifically to see how you respond to questions where you don’t know the answer, as this is an important skill for scientists.

The MD/Ph.D. research interviews are your chance to demonstrate your passion for research as well as to meet potential mentors. If you are prepared to explain your research and to ask insightful questions, you will undoubtedly make a positive impression.

Read more about how to succeed in the MD/Ph.D. application process withThe Complete MD/PhD Guide. And if you’re interested in participating in a mock interview with a physician who has served on an admissions committee, consider a mock interview with MedSchoolCoach.

Still have questions about how to prepare for your upcoming interview? MedSchoolCoach has a team of admissions advisors who have all served on admissions committees. They are available to help coach you on interview best practices and to boost your chances of getting into medical school.

Jonathan Sussman

Jonathan Sussman graduated from the University of Southern California in 2019 with dual degrees in Biomedical Engineering from the Viterbi School of Engineering and Music Performance from the Thornton School of Music. He has conducted Systems Cancer Biology research at USC as an undergraduate researcher and Molecular Biology research at The Scripps Research Institute as a research assistant and is now pursuing an MD/PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology with an emphasis in Cancer Biology. He is one of the authors of The Complete MD/PhD Applicant Guide.

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