Navigating STEM Graduate School Interviews as a Marginalized Trainee

A person of color is standing beside a large erlenmeyer flask. They are content and happy.
A person of color is standing beside a large erlenmeyer flask. They are content and happy.

As graduate program interview season begins, I’m reflecting on how I chose my current graduate program for my PhD studies. As a queer and nonbinary first-generation student of color, for me, welcoming communities, supportive mentorship, and resources to help me achieve my personal and professional career goals came to the forefront of my decision making. For incoming trainees who belong to underrepresented groups* and are marginalized in STEM fields, preparing for graduate interviews can feel exciting yet daunting.

Here, I’ve attempted to compile several questions and reflection prompts that may help you contextualize and process your graduate school interviews as they pertain to identity and lived experiences. Although I only asked some of these questions during my interview weekends, in hindsight, I think many of these questions are particularly relevant, especially towards identifying programs that will affirm you both within and outside of research. What’s most important to take away from these graduate interviews is that you find an environment where you can thrive and prioritize your needs, goals, and happiness while being supported to be a scientist as your whole self.

Although these lists are not exhaustive, I’ve outlined general themes for different types of questions. As you could imagine, many of these questions can be intersectional and can apply within multiple contexts. Feel free to use what will work best for you and reflect on some of these prompts so that you can get the most out of your interview experiences.

General Questions

Program Logistics

  • Are there grant writing workshops offered by this program? Who leads them?
  • Are there career development tracks or paths that are available to students?
  • Which facilities do trainees have access to?
  • Are there opportunities to meet visiting seminar speakers?
  • Are students involved in the faculty hiring process?
  • Do students leave this program with Master’s degrees? If any, why?
  • What are the TA requirements like for students?
  • Does the program have a well connected alumni network?
  • Where do many trainees end up professionally?
  • Are trainees who choose non-academic career paths supported? How many students do this and what is the coursework like?

Finances and Housing

  • How are students in this program financially supported (specific grants and fellowships)?
  • What neighborhoods or areas do students typically live in?
  • Is the stipend fair to the cost of living?
  • How do trainees commute and is the campus and city accessible?
  • What types of housing arrangements do students prefer?
  • Does this stipend change annually to accommodate cost of living? Can you travel and save with this stipend?
  • Are transportation resources covered by the program (bus passes, etc)?

Health, Well-being, and Happiness

  • How happy are you in this program?
  • For organizations that support outreach and community in the department, are they connected to the larger institution or community?
  • Are students provided with health insurance plans? What is coverage like and how does it work? Does this include mental health coverage?
  • What led you to choose this program?
  • How would you describe your program’s climate and community?
  • What are some things you wish you knew before you started the program and graduate school in general?
  • What do you do in your free time and have you picked up any new hobbies when you started your program?
  • Do you feel that the program supports work-life balance?

Historically Excluded Identities in STEM

Program Climate

  • If you’ve ever raised concerns about department climate, were your needs met? How were those needs received?
  • Are there accessibility, diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice efforts actively happening in your program? How long have these efforts been implemented? Who leads these efforts and creates these spaces? How has the program and community responded to these efforts?
  • For programming and initiatives that are led by students of color, is the program supportive of these efforts?
  • Are there organizations led by marginalized trainees in this program? Do they receive financial support to support their events and programming? When were these organizations created?
  • For DACA students, what resources are available at this program that support you and help you thrive professionally and personally? Do you feel supported by your program?

Mentorship and Professional Development

  • Does this program offer travel stipends to support professional development opportunities unique to marginalized trainees (conference attendance, STEM workshops, scientific illustration courses, internships outside of academia, etc.)?
  • Why did you choose to join your current thesis lab?
  • How did you identify mentors within the department and outside of your program? How do they support you?
  • Are there any grants specific to marginalized trainees upon program admission?
  • Does this program provide professional development opportunities to network with diverse alumni?

Happiness and Safety

  • What traits have you found in mentors that have uplifted and supported your time in graduate school?
  • Does your lab and program value community? What does that look like?
  • Where else do you find community beyond your program and institutions?
  • Are there initiatives beyond this program that exist at your institution to cultivate communities that support your identities? How often do you seek these communities?
  • Are there resources accessible to you in your program that help you feel safe?

LGBTQ2IA+

  • Is there a supportive queer community in this program?
  • Does your healthcare include trans providers and resources?
  • Are there gender neutral restrooms in buildings and spaces trainees have access to?
  • Does the city where X program is feel welcoming for queer people?
  • How supportive is the community about sharing pronouns in your program and institution?
  • What resources are available for folks who are transitioning? Opportunities to list your preferred name on classroom documents, etc?
  • Are there administrators and faculty allies who have supported you during your PhD?
  • What tools and resources are implemented and reinforced by the program to ensure that trainees who are ‘out’ feel safe?
  • Are there mentorship programs at your institution that support your identities and how often do you use that as a resource?

People with Disabilities

  • What accommodations and action plans are implemented by this program to support trainees?
  • Do you feel that this program has supported you and has helped you thrive as a scientist?
  • Do seminars and presentations offer closed captions if they are recorded?
  • Are courses and coursework flexible and accessible to trainees?
  • Are there community advocates that support trainees and their needs?
  • What healthcare resources and providers are available through graduate program insurance coverage?
  • How do you track outcomes including retention and retention for students with disabilities?
  • Are there professional development opportunities and organizations that support people with disabilities at your program?

First Generation Graduates

  • Does this program offer relocation grants and assistance for moving to the city of the program?
  • Are there accessible technology grants for trainees?
  • Are there specific support networks for first-generation students?
  • Are there mentorship programs available that teach students the skills necessary to succeed and thrive in graduate school?
  • Are there student orientation programs for trainees? If so, when are they, who participates in them, and what are the goals?
  • Do you think that the provided coursework is manageable and uplifting for trainees?
  • How did you find and identify good support systems in your graduate program? Who are they? Does this include, peers, mentors, faculty, administrators, etc?

Reflection Exercises After your Interviews

If you have a busy interview season lined up, it can be helpful to reflect and process each program. One thing that greatly helped me included journaling to think about each interview. These are some writing exercises that could help you better identify pros and cons of each interview experience.

  • How did each day of program interviews and socials make you feel? You should also note descriptions such as “uplifted”, “motivated”, “encouraged”, “tired”, “uncomfortable”.
  • How did the interview make you feel about yourself?
  • Did you connect with any current trainees in particular? How about students in your interview cohort?
  • How did you feel about the program’s location?
  • Were you able to get a sense of how trainees in the program were supported?
  • Do you feel more comfortable with umbrella programs, or more focused program interviews?
  • List the pros and cons of both if you are having a hard time deciding.
  • How did trainees talk about program advisors and their expectations of research?
  • Did you get a sense of finding supportive communities that would help you thrive?
  • In two sentences, describe your feelings about the interview to summarize?

Closing Advice

While this type of journaling can feel extensive, at the end of your interviews, you can have a chance to better reflect on your experiences and feelings if you document what each program has to offer. Sometimes keeping track of students you connected with during interview weekends can also help further answer your questions beyond interview weekend.

Know that your success and happiness with your program decision matters and you deserve to find a training program that will support your professional and personal growth!

*Here, underrepresented groups in STEM are defined as trainees who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Pacific Islander, DACA, MENA with intersecting identities including, Disabled, LGBTQIA2S+, or first-generation graduates.

PhD Candidate at UW Genome Sciences, computational biologist, probably drawing or writing, disruptor, they/them/theirs

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