Notes and Observations from the MD/PhD Interview Trail

Discussion in 'Physician Scientists' started by nehruhoodies, Jan 10, 2019 at 4:46 PM.

  1. nehruhoodies

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    Just wrapped up the bulk of interview season. I met many impressively dedicated program leaders, scientists worth looking up to, and fellow interviewees who I am excited to be colleagues with for the next half century. Looking back, there were some things I expected, and some things I didn’t expect. In case it’s helpful to those sizing up this process, I wrote some of those things down.

    On resting.

    The orientations, meetings with program admin, and interviews are mandatory. Everything else (tours, dinner with students, “life in X city” sessions) is great and helpful, but mostly optional. If you find yourself needing a breather or walk to clear your head, nobody will care. I wish I had realized this earlier in the application cycle. Take full advantage of the interview day programming, but know that the most important thing is for you to be on top of your game, and nobody will fault you for taking breaks as needed (esp. if jetlag is a factor).

    Realizing you’re not a snowflake

    There are lots of kids with computer science backgrounds who are inspired by the intersection of oncology and genomics and say the words “transcriptional landscape” many times very convincingly. There are many applicants who discovered neuroscience by way of psychology, want to “interrogate” brain circuits, and are somehow also philosophy majors somewhere in there. There are many kids who do EM, and are very good about talking about EM-related things that I don’t understand. The takeaway is, although your cocktail of interests may seem totally unique where you’re standing, odds are there are many others in roughly the same niche. Get this realization out of the way sooner than later (and rethink essays accordingly), and befriend those colleagues, because odds are you’re going to be seeing them here and there for a very long time.

    Progressive applicant robotism

    Between about May and the end of interview season, you will be semi-professionally producing crisp soundbytes about your experiences and why you are a great candidate. At first they will be awkward, then they will smooth out, then they will harden and become robotic. The latter is good but not great, and you’re gonna have to be great to nail this. Take my advice with a grain of salt because I’m just an applicant myself, but I found that the best interviews (esp. those that ended in acceptance) happened when I was engaged in the moment rather than dispensing canned blurbs. Find a way to use all of your practice and reflection to inform a natural conversation.

    Staying in touch with yourself

    While you’re working on secondaries and interviews, you may become a little distant from your own life, especially if you’re juggling a hectic work or school schedule. You may not see close friends for a while, become out of touch with school or work, or lose track of the lifestyle routines that ground you. There will be moments where you feel uncomfortably close to burning out, and by all accounts this is kid stuff compared to whats down the line in our career path. I started feeling like I was in a pretty bad rut towards the end of the process, and only started taking care of myself when a close friend noticed and urged me to. I suspect everybody will have their own way of dealing with these issues, but consider this a reminder to actively take care of yourself as you navigate the process.

    The distribution and its tail (interviewers).

    Most of your interviewers will be easygoing. Most of them won’t drill too hard into particulars of your academic records or research methods. However, as I learned by experience, you may find yourself with the one interviewer who demands specific explanations for a particular bad grade you got in undergrad. Or an interviewer who wants to discuss the minutiae of non-linear image registration for 45 minutes. Point being, in general you don’t have to worry about meetings like this, but they may happen once or twice, and that may be at DreamSOM, so be prepared. You may find yourself on the other end of the distribution as well, sitting across from a Nobel laureate who has thoroughly read your application and reaffirms your qualifications and goals. Those are very good moments.

    The distribution and its tail (interviewees)

    Your fellow interviewees are by far the best part of this process. For a niche career path like MD/PhD, it is a breath of fresh air to meet incredible peers who share interests and ambitions. But again, most of them will be like this. Perhaps, like me, you’ll meet one who starts rambling about how men and women “process information differently”, citing discredited mid-20th century psychology, as an explanation for gender disparity in MD/PhD programs. Perhaps you’ll meet Kid Who Gets Drunk At The Reception (TM), a true classic. Don’t let these curveballs throw you off!

