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MD PhD Guide: On The Road to Medical Science

Interviews

 
You 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 interview process.

From 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.

The 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.
 
 
Scheduling
 
The 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.

M.D./Ph.D. 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 M.D./Ph.D. applicants.

We 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.

The 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 and meals.
 
 
The Interview
 
You’ll 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.

A 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.
 
It 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:
 
My 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.
My 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.
Oh God.
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.
It 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. 
I 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.
The 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.

 
 
M.D./Ph.D. 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.

Not 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.

Always 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 thinking ability.
Beware, as you may be asked to think on your feet. Take Jeremy’s experience as an example:
 
I 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 process.
 
The 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.

In 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.

Afterwards, 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.

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