I saw this blog article I wrote a long time ago but never posted. It has some interesting ideas, although over the years the graduate applicant pool at Tongji has changed so much that the following might not be applicable. However, for other bioinformatics programs about to screen their candidates and aspiring bioinformatics students preparing for graduate interviews, this blog might still be useful.
Since my collaboration with Tongji University in China in 2009, I have been involved in recruiting and screening graduate applicants to Tongji’s Bioinformatics graduate program. Most of these applicants just finished their junior year in college. They have very diverse backgrounds, and unlike graduate applicants in the US, often have little bioinformatics experience.
The first level of screening checks whether the CV appears professional, and some simple facts: current university (985/211 universities preferred), majors (maths, physics, biology, computer science, and bioinformatics preferred), ranking (top 10% GPA, and good scores on physics, maths, analytical chemistry, computer science and English courses preferred), and English test scores (CET6 > 500 preferred).
After the initial screen, I get in touch with students to talk for about ~30min over the phone or Skype (video conference is even better). Over the years, I have settled on the following questions. In addition to testing students’ motivation and maturation, this conversation also gives me some clues about the students’ logic thinking, professionalism and communication skills.
- Can you tell me about your background? Current college, major, and research experience. Research experience is important but not necessarily (and probably better not) in bioinformatics.
- Why are you interested in bioinformatics at Tongji University? Do they know what bioinformatics really is? Which institutions and scientists do good bioinformatics research? Do they know what PIs at Tongji Bioinformatics program do?
- What are your goals for the coming 1-2 years, and after graduate school? Students with well thought out and concrete goals are self motivated, focused, and more mature. In addition to career goals, one might also consider self improvement, health, and personal happiness goals.
- What is the biggest failure or setback in your life and what you have learned from this? Mental resilience is important for scientific research. It is important to challenge oneself, fail enough times, and learn from these experiences. If students tell me their lives have been pretty smooth with no major setbacks, I would ask why didn’t they try harder to get more of what they want in life.
- What are your hobbies or extra-curriculum activities? Michael Zhang once told me, “if you don’t know how to play well, you don’t know how to do good research”. We want our students to bring an interesting aspect to our graduate program. I also like students who are socially conscious and responsible.
If a group of students are all on site (e.g. during their graduate interview weekend), I also like to get the students to play the Pictionary Game. We divide the students into teams of 4-5 people (one group is OK too). Each team ask one representative to come to the front, pick one card with an English word, then go back to draw it for the teammates to guess the word. The people drawing can only tell their teammates whether the word is none/verb/adj/adv and they can provide hint by nodding or shaking their heads but can not speak. Here we use abstract words that are hard to draw, such as create, try, and succeed. It is interesting to see how the people drawing convert abstract ideas into drawing, and which teammates can guess things nonstop until they succeed. It also test the students’ English vocabulary, IQ, social behavior, and team spirit.
Of course, the best test is for the student to spend a few weeks in the summer to get some bioinformatics training at Tongji. During their stay, the students will read and present some scientific papers, analyze some genomics datasets using available algorithms, and learn to program in python. Both the research group and the applicants get to know each other better. The students also meet individually with admission committee composed of senior graduate students, postdocs, and faculty who will provide their evaluation of the students later.