I am supposed to meet with a PI to discuss the possibilities of joining his lab as a MSc student.

I have had one meeting with another PI last week, but it went bad. Essentially he was repulsed when I told him about my GPA and mostly, when he asked me specifically what exactly I want to get out of the MSc experience at his lab (e.g. specific instrument that I'm interested in mastering, etc.). He told me that I should know exactly my goals prior to starting a grad program and that an interest in the field isn't sufficient.

I agree, however, no matter how much literature I read in that field, I will still have that broad answer which is "I want to contribute to your current project" because as a MSc student, very little I can do in terms of research projects. Most graduate students find their passion once they start their program.

He was also repulsed when I told him that I intend to work in the industry, and I was surprised because the majority of students with higher degree decide to go to work in the industry (e.g. GSK, Pfizer, etc.). Perhaps I should have lied? But that shouldn't be the basis of our relationship as a student and a PI. There is no shame in pursuing a research degree because I intend to go to R&D. Why do most PIs make me feel that I should always answer that "I want to become an academic researcher?", because I don't.

If I made mistakes in the previous interview, please highlight them to me so I can avoid making them again for when I speak with the next PI (whose main concerns is funding). Should I not have said that my ultimate goal is to work in the industry? And how exact should I be in terms of my goals as a MSc student?

UPDATES: I met the new PI and it was an instant rapport! I clearly understand now how being genuine about your goals and educational background can serve you well in such situations.

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    What a jerk. The best thing you can do at this point is forget you ever met him. Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 1:46
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    I don't see why this PI should be categorized as "a jerk". As an interviewer in industry I see lots of applicants with mediocre paper qualifications and who can't articulate any good reason why they really want this job compared with the others they have applied for. The only difference I can see between that and the OP's experience is that I don't normally waste my own time in the interview explaining why I'm going to reject them. the PI was probably trying to be helpful, not a jerk - but the truth often hurts.
    – alephzero
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 4:11
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    @alephzero: Yes. I've asked prospective MSc students what interests them about the project, and had the project description quoted back at me. I wrote the description myself and I know what it says; I'm asking why the student's personal skills or interests attract them to this project. At MSc level, it's no longer about parroting the "right" answers, you have to show some independent thinking -- which I realise can be scary, but it's necessary if you want to get into research. (It is very jerkish for an academic to look down on industry, but sadly common.) Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 8:20
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    @RoyalCanadianBandit I think the issue is that the person may have come off as not attracted to the project. By showing no specific interest and saying they wanted to transition to industry basically said "I'm here to get my masters then a job" instead of "I want to study this". That may have rubbed the potential advisor the wrong way.
    – JMac
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 11:40
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    I don't see the point in trying to impress him if he was so easily 'repulsed' for so trivial matters. I would just find somebody else -There a lot of people doing interesting stuff who actually happen to be nice!
    – user71767
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 8:45

2 Answers 2


After recently meeting with dozens of potential advisers in multiple institutions and departments over the last year, my advice is to try to get yourself out of the mindset of merely trying to impress them. Sure, you need to put your best foot forward, but there's something about academia that it's important to understand: there is a massive amount of variability between individuals, departments, institutions, and fields, in a huge variety of ways. What is impressive to one person can be off-putting to others, or a sign of a bad match.

One bad meeting isn't enough data to determine anything, but more importantly, this might have actually been a really great meeting, because you found someone who might be very unpleasant to work with because they are not supportive of your goals - short-term and long-term - at all. That's a terrible match, and finding that out is great.

As a personal example, I was talking with one prospective advisor and told them about my long-term vision (10-20 year career goals), and the response was that it's important not to be too ambitious, and basically that most people never do work that has much of an impact so you shouldn't aim so high.

I gave a similar talk and explanation of my long-term career goals to another potential advisor, and their response was that they were extremely surprised I had developed such a clear vision of what I wanted to do and had the maturity to think about the long-term, and they thought it was really great and they were very positive and enthusiastic about talking about how to make it happen. They even gave constructive criticism on how to connect short-term goals to long-term ones, what to do to get started right away, etc.

