Month: January 2015

How to Ace Graduate School Interviews

So you’ve decided to commit the next 5-7 years to graduate studies. (You’re sure? :P). You took the GRE. You wrote a phenomenal personal statement. You secured glowing letters of recommendation. And one day, your prayers were answered – you received an interview invite! Congratulations! In this post, I will tell you exactly how to ace the interviews so you can encounter the world’s greatest problem: decide which graduate school to attend!

The interviewing process for graduate students is very different from a job interview. We don’t just show up for an hour, present our best self, and leave. Our interview is an entire weekend long. Typically, applicants arrive on Thursday afternoon and join a students-only dinner/social event. Unless you have an extremely valid excuse, do not miss out on the social events! This is where you get to observe graduate students interact in a more laid back atmosphere and gauge how you might fit into the “social life” of existing graduate students. Mingle, mingle, mingle. Nothing is more concerning than an applicant in a corner all by himself/herself. If you’re socially awkward, make it charming. (If Sheldon Cooper can be approachable, you can too!) If alcoholic drinks are offered, either politely decline or drink lightly. While the atmosphere is casual, still be your best self. First impressions are lasting. You’re there because you have good credentials. Now we want to see you as a person – are you considerate, confident, and overall fun to hang out with? If you’re overbearing or overconfident, it’s a huge red flag for us. We need to be able to hang out with you on a daily basis. So make us like you! Students have a say in the admission decision. A huge say, actually. Faculty understands that admitting someone means giving us new colleagues, so they want to make sure we like the incoming cohort.

Applicants commonly have the choice of being hosted by a current student. Choose this option. You will get to see how and where they live. Thus you can infer what their stipend can afford. Also, it’s a nice gesture to bring a small gift (i.e. chocolate) for your host. This is not bribing! Hosts spend a lot of efforts to ensure that you enjoy your stay, so it’s the least you can do. And leave them with a handwritten thank you card.

Friday is an all-day interview marathon. You typically meet faculty and students back to back, either for 30 minutes or an hour. You will have a scheduled break. Take this break to jot down as many notes as you can. You will need these notes when writing thank you letters and when you’re trying to decide which program to attend.

Be prepared to answer the following questions:

– Why do you want to be an XYZ/researcher?
– What qualifications do you have that will make you a successful XYZ/researcher?
– Tell me about yourself.
– Tell me about your research interests.
– Without thinking of any constraints, what would your dissertation be?
– What attracts you to our program? What do you look for in a program?
– What do you bring to the program? What are your special attributes?
– Where else have you applied or interviewed?
– Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years?
– What do you see as your strengths and weaknesses?
– How do you work under stress or pressure?
– How do you handle criticism?
– Tell me something that isn’t on your application.

What interviewers ultimately want to know:

– How well you fit with the program
– How you can contribute to the program (skills, knowledge, and experience)

- What kind of person are you? (Reliable and personable? Can we trust you with our research 
– What distinguishes you from 20 other people who can do the same tasks?

Interviewers evaluate:

– Social skills 

– Emotional stability 

– Professional maturity 

– Focus 

– Goals 

– Development of pursuits

Your Interview Attitude:
Be honest. Be yourself. Be in the moment. Don’t worry. Don’t overthink. 
You are qualified to be there. Have confidence. Show enthusiasm, appreciation, and curiosity. Leave an impression. Be positive. But don’t be 
caffeinated/overly bubbly. 
Listen more than you talk. Don’t heed attention to the competition. Focus on learning as much as you can about each school, finding out from students and professors what types of work they’re doing, asking questions about what it’s like to live in the area, etc. Always be respectful, curious, eager, and passionate. 

Above all, be prepared to discuss the faculty’s research! When reading their publications, pay careful attention to their proposed future work. Chances are, they are pursuing this very line of research. Probe intelligent questions and propose future directions whenever possible. Keep in mind faculty wants someone who can advance their research, not someone who merely follows directions and do as told.

Questions You Should Ask:

To faculty:
– Address most of your questions about the faculty’s research. Then, ask these:
– Do most students support themselves through RAs, TAs or special assignments?
– Are RAs available for all students?
– Where do students typically get internships? Jobs?
– When does the program expect to have its applicants selected?

Overall, make sure your questions are well thought-out and that you have done your homework. Don’t ask questions that can be answered on the program’s or lab’s website.

To students:
– How would you describe student/faculty relations in your program?
– How does your advisor work with students? Faculty? Personal style?
– What is the cost of living?
– What is life like here?
– What do graduate students do for fun here?

After the Interview:
Write a thank you email to everyone you interviewed with. This is not because you want a last shot at impressing them, but because you are genuinely grateful they took time to meet and get to know you. Most schools make their admission decisions Friday evening, so your thank you notes have little to no influence upon your chances of acceptance. Write it because you’re courteous.

