The PI Interview

First, a few comments. The PI is a valuable source of information for a prospective student. Upon the student joining the Department, the PI may become an advisor, counsellor, and problem solver. This cannot be sufficiently stressed. Due to their academic and administrative background and experience, their assistance is invaluable in matters such as: course selection, Committee Member selection, choice of research project, and problem solving in the event of technical and personnel difficulties. Their expertise can be helpful in any circumstances surrounding authorship, co-authorship, and publication. In return, advanced preparation for meetings with them is an expected courtesy.
The interview should be looked upon as a discussion between two individuals, the student and the PI, to determine if their common interests may lead to a position with the PI. Both parties do have common interests: the agreed upon research project and its successful completion in a responsible fashion as well as the compatibility of their views on the program, research interests, mutual expectations and their respective roles. Both parties should therefore be able to have a meeting that is positive, helpful, and hopeful.
It is best when the interview is free-flowing with a broad exchange of information and ideas. It is the ideal setting to raise concerns and questions, and obtain clarification and understanding. This assists to minimize or avoid future misunderstanding.
A better understanding of the Department may be gained when the student is well-prepared prior to the interview. This develops an appreciation of the program in advance and helps develop deeper, more probing questions.
It is useful to bring a laptop to possibly showcase your work. Other items such as a laser pointer that may assist in any demonstration may also be useful. A presentation demonstrating your Undergraduate research could be impressive.

Below are some questions or issues that may arise or require clarification during the interview:

  1. What is the composition of the program regarding courses, research, and teaching requirements?
  2. How does the program compare or contrast from those of other universities?
  3. What are the program’s strengths?
  4. How is a research project determined or chosen?
  5. Does the Department have a collaborative program, like U of T’s Collaborative Program in Neuroscience? What are they?
  6. Which undergraduate courses are required as pre-requisites? Is there a course that I need to take to better prepare for Grad studies?
  7. What are average completion times for degrees under the following circumstances: re-classification, MSc or PhD programs?
  8. Is there significant variation in completion times among PIs?
  9. What is the role of the PI in graduate student research? The degree of involvement? Selection of the research project, etc.?
  10. May a student change a project mid-stream?
  11. Does the Department have a process wherein you serve under several PIs for a short period prior to a final choice of PI and project?
  12. Does the PI have a role in determining courses I select for my program?
  13. In what type of journals does the lab publish?
  14. What are the average number of publications per student?
  15. What constitutes a publication?

The Research Committee

In addition to selecting a PI, students are involved in selecting a Research Committee. The Committee normally meets once to twice a year. It provides the student with feedback and helps ensure the project is progressing. Some questions you may pose to the PI related to selection/establishment of a Committee are:

  1. What is the Committee composition? How many members does it consist of? What are their expertise?
  2. Does the grad student have input into composition, selection, and possible member changes?
  3. How are possible disagreements or misunderstandings handled? Is there a process?

As the interview progresses, it will be apparent that the above list is incomplete. The list evolves as information becomes available. You should have a good idea of the questions you will be asking prior to the interview. This helps ensure that important questions are not overlooked. Of course, additional questions may follow as the interview progresses.

Looking ahead: Blog #4 “Enhancing your CV”

Good Luck

Joe Steinman

BSc (Chemical Physics, Trent)

MSc (Medical Biophysics, U of T)

PhD candidate (Medical Biophysics, U of T)


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