One plan, two completely different responses. And you know what? That's OK. This is why people say it's so important to be honest about your interests - don't trick your way into a relationship that will be bad for you!

To ask about desire to go to academia vs industry, this is another issue of fit. When I talked with some people about wanting to be an academic, they actually talked at length about how competitive the markets are, how much better the pay in industry is, are you sure you don't just want to get a job, etc. Other people volunteered that "it is not our job to decide where you want go to for you - it is our job to help you make your dreams happen". And yet others were extremely supportive, realistic, but talked about what kind of strategy would be necessary to make it happen, how to prepare, asked to make sure I really understood what I was aiming for, etc.

In my experience, this was partly a factor of department, and partly an individual factor. Some programs and/or advisors place the majority of their people into academia (60-80% is not unheard of), and they are proud of that fact, sometimes even flat out saying on their website that is the goal of their program. Other places place more on the order of <10% into academia - so why on earth would they have an issue with people going into industry, and if you wanted to go into academia shouldn't you prefer a different department?

What To Do Different

I did detect a few things I might suggest you adjust, though. One is how to talk about your goals. "Go into industry" is a common phrase, but it also suggests you don't really have an idea why you want to go to grad school or do after. You might be more specific, such as how you want to contribute your developing expertise within a R&D department to develop drugs with less side-effects, or to fight aging, etc - whatever suits your interests. If you are also open to other ideas, say that too!

If you say you just want to learn an instrument, that might sound too limited, depending on what you were naming. Going to grad school to learn to use a centrifuge might sound unambitious. Learning how to do advanced gene sequencing and interpret genetic-based drug interaction models - that just sounds a bit more developed, but you again should focus on what you care about.

What if you just honestly don't know? I have found the best result is to say what you have explored. Something like, "Well, I've explored anti-aging treatments, and degenerative diseases, and infectious outbreak analysis, and I've actually really enjoyed it all so I'm having trouble deciding. I'm open to trying a few different approaches and subjects in this field, as I've so enjoyed the work I've had the opportunity to do so far." You can note limited opportunities to explore, etc. This is all honest, just a bit more useful and interesting than "I dunno".

Above all, keep at it! I suggest meeting with over a dozen people, if you can possibly manage it, even outside your immediate field of interest if necessary. Focus on learning from the interactions and having a mutually interesting exchange - and don't jump to conclusions on too few data points.

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    +1 for the suggestions on how to improve. Being specific about your interests is very important. Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 21:59
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    Thank you so much Brian, your answer is very clear. I agree with you that each PI is different and there is no way I would know how my answers will make them feel about me as a candidate. To be honest, the PI who I'm scheduled to meet with is actively involved in healthcare startups in the university entrepreneurship accelerator, so I am hopeful we have common grounds. I appreciate your answer again.
    – Emma
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 22:02

BrianDHall's answer has some great advice, in particular the idea that these meetings are for your benefit as well as the potential advisor's, in finding out whether or not the two of you are a good match.

I want to focus on one bit of your question:

... he asked me specifically what exactly I want to get out of the MSc experience at his lab ...

... no matter how much literature I read in that field, I will still have that broad answer which is "I want to contribute to your current project" because as a MSc student, very little I can do in terms of research projects. Most graduate students find their passion once they start their program.

I suspect that there were a few things that your potential supervisor was seeking to establish in this line of questioning:

  • Are you genuinely interested in the subject matter, or are you doing the MSc because you can't think of anything better to do?
  • Where exactly do your scientific interests lie? Are they in the techniques used, the subject knowledge, the applications of the work...?
  • Are you able to show some independent/creative thought?

You may be correct that in reality, once you start the MSc, you would end up just "contributing to the current project" in a way largely dictated by the supervisor. But that is not a very helpful answer to give in the meeting. Instead, you need to make use of the background research that you have done. Talk about some different aspects of the supervisor's work. Demonstrate that you have some idea of where the "knowledge gaps" lie. It doesn't matter if the ideas you suggest are not possible to fit into a MSc project. It doesn't matter if you list several different aspects and say that you don't yet know which interests you most. It doesn't really matter what you talk about at this point, just so long as you talk intelligently and enthusiastically about some aspect of the project.

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