Remember you always have a choice. Even with only one admission offer, you still have the choice to accept or reject. 5-7 years would be a long time commitment even for something you love, much less something you settled for. So if you have enough reasons to dislike the program or potential advisor, do consider re-applying next year. Take the year off to make yourself more competitive. It all boils down to whether the program offers an environment in which you can thrive. I know of top institutions where many would dream of attending, but I’ve decided not to apply there because I knew (and have witnessed first hand) the competitive, back stabbing, gossipy atmosphere would break me. I’ve also interviewed at a school where I thought its extreme laid back attitude would crumble me – I thrive best in a cooperative environment that continues to value excellence and progress. When making your final decision, keep these factors in mind.

Want Additional Help?
You can always email me should you want one-on-one advice regarding graduate schools. We can also do a mock interview and I’ll provide you the same feedback I would to my advisor as if I was evaluating a prospective candidate.

Enjoy this process. It’s actually really fun to meet so many people with the same interests and passion as you. Have fun and good luck!


Travels: Orange County (Anaheim, CA)

Unlike many, we are not fans of the west coast. Every time we need to travel there, some obstacles lie ahead. The first time, our luggage got lost. We were attending a wedding and Nhi almost had to purchase a new dress for the occasion. (The luggage arrived 6am on the wedding day.) The second and most recent time, our flight was delayed five hours because there was a dent in the aircraft’s wing. (They claimed a bird must have hit the plane. Poor birdie!!!) On our return flight, United Airlines was unable to confirm the checked-in luggage weight, causing a one-hour delay and consequently made us miss our connection flight. In total, we spent 32 hours at the airport + flying for the round trip. United Airlines neither apologized nor offered compensation for all of our troubles. Moral of the story? Never fly United Airlines.

Traveling issues aside, our recent trip to Anaheim was productive. Thanh attended his Mid-Year Pharmacy conference. Nhi met up with friends. And we both went on a food adventure. Nom nom nom!

Quán Hỷ

This was the first Vietnamese restaurant we dined in when we went to Anaheim for the first time together back in 2011. Since then, we’ve long yearned to eat here again and sometimes reminisce about the amazing flavors. Quán Hỷ specializes in central Vietnamese dishes – the delicacies of the ancient Imperial City of Hue. Their must-get dish is the appetizer “bánh bèo” (Vietnamese steamed rice cakes with shrimp).

Ốc & Lẩu

Hands down the best restaurant in Orange County. Although Thanh isn’t an adventurous diner, he had no problem savoring the yummy tastes of escargots. We had their house specialties of razor clams in magic sauce (seriously, so heavenly delicious) and the escargot hot pot. Be forewarned that although the service is fast, the wait time just to get in the door will be long. If you get there at 5pm, you’ll probably wait 45 minutes. If you get there around 6-7pm, the wait will most likely be 2 hours. So write down your name and run some errands before getting seated. :) We promise the food is absolutely worth it!

Lynda Sandwich

A cozy shop owned by Vietnamese pop singers (and married couple) Lynda Trang Đài and Tommy Ngo. The decor is centered around the theme of stars (aka celebrities). Many autographed photos adorned the wall nearest to the entrance. Towards the back, there is a mural of famous signatures. The entire space looks very modern and clean. They serve sandwiches as well as noodle soups. While Lynda is very proud of her secret sauce, which she personally makes, it leaves the sandwich a tad too sweet. The bread itself is very good. The filling consists of abundant vegetables and proteins. Very comparable to Lee’s Sandwiches. We also were lucky to have spotted Lynda herself. She was taking a party order and Nhi totally did the I’m-pretending-to-use-my-phone-but-actually-secretly-taking-photos-of-you… Thanh actually said hi and she nicely said hi back. :)

Uyên Thy Bistro

Uyên Thy not only owns the restaurant but also runs a cooking show on SBTN (Bếp Nhà Ta Nấu). Thanh is a huge fan of the show and credits his good cooking to her “tutelage”. The restaurant was a bit empty. The service was slow. But overall, we had a very homey experience. It felt like dining at a relative’s house. The foods have a very home-cooked vibe. We recommend this bistro if you’re missing your mom’s cooking. :)

Corner View Bakery

This bakery is also owned by Uyen Thy. It breaks Thanh’s heart to admit how terrible the bakery is. We ordered bánh bao (steamed stuffed buns), green tea cake, pandan cream puffs, and flan. The buns were dry and had very little filling. The cake was overly sweet. We couldn’t even finish what we ordered. We just want to forget the experience and pretend this bakery doesn’t exist.


Located two doors down from Ky Duyen House, Tren is a restaurant and bar owned by Vietnamese pop singer Minh Tuyết. The decor was terrible, if not nonexistent. The food was salty and consisted of mostly carbs (very little proteins were provided). The service was slow and inattentive. Our overall impression is that Minh Tuyết didn’t even try. Do your stomach a favor and dine elsewhere.

Hương Quán

This restaurant is owned by Vietnamese comedians Việt Hương