    On elite institutions and kids who ooze privilege.

    If you go to a couple of MD/PhD interviews, odds are you will find yourself twiddling your thumbs while everyone around you is making light conversation about the Yale residential college system, or trading notes for the Stanford CS final they have the next week. Or, you may find yourself on a tour of Big Prestigious U when the guy next to you mentions that the group just walked by his dad’s lab (this actually happened). You will discover how many future physician-scientists have physician-scientist parents. Rest assured, these kids are for the most part sharp, driven, and lovely to be around. But, be aware that the interview process can feel like the impostor syndrome olympics.

    If there is food, eat the food.

    I know, you have an intense interview in 20 minutes and are in no mood for a bready continental breakfast or Italian sub lunch. Trust me, eat whenever you can. It’s all fun and games until you’re talking to a field leader at the reception and realize that the single glass of merlot has gone to your head after running around all day on an empty stomach.

    -ramble over-
     
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  2. ClimbsRox

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    I'll add a couple things to this.

    Realizing you’re not a snowflake
    I have experienced, in some ways, the opposite. I went into the interview season expecting there to be many more qualified biochemists on the interview trail. I have slowly become more interested with physical biochemistry and structural biology after years of more imaging and molecular biology-based research. I expected to meet people who had been in these fields for years and could talk about them much more elegantly than I could. I think after 8 interviews, I have met 2 or 3 people with similar research interests to mine. Embrace the fine points of your interests. Everyone and their sister can say they are interested in translational cancer biology and immunology. What makes your interests different?

    On elite institutions and kids who ooze privilege.
    I have met one person on the interview trail I didn't like because of their attitude. People who get to the MD/PhD stage have generally accomplished a lot and more importantly failed a lot. The only place I found this mattered was when asking about stipend:cost-of-living ratios. Try to get a sense of a person's background if you ask this. The person with a 100k savings account wont really understand what the person with $500 in their savings account is going to experience. For example, Stanford gives a stipend of ~40k, but rent is ~1.5K. Most people I met weren't concerned about this, but clearly weren't worried about living paycheck to paycheck.

    If there is food, eat the food.
    This is the best part of the interview trail. Vanderbilt, USC, and UTH-San Antonio have fantastic food. I recommend applying for that reason alone (kidding).
     
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  3. Fencer

    Fencer MSTP Director
    Physician PhD Faculty 10+ Year Member

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    A lot of the points discussed above are clearly on target. From the PD standpoint, it is energizing to meet so many talented applicants during the year. Truly, a lot of applicants are awesome and some super-awesome in their own ways... Most of you are very idealistic. (I should remind applicants to enjoy the best of PhD comics).

    The application process, particularly, post-interview is very nerve-wracking and frustrating to you and us. A MD/PhD match would be much better (less anxiety) for all of us.
     
  4. Lucca

    Lucca Will Walk Rope for Sandwich
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    My experiences were very similar to yours OP, great summary of what going through the cycle is like.

    At one interview a fellow applicant did indeed point out his dad’s lab, haha. Nice person though, but definitely one of those ‘where am I, is this real’ moments.
     
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  5. pantouka

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    I agree with 95% of the original post and also think it was very well written.

    My minor difference of opinion would be in regards to "On resting." I agree with the importance of discerning what events are mandatory and what are not, and how that discernment can help you succeed (see also: "On staying in touch with yourself"). But, at least at my school, current students in the program--especially those that host--give general feedback on their interactions with prospective students. I would imagine that feedback doesn't redeem a terrible applicant or sink a wonderful one, but it might serve as a tiebreaker for close calls.

    So if you are jet-lagged and exhausted from back-to-back-to-back interviews, explain that to your host or to other students in the program, and be friendly and gracious about it. And then when you excuse yourself, they'll understand. Otherwise you might run the risk of appearing insincere or uninterested in the program.
     

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