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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Choosing Your Graduate School

Introduction

The selection of a Graduate school may be anywhere from straightforward to complex. If straightforward, the applicant may already have pre-determined their preferred universities and programs.
Under the straightforward approach, a letter or email is forwarded to the university department for information on available graduate student openings, and interview possibilities. A CV and transcript would often be attached covering the individual’s academic background and research interests. The initial enquiries may be more informal, although each school will have a formal application process which will eventually cut in.
If a PI and/or Department are interested in the student, interviews would be held and additional information on the school and program would be conveyed by the PI (Principal Investigator). Issues raised by the prospective student would be discussed. A decision is ultimately made to accept or decline an offer to enroll.

Increasing Awareness of Choices

While the choice under a straightforward approach could be good, a fundamental issue remains: is the decision as good as it could be? Students are frequently unaware of the array of choices that should have been carefully studied in arriving at a final decision. Choices exist between Departments within a university, as well as between universities. It includes the variety of Graduate school openings, selection of PIs, the research interests of both the PI and the student, available Department research, graduation requirements, and the possible impact of the choice on a career among other things.
The student should take into account: Has a reasonable number of options been considered? Is the student aware that they might be allowed to transfer to and enroll with other departments within or between universities? These options require sufficient knowledge of alternate yet relevant programs between and within the universities.
Some students intend to enroll in professional studies beyond the PhD or MSc, for instance in Medicine or as a Medical Physicist. Are opportunities for admission to these programs improved by your choice of Graduate department? Has sufficient and relevant knowledge been acquired so that the student’s final decision is based on a thorough and well thought out effort?
If you are uncertain, and feel your current knowledge of your options is insufficient for making a final decision on grad school, extensive research will be required to obtain the necessary data. This path is complex, requiring critical thinking and flexibility, but the research will open your mind to a myriad of choices. I have outlined below some useful steps for initiating this process.

Information Acquisition

Two major resources available are: (A) On-line sources, and (B) Interviews with the PI. These will be further discussed below. Additionally, Departments offer Open Houses with accompanying tours and informal meetings with current students, faculty, and PIs that could be useful. Many also participate in Graduate Fairs where you may meet with faculty and students. These are opportunities for forming opinions on PIs and their research interests etc. and choices within a Department. Students may also highlight their experiences and provide insights on lab and Department culture.
University Departments often publish materials not posted on-line. An inquiry could be useful, since it can be a source of additional material not otherwise accessible.

Major Information Sources

On-line Sources

Comparable university programs should be examined and thoroughly reviewed for similarities and variation. An in-depth analysis assists in a more substantial discussion with your PI interviewer. US News has a website ranking American science schools and providing tips for incoming American college students (http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-science-schools). The same website also ranks programs in Canada (http://www.usnews.com/education/best-global-universities/canada/).

The PI Interview

This interview is critical. The PI is an invaluable information source and a future asset should you attend the school. The PI is knowledgeable about the Department, its options, research opportunities, the program, graduation requirements, lab culture, and is also conversant regarding operational and administrative matters. The PI may be someone with whom you will work closely for several years.
Interview sessions should be informative, candid, and free-flowing with a full exchange of information, ideas, issues, and questions. Throughout this process, questions and issues arise. Some are:

  • The degrees awarded by a Department: Master’s, dual MSc-PhD, PhD only. If your grades are excellent, you may sometimes bypass the MSc and directly enter the PhD. What is the Department’s reclassification policy?
  • The MSc: The study term may be 1-3 years. What is the length of MSc’s available at the university? Do they vary by Department?
  • MSc and PhD study: Graduate studies may be pursued at one school only, or you may already have an MSc from another school. Are there complications should a student wish to transfer from a different Department after obtaining a Master’s?
  • How is the transfer handled? Are there pre-requisites?
  • Entry into PhD by reclassification: Are there underlying conditions?
  • Time-frame for completion of studies: Does the prospective student have a firm timeline for graduation?
  • What is the typical completion time for an MSc or PhD? Do they vary among departments or PIs?
  • What is the departmental policy for attending conferences? Are there limitations?
  • Financial assistance: What is available in bursaries, scholarship, and salary?
  • Are there TAing/tutoring opportunities and/or requirements?
  • What are the specific research and publishing expectations for the MSc and PhD?
  • What type of research projects are available?
  • What alternate departments could provide a good research project match for a prospective student?

