Calm, cool, and collected: preparing for MD/PhD interviews

interview prep MD/PhD admissions strategy
By Zoe D.

I still remember the feeling when I refreshed my email inbox and saw “Invitation to Interview” in the subject line for the first time. I was overjoyed, relieved, excited, and nervous all at the same time. Over the next few days, the excitement of my first interview invitation became overshadowed by nervousness about what the interview might entail and how to best prepare to maximize my chances at acceptance into an MD/PhD program. Are they going to grill me on every detail of my research? Will my interviewer be mean? Will they ask me about this volunteer experience from eight years ago? What should I wear? What if I freeze on the spot?

The guide below will break down interview preparation into five easy steps so that you can feel calm, cool, and collected going into your MD/PhD interviews.  

Practice the most common interview questions

While it’s impossible to predict how every interview will go, there are a few common questions that you should be prepared to answer. Tell me about your research. Why medicine? Why do you need the MD and the PhD? Why are you interested in this program? First, start by brainstorming your answers to these common questions by writing out bullet point ideas. Next, practice answering these questions out loud. You can even record yourself and play it back afterwards to listen to your answers. Finally, ask a friend, family member, or another trusted individual to conduct a mock interview. The goal of practicing interview questions is to get comfortable with the most common questions so that you aren’t caught off guard. However, avoid over-practicing to the point that your answers start to sound rehearsed or even memorized.  

You should also know who you are talking to. Most programs will send out your interview schedule a few days before, so you’ll have some time to do some research. You don’t need to read every paper that has come out of a faculty member’s lab before meeting with them, but you should be familiar with their work and be prepared to ask questions.  

Prepare your interview setup

If your interview is virtual, make sure that you have a quiet, private space with a good internet connection. I purchased a laptop stand and a ring light so that I could control the camera angle and lighting. I also moved my desk into a corner of my room with a plain white wall and small bookcase behind me so that my background was aesthetically pleasing but minimally distracting. If your virtual interview setup is near a window, be sure to consider how any natural light coming into the room may fluctuate over the course of the day—try to avoid being blinded by morning sunlight coming through the window or the room becoming dark once the sun goes down. The night before each virtual interview, I set up my laptop with my ring light so that everything would be ready to go in the morning. Don’t forget to triple check time zones for virtual interviews. 

Most programs have decided to continue conducting all MD/PhD interviews virtually, but there are a few schools that have switched back to in-person interviews since the COVID pandemic. For in-person interviews, programs will provide specific instructions for coordinating travel and hotel arrangements. 

Understand the MD/PhD interview structure

Unlike traditional MD interviews that usually take a few hours, MD/PhD interviews can take up to two full days. Multiple mini interviews (MMIs) are also much less common for MD/PhD interviews, although some programs do include them. MD/PhD interviews typically start with at least one informational session led by the program directors or administrators that will go over the program structure, timeline, and a curriculum overview. All MD/PhD interviewees will attend these informational sessions together. These sessions may be presentations or Q&A style. Make sure to keep your camera on and do your best to stay engaged. Zoom fatigue is real, and I would recommend standing up and walking around a bit on any breaks that you get. 

Most of the actual interviews will be one-on-one with a faculty member or current student, although a few schools will have panel or group interviews as well. Some schools will ask you to submit a list of requested faculty interviewers based on your research interests, while other programs will assign your interviewers. You may also have an interview with a current MD/PhD student and a shorter interview with an MD/PhD program director. Most MD/PhD programs will have between 3-5 one-on-one interviews with faculty members, students, and directors over the course of 1-2 interview days. Faculty interviews are typically 30 minutes to an hour each. In almost every interview, you will be asked to describe your research. Make sure to tailor your explanation to the person you are talking to; a faculty member in your area of expertise should get a different level of detail than a faculty member in a different area of research than yours. This initial explanation should take 3-5 minutes. From there, your faculty interviewer may have follow-up questions about your research or may go on to discuss their own research. It’s always a good idea to have prepared questions to ask at the end about the faculty member’s research, their experience at the institution, or the MD/PhD program as a whole. 

There may also be some social events sprinkled into the MD/PhD interview schedule, including Q&A panels with current students and social hours where you can socialize with current students and other applicants. While some of these events may be optional, they are a great opportunity to learn more about the program in a more informal setting. Remember to always act professionally, even in optional or informal settings. 

Remember, interviews are a two-way street

Interviews can feel stressful, but it’s important to remember that this is also an opportunity to learn if the program is a good fit for you. Remember that you have been invited to interview because of your impressive qualifications, and be proud of yourself for making it to this stage. Take advantage of this chance to ask questions and learn more about the program. I highly recommend taking notes during or after each of your interviews. It’s easy for back-to-back interviews to blend together, so jotting down a few bullet points from your conversation will help you remember specific interviews. You can also use these notes to tailor a personalized thank you note to your interviewer after the interview day.  

Do your best to relax and have a conversation

You’re not a robot! The goal of the interview is to have a conversation, not to give your interviewer perfectly memorized answers about your qualifications and experiences. Occasionally, you may get tripped up by a new question that you haven’t thought of before. In this situation, do your best not to panic. Don’t be afraid to take a pause to think about your answer before you start talking. If you don’t know the answer to a research question, be honest and say so. You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be yourself. Do your best to relax, take a deep breath, and let your passion shine through. 

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