Zooming In: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on PhD Interviews
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant changes to multiple layers of academia, including the biological and biomedical sciences PhD admissions process in the United States. Typically, prospective applicants are selected to interview in-person at the destination campus not only as a part of the evaluation process, but also as an opportunity for the applicants to gauge program fit. The travel disruptions caused by the pandemic put this opportunity on hold in 2020, and for many programs, lasted into the 2021 admissions cycle. As such, many programs opted for virtual interviews instead.
Rama Alhariri, a PhD student in the Human Genetics and Molecular Biology program at Johns Hopkins University, was unable to visit the universities she applied to when she was choosing PhD programs in 2020. All her interview processes took place virtually. Although there was slight variation in the format, she had an opportunity to talk to current students and faculty members about their research interests and the PhD program in general. In addition to the interviews, her virtual programs included sessions introduce applicants to the university and the city itself, such as a panel session about things to do in the area and a live virtual tour of the program. However, this experience did not quite resemble the in-person visits.
“I would’ve liked a higher quality of the tour of facilities as some programs lacked that altogether or it was a little unclear. Additionally, I would’ve liked a greater interaction with other interviewees without the presence of upper-class students or faculty so that we can get to know one another better, the way we might if we were in an in-person interview. It is unfortunate because it’s these interactions that also shape how well you might integrate with other students,” she added.
When asked about how she gauged the fit of the PhD program, Alhariri said that she tried to focus on her interactions with the students, faculty, and other interviewees. From these conversations, she was able to get a glimpse into the campus culture and the overall level of formality and professionalism among the faculty members and students.
“Ultimately the program I chose, while it was also the highest ranking one, was the one in which I felt most comfortable with the upper-class students as well as those that could potentially be within my cohort. I sought an environment with a good balance between professional and somewhat relaxed, which would be the best fit for me.”
Although virtual interviews have become more common in the PhD admissions process in the past two year, they are not new. International students who reside in other countries, for example, typically have limited opportunities to travel due to visa issues and a lack of financial reimbursement for long-distance travel. When I was choosing a PhD program to commit to in 2018, I was finishing up my undergraduate studies outside of the United States. Because of that, my campus visits were limited to places that I could afford flying to. Additionally, my virtual interviews were limited to conversations with faculty members, which was not enough to give me a comprehensive picture.
Alhariri shared a few tips for current applicants who are unable to visit campuses in-person, “It’s hard to make a decision on what program you want to choose based off limited virtual interactions. I say trust your gut and try to support your intuition with evidence. I obtained information about living in the city through online searching. Because faith is important to me, I also checked social media sites of the Muslim student faith group – I wanted to know that there was a large enough Muslim community within the city and even within the university at large, not limited to just my program.”
Ultimately, completing a PhD is a long-term commitment, and the decision making to commit to a program looks different from person to person. Self-introspection can help a lot in this case: what is important for you? Will the environment nurture your academic curiosity? Do you like the idea of living in the area for several years? Based on my own experience of interviewing virtually, I would suggest doing the following things. First, try to talk to as many people in the PhD program as you can. Do not hesitate to ask to be connected to faculty members you are interested in working with and current students to get more information about the culture of the university. Second, try to connect with previous applicants who ended up choosing a different program to understand their perspectives and add information to your decision making. Lastly, if you are moving to a new environment, do some research about the area itself – including cost of living and things to do beyond academic work – to ensure that you will adapt well.
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