I was recently selected to be one of the 30 students that received the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for graduate students. Going in, the interview for the fellowship was quite the black box for me — I had no idea what questions to expect, so I spent about 12 hours over the span of two weeks, practicing all sorts of question with Kimberly Bernard, the Fellowship coordinator at MIT, a revealing experience in which I learned about myself as well as the Fellowship.
But to demystify the experience for those who may not have access to a Fellowship Office, I wrote this post to explain what the interview is like. (These details are, of course, only from my own experience, but I’m tempted to think the broad strokes stay the same year-to-year.)
The night before the actual interview is a formal dinner with the folks that will be doing the interview the next day. The Soros Fellowship, unlike some of the other graduate fellowship, explicitly says that they do not judge you that night. Yet, because the interviewers are human (quite interesting ones too!), they are naturally susceptible to first impressions, and so ultimately, I think the dinner matters. There are three things I would try to accomplish in the dinner:
Learn something about your interviewers. One of my interviewers had an interest in health care policy, and in my answers with her, I talked about the importance of building partnerships between engineers and policy makers in order to create substantive improvements in health care outcomes. If you can tailor your answers based on interview’s background (not too obviously!), then I think it builds a good rapport with him or her.
Offer interesting information about yourself that can guide questions. The Soros interviewers did not seem to have a strict set of questions or topics that they wanted to cover. Instead, many of the questions were based off of parts of my essays that they found interesting, as well as facts about us that they had learned along the way. If there’s something you’d like to talk about, it’s won’t hurt to mention it there the night before.
Stand out in some way. Most of the fellows interviewing for the Soros were surprisingly demure and didn’t initiate conversations during dinner. I think if you’re one of the fellows who does, that will leave a favorable first impression.
The Interview Setup
The day of the interview, all of the fellows are given the time slots during which they will be interviewing. There are two interviews, so between the interviews, you wait in a conference room with the other fellows that are about to interview. It’s a relaxed atmosphere in which breakfast/lunch is provided.
The actual interview happens in a smaller room, the size of a large office, in which 4-6 interviewers are seated around a round-ish table and you are seated across from them. One of the interviewer starts by asking a softball question. In some cases, follow-up questions are asked, while in other cases, an interviewer may completely change topics. The interviewers try very hard to stick to the time limit, but they’ll give you an additional 15-30 seconds to finish your answer after time is up.
The makeup of the panel can totally change the feel of the interview even if the questions asked between them are similar (and the questions often do overlap!). In my case, the first panel was very formal, while the second was very informal. Naturally, the second interview went much more smoothly (that was the perception of everyone who interviewed that day). I advise you to keep things light and avoid defensiveness regardless of how much your panel grills you!
OK, so here are a list of questions that I was asked. My application focused on my background as an immigrant from Pakistan whose parents migrated to to US in pursuit of a better education, and my research focuses on building medical devices that can stay in the stomach and continuously monitor a patient’s health. A caveat: I asked the Soros team whether it was okay to release these questions, and they were fine with it, but they advised me to let you know that questions can vary immensely between fellows. But I feel like some information is better than none, as long as you don’t think of this as anything close to an exhaustive list.
Panel 1 (rigorous)
Why do you want to work on medical devices during your Ph.D.?
You began a mentorship program at MIT. What are your long-term goals with that program?
I noticed that you published a paper on a mechanistic model of the respiratory system. Can you write down the underlying differential equation for that model?
In this paper, how are you able to conclude that your results are significant and meaningful, not just the result of over-fitting or other artifacts?
So this device you are making stays inside of the stomach? I find that a little uncomfortable to think about – isn’t there a less invasive way to measure what you need?
You’ve spent a lot of time doing cutting-edge research. What would you do if you were “scooped”?
Panel 2 (laid back)
What application of your research excites you the most?
I’m a little uncomfortable with these kinds of devices. Can you tell me more about the risks of such devices?
The applications you’ve described seem to require more than technology to achieve change. Is there a social component to your work?
How has your Pakistani heritage influenced you?
Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
If you could have a cup of coffee with anyone alive today, who would it be?
Good luck, and feel free to reach out to me if you have any other questions or tips about the Soros Fellowship!