These questions evolve as you speak with more people and your school research progresses. Some questions could be directed to a PI, others to students, and others yet to administrative personnel. The better your research effort, the better thought-through your questions, the better the quality of information that can be obtained.
Hopefully, this blog helps your decision-making.
Coming up: Blog #3, The PI Interview.
Good luck.

 

Joe Steinman

BSc (Chemical Physics, Trent)

MSc (Medical Biophysics, U of T)

PhD candidate (Medical Biophysics, U of T)

What to look for when choosing a lab/supervisor (Principal Investigator)

The choice of a lab and supervisor is critical for undergraduates entering grad studies. Up to the present, choices have been relatively clear. There are many quality Graduate Schools in Canada (and the US), with Neuroscience programs that have a broad range of subspecialties. Many of these options meet or fit in to a student’s interests and career goals.
The choice of supervisor (PI) and lab, however, will define one’s Graduate school experience. My lab enabled me to think more creatively and introduced me to new skills and new technology, while exploring many interesting aspects in neuroscience.
It may be quite a challenge to determine the ‘right lab’, as a brief interview and lab tour are the foundation of this process. Your commitment may last 2-7+ years. It will affect future studies and career. What questions should you ask? What should you look for? This blog’s purpose is to highlight important features to consider when choosing a lab. There are four major considerations in selecting a supervisor: the importance of a PI; qualities of a PI; lab size; and student input via opinions and experiences.

Importance of a PI

The quality of a PhD is determined by the student. A good PI smoothes the process. It may be easier to publish under some PIs than others. Some senior PhD students mention how they are primary authors on 5 papers in addition to multiple co-authorships. Others may only have 1-2 first authorships and take longer to graduate. This does not reflect on student or PI quality. Projects vary in complexity. PIs may divide research over multiple papers, while others insist on novel technological developments. A student that is required to develop a method of MR imaging, or develop a new genetic engineering technique, before applying it to a disease may require several years before their first publication. This increases if their supervisor insists on publication in high impact journals, and the student conducts and analyzes data with little outside help or collaborations. These complex projects increase the length of a degree: master’s degrees may extend to 3 (or more) years, while PhDs may be 7+ years. A lengthier degree is neither better nor worse than a shorter degree. The extra years aren’t relevant if a student has developed a valuable set of skills, with high-powered publications to add to their CV. Ideally, the project stretches the student while enabling a reasonable number of publications. It is important for a student to understand a lab environment before entering it.

Qualities of a PI

Be aware of a PI’s area of interest. You must possess a flexibility of mind. Select a lab for which your skills are suited. If you are initially interested in studying Alzheimer’s, other conditions or diseases may also be acceptable. A supervisor should be accessible, and have the appropriate resources to assist students in directing their research. Ideally, a PI is an appropriate mixture of hands-on and hands-off. They allow you to develop as an independent researcher, while ensuring the project remains on-track and focused. Most labs send their students to conferences to present their findings, which provide an opportunity to network and present. The number of conferences should not be the determining factor. More important qualities are whether a PI’s temperament fits in with your personality, and the variety and potential of projects. These are the factors which determine the quality of the Graduate School experience, not attendance at an extra conference abroad.

The Lab Size

Generally, smaller labs allow greater student access to the supervisor. Larger labs have more equipment, more project choice, and possibly more collaboration opportunities. These factors may seem important, and often are, but a PhD candidate is mainly focused on a single project. For all the opportunities a large lab may offer, you may only be able to take advantage of a few.

Student Opinions

To determine whether a supervisor is a potential fit, inquiries of current/former lab students may be beneficial. A PI may introduce a potential student to current lab members, and provide email addresses. Connection with these individuals, or other outsiders, can be useful.

 

Joe Steinman

BSc (Chemical Physics, Trent)

MSc (Medical Biophysics, U of T)

PhD candidate (Medical Biophysics, U of T)