The MD/PhD interview should be a conversation. In my experience as both an interviewee and interviewer, a student’s ability to answer the questions well is important, but I also want to see their personality, passion, and self-awareness. In this post, I will provide 10 high-yield questions that you should have down cold before your MD/PhD interview. The key to a good interview is practice and preparation. Write responses to each question, rewrite your responses, practice a mock interview with someone you know, and with a stranger. Mock interviews allow you to feel the discomfort of not knowing what to say, maintaining composure under stress, and improvising on the spot, before the real interview. You should be able to speak naturally and confidently, not be robotic with memorized answers. Be yourself, smile, blink, and show enthusiasm and gratitude. There’s a reason you made it this far. Have confidence in yourself.
Caveat: While these questions are an excellent foundation for all your MD/PhD interviews, you must be prepared for variation. Different programs coordinate their interviews in different ways; some programs do 1 day of MD interviews and 1 day of MD/PhD interviews, others do 2 days of MD/PhD interviews. Do your due diligence to know what to expect on interview day for the program.
1.) So…tell me about yourself.
Almost invariably, this will be your first question. This is your opportunity to set the tone for the interview. Provide a response in about 1 minute where you lay the foundation for what you’re all about. Before you respond, take a breath. Soft smile and recount your story with enthusiasm and charm. You will most likely be filled with adrenaline on your first several interviews — this is good, it shows you care. But don’t let your nerves derail you from conveying your story clearly. Be aware of how quickly you might be speaking. Find a natural cadence and draw the interviewer into your narrative.
Tell me about where you grew up, your family dynamics, and the major life events that have shaped you on your path to this interview. If you feel confident, don’t be afraid to try some humor. We all have things about our childhood and adolescence — even our adulthood, honestly — that we can laugh at together. I advise you to test this out before interview day. You should have practiced the answer to “tell me about yourself” so many times that it rolls off the tongue with personality and clarity.
2.) When did you decide to pursue a career in medicine?
This is essentially your personal statement delivered in a different way. The interviewer may or may not have recently reviewed your personal statement. Convey the nuance that you didn’t include in your personal statement. Walk me through what or who inspired you and which experiences allowed you to determine for certain that this was the right fit for you. It’s ok if there was a time when you changed your mind; the pursuit of a career in medicine isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. I would rather have a student tell me that they had to deliberate and meditate on the decision to pursue medicine rather than someone who “always knew they wanted to be a doctor”.
3.) Why not just pursue MD? Why do you need both MD and PhD?
Similar as above, this is your Why MD/PhD essay. Provide insight into your career goals, the synergy of the dual degrees, the philosophy of being a physician-scientist, and the other considerations that made you realize that the MD/PhD path was right for you. The “correct” answer is something along the lines of: “I want to be an academic physician-scientist whose clinical work inspires my research and whose research enhances my capacity to provide the best possible care for my future patients”. You want to be the bridge that brings together the disparate entities of medical doctors and research scientists, and the dual degree provides a powerful perspective at the interface of both fields. You desire protected time during your medical training to dive deep into a research project to establish your skillset as a productive, independent investigator who is highly capable of starting your own research lab and mentoring the next generation. Remember, you’re not just repeating info that was in your application elsewhere; you’re elaborating with detail and enthusiasm and emotion.
4.) Tell me about your research
I vividly remember practicing this with the PI of my summer research program. I would start talking, saying a lot of words with little meaning, and they would put up a hand to stop me from my incoherent ramblings. How embarrassing. This is how you learn. Don’t try too hard to be perfect and get every word right. Don’t try to memorize a script. Write a script, then practice your response until you embody the story and forget about the script.
This is important. Many people struggle with how to approach answering the research question: how much detail, how long of a response, how to talk about multiple projects, etc. Your response should be shaped by both the audience and the situation. Is this an elevator pitch scenario? A chalk talk? A formal interview with faculty or MD/PhD administrators? Is this person in your field or in a distant field? Each scenario requires a different approach and level of detail. By knowing how to talk about your research at multiple levels, with practice, you will be able to adapt and improvise on the spot.
Next, don’t try to say everything all at once. In the case that you have done multiple research projects, start with the project you are most interested in, have the most “ownership” of, and find the most compelling. It’s better to choose a project that you have more “ownership” of because you will more naturally know the nitty gritty details of how it came to be and the challenges that needed to be overcome. While you should focus on preparing your research narrative for that one central project, be prepared to talk about each project you have been involved with in case you are asked. If it’s in your application, it’s fair game.
Follow the template below to organize your thoughts and convey a compelling story that highlights your critical thinking, independent initiative, and scientific communication skills. This narrative can be done in about 5 minutes. Don’t rush it, and avoid jargon. You should be able to explain your research equally to a 5-year-old and to a Professor Emeritus.
In roughly a sequential fashion:
“While I have been fortunate to work on many different projects in my research training, I’m especially excited about my work on xyz.”
What is the overarching research question / problem?
What does the field know currently? (it’s nice if you can cite)
What are the knowledge gaps that remain unanswered?
What was your central hypothesis?
How did you approach addressing the knowledge gaps and central hypothesis?
- Provide a general landscape of your experimental system and approach, and depending on your audience, here is where you can get a little technical. Does the interviewer want to know specifics about how you designed algorithms, experimental assays, or pipelines? Use your emotional intelligence to determine this. Also, what were the strengths of your approach? If you’re unsure of how deep to go, focus on brevity and clarity. The interviewer will ask if they are interested. This awareness reflects maturity and communication skill.
- Bonus tip: when I’m talking about my research to faculty, if it’s the right situation, I like to take a piece of paper and draw a schematic or illustration to better convey pathways or relationships between things. This, in my opinion, is clearer than saying: “The Highwire protein is a negative regulator of the synaptic development protein Wallenda, which drives the activation of MAP kinase to induce phosphorylation of cytoskeletal elements in synaptic remodeling”. If you draw a picture, you can more conveniently and clearly demonstrate how these funny named proteins interact.
What problems / failures did you confront along the way, and how did you troubleshoot / solve the problem(s)? (Show your creativity, initiative, ability for problem solving)
What did you discover (both positive or negative results are fine) and what is the significance of these results?
How did this discovery inform your next steps? If you were to continue this project, what would you do next?
5.) What do you think was a weakness of your research strategy?
Either the interviewer will try to poke holes in your research or will ask you to do it yourself. Just as you should be able to make a steel man argument about your research, you should also be able provide a straw man argument. Be prepared with 2–3 weak points and be able to discuss why you chose one approach over another. Interviewers want to see you think critically about the decision-making process of your research and know that you weren’t just doing what your PI or postdoc mentor told you to do. This isn’t to make your research look weak — every research project has its weaknesses. Recognizing the weaknesses is part of being an effective scientist.
6.) If you wrote a book about your life, what would the chapter on the “dark period” be about?
There are multiple ways to approach this question. At this point in the interview, you’ve established rapport and should be feeling more relaxed. You should be prepared to speak vulnerably about challenging moments where your resolve was tested, and this question is designed to elicit that information. Here are 2 ways you might approach answering this question:
- Talk about a hardship you experienced and how you got through it. For example, “I moved to New York after high school away from my family and friends, where I had to make a new start in a foreign place. My coursework was hard, I was not performing as well as I had hoped, and I kept questioning whether I made the right decision to move there. I was being overly self-critical, and it took me to a “dark period”. One of the things I am most proud of is that I found my way out of this darkness and used this opportunity to adopt a growth mindset…”
- “You know, while I have experienced many hardships in my life, I don’t think that I have experienced such a “dark period”. All I can do is prepare myself for when such a time inevitably does come, and I’m sure that it will. Therefore, I focus on cultivating resiliency and coping skills in the present so that I will be able to navigate through the darkness when it finds me…”
7.) How do you know you can manage the hardships of a long, combined MD/PhD path?
Perhaps as a continuation of the previous question, the MD/PhD admissions committee wants to know that you have experienced adversity in your life and that when hardships arise during your training, you will be able to persevere. Medical school is hard; graduate school is hard; the 8-year training program is long and hard. The MD/PhD program is trying to determine whether they will invest a lot of money, time, and resources into you, so you need to demonstrate to your interviewer that you’ve got what it takes to stick through the trials and tribulations.
One approach to answering this question is to discuss an experience you’ve had with failure. Tell me about what you’ve learned through failure, and why, because of these experiences with failure, you are confident that you are well-prepared to manage the hardships of the MD/PhD path.
8.) [variable] I see you took some time after graduating college, how did you spend that time?
Maturity matters in medical school and MD/PhD programs. Choosing to pursue experiences after college is one way that students can gain more knowledge about who they are, what they want, and how to be authentic. It’s also a great time to build your research experience. What did you learn during this time that you did not or could not have learned in a college classroom. Real-world experience is a precious resource to have had in this highly academic career path. Being able to talk about this experience well will distinguish you from many other applicants who went directly from college to the MD/PhD application.
9.) Given all the talented applicants, why should we pick you?
This is not about being better than another person. Drop the ego, and recognize that most applicants are excellent, high-achieving students with impressive academic records. Ask yourself…what do you, uniquely, have to offer the MD/PhD program? What life experiences are you bringing with you that could inform new perspectives in the community and make a more well-rounded and diverse MD/PhD cohort? This response is critical because, in essence, it summarizes much of the interview to this point, and it offers an opportunity for you to provide a succinct and compelling response that the interviewer might take to the admissions committee.
10.) Do you have any questions for me?
Of course you do! Ask about things you are genuinely interested in. What things might you become involved with during your MD/PhD training at this institution? One good approach that I’ve used is: “I’m really interested in working at the [free health clinic] and becoming involved with the [precision medicine initiative], and I’m wondering if there are current MD/PhD students or faculty who you know that I could connect with to learn more.” This is a great way to have a subsequent conversation to deepen your insight into whether this program is the right fit for you. It is important for you to remember that you are evaluating the program as much as they are evaluating you. Do your due diligence to ensure that you select a program in which you will be happy and fulfilled both personally and professionally during the MD/PhD training.
If the faculty you’re interviewing with does research that is interesting to you, ask about it. Don’t just say, “so..tell me about *your* research.” You won’t always have the luxury of knowing exactly who you will interview with, but often you will receive an itinerary with names of faculty. Read about their work beforehand and ask informed questions during the interview. Scientists love talking about their research!
Bonus Question: Why do you want to come to [Emory University MSTP]?
You should keep in mind that the 10 high-yield questions I have provided are general questions. You will also be asked school-specific questions that you should be well prepared to answer. As a hypothetical example, you might explain that the Emory’s MSTP is one of your top choice programs because it has a robust computational biology and bioinformatics program with exceptional faculty working at the intersection of artificial intelligence and computational neuroscience to study the hard problem of consciousness, and you want to receive your MD/PhD training at the best institution to support your goals of becoming a leader in this field.
You should have a well-formulated response with multiple, specific reasons for wanting to be in each MD/PhD program or MSTP. You do not necessarily need to give your ranking preferences, but if it is among your top choices, let the program know explicitly.
Bonus Tip: Send thank you emails to your faculty interviewers within 72 hours of meeting.
I think it’s better to do this earlier than later. If you miss the 72 hour window, don’t fret. Just send a thank you at your earliest opportunity; it doesn’t have to be an elaborate or strategic message, just say thank you! Show gratitude for the opportunity to interview for the program and convey how you genuinely enjoyed the conversation. It’s a small gesture that goes a long way.