Tips for Interview Day
You have your interview day scheduled and you're eager to find a lab. What kind of questions should you be asking of a potential supervisor? What should you think about before choosing a lab?
We want to ensure no new graduate student makes the wrong decision about which lab to join, so here's a list of questions you can ask your potential supervisor and lab-mates, as well as some issues you should think about before making your big decision.
Supervisory Style and Expertise
Would you consider yourself more of a “hands-on” or “hands-off” supervisor?
This question addresses many aspects of supervisory style. Does your supervisor allow you to guide your own work and allow you to experiment for a long time before meeting with you (a “hands-off” style)? Or, will your supervisor ask about your progress every day, or as every experiment is completed, or actually be in the lab with you (a “hands-on” style)? Some students prefer to be left alone for a time and come to their supervisors as they decide. Other students will feel disconnected with this type of supervisor. Think about what kind of student you will be and try to find a supervisor that can accommodate your needs.
What is your availability like? How often will you and I meet to discuss my progress?
Find out how often you can find your supervisor if you need to. Many supervisors in MBP are also clinicians with clinic and patient responsibilities, or may have many teaching responsibilities. These supervisors will be less accessible than others. It is important to be able to contact and converse with your supervisor when you need to, so be sure to inquire about this.
To ensure your productivity and satisfaction in the lab is maintained, frequent meetings with your supervisor are suggested. Ask your supervisor how often they will be free to meet with you, and consider scheduling a regular bi-weekly meeting. This will ensure any problems you have will be addressed promptly, and will ensure your project will remain on track.
Do you have good technical experience with the experiments I will carry out?
This question addresses whether your supervisor will be able to fully understand and assist with any problems or issues you may have in the lab. If your supervisor or no one in their lab has tried the experiments you would like to do, be prepared for some hurdles in setting up your experimental system. Or worse, your project’s feasibility could be in question if your supervisor has no familiarity with the techniques. The chances of this are slim, as the supervisor would never have received a grant for your project if the project was unfeasible, but be aware day-to-day troubleshooting of experiments will require expertise in the lab. If your supervisor can’t help you, ask if there is someone in your lab or another lab that will be able to.
Describe your academic history. Where did you receive your Ph.D., where did you do your post-doctoral fellowships?
Be sure to ask your supervisor about their academic history, as it is important to understand your potential supervisor’s history and background to understand what kind of supervisor they would be and where their expertise lies.
Do you expect your students to work weekends and long hours? What about holidays?
All supervisors in MBP are successful scientists, and frequently success comes from hard work. Many supervisors worked long hours when they were graduate students and post-doctoral fellows and may therefore expect their students to do the same. Others may have more casual expectations and allow you to make your own hours. Be sure to ask your potential supervisor what kind of hours his lab maintains and what kind of hours they expect to do work.
Holiday time and weekends are very important to recharge the graduate students’ batteries. Some supervisors have strict guidelines on the amount of vacation time per year and this is something you should ask about.
How many conferences can I attend each year? How much financial support will you offer me in this regard?
Attending and presenting at scientific conferences are essential parts of becoming a successful scientist. We encourage you to attend as many conferences as you can that is reasonable in the framework of your project and your supervisor’s permission. Most supervisors in MBP pay most of the expenses for their students to attend one conference a year, but you should ask your potential supervisor about this at your interview.
How many lab members are there?
You should be aware of how big the lab is as this will have bearings on how much of your supervisor’s attention you will receive (they could be too busy with too many people in the lab), how much bench and desk space you will get and how sharing equipment works (will others be using the equipment you would like to use, forcing you to alter your schedule?).
Currently, MBP professors can have a maximum of 5 graduate students from this department in their lab at any one time. However, some professors are cross-appointed, and therefore have students from MBP and other departments in the lab and these labs are usually quite large. This will have an impact on the amount of interaction you will have with your supervisor, space, equipment sharing, and other considerations.
As well, technicians, grad students and research associates that are very familiar with the lab and techniques are great resources to learn from. Conversely, if there are few veteran lab members, you could be on your own for most of your work.
What is the lab space like?
Make sure you get a tour!
Does your lab have a good social dynamic? Do you have lab social events?
Lab members see each other a lot, and they should be happy with each other. Lab dynamics are nurtured by lab-oriented social events, such as summer BBQ’s at the supervisor’s place, or annual conference trips as a group. Ask your supervisor if any such events happen in your lab as these will help your enjoyment and general well-being in that lab in the future!
How many students have graduated from your lab with a Master’s and Ph.D.?
Your supervisor’s experience in mentoring graduate students is a very important factor in how the supervisor-student dynamic will operate for you. If your supervisor has never had a grad student before, this could lead to difficulties in the future if your supervisor has not been through difficulties in the past with other students. It is usually a good bet that the supervisor is a good one if they have had many graduate students over the years. They must be doing something right.
Do you expect your students to reclassify into the Ph.D. program, or do you allow your students to graduate with a Master’s?
Some supervisors actively encourage their students to reclassify, while others leave the decision completely up to their students. It is possible that a supervisor may not want to “invest” in a Master’s student when a Ph.D. student will produce more valuable data for the lab. Ask your potential supervisor what kind of project yours could be, and whether they will expect you to reclassify. Current MBP students believe that having two projects, one requiring more time investment and one requiring less, is a good idea. The first project can evolve to become a Ph.D. thesis, while the second one can be a fall-back for a Master’s if things don’t work out as planned. Be sure to discuss this with your potential supervisor!
What is the length of time to obtain a Master’s or a Ph.D. in your lab?
This is a hot topic among current and prospective grad students. The best predictor for how long your degree will take is the length of time past graduate students in the lab took. Having said that, each project is different, and there are many factors that will influence the amount of time you will take. Discuss with your potential supervisor how long “your type of project” in your potential lab will take, and how long it has taken for students in that lab in the past.
Have your former graduate students held scholarships?
While MBP offers all students a minimum stipend, applying for competitive scholarships is important. Having a competitive scholarship entitles you to a top-up of $3000, saves your supervisor money, and looks great on your CV. As well, the process of applying for a scholarship is an excellent way to get experience in organizing your project, improving your writing skills, and is good practice for future grant applications. Therefore, it is worthwhile knowing if any former grad student in your lab received a competitive scholarship, to get a feel for whether you could potentially receive one as well.
What are your former graduate students doing now? What kind of career could I get into after graduating from your lab?
Graduate school is the beginning of your science career and the choices you make for the lab your join and the experience you gain will have an impact on your future career choices. To shed some light on your possible future career, ask your supervisor what his/her former students are doing now. Are they in academia or industry? Do they have their own labs? Do they work in government?
Aside from the MBP degree requirements, what courses will I be taking?
You may have interests that are covered in courses outside of MBP. The University of Toronto offers many courses of interest to grad students in MBP, offered by the Departments of Biochemistry, Immunology, Medical Genetics and Microbiology, Physics and others. Your supervisor might recommend you take a course outside of MBP; consider bringing up this issue at your interview.
Other things to consider
Unfortunately, MBP does not have an undergraduate program, therefore the opportunities to be a teaching assistant are fewer than in other departments at U of T. However, grad students in MBP are fully entitled to apply to TA in other departments within U of T (eg. Human Biology and Physics; and also courses at U of T Mississauga/Scarborough) or even outside of our university (eg. Ryerson, York). There are also lots of opportunities for science outreach outside of the classroom – many students volunteer with Let’s Talk Science, Science Rendevous, and SciHigh to develop their communication/teaching skills. Some supervisors may feel that being a TA takes away valuable experiment time. Be sure to ask your supervisor what they feel about their students being TAs.
As well, make sure you obtain your lab-mates’ contact information so you can arrange to talk about the lab after your interview day – and don’t hesitate to go out for a coffee to talk to them about their time in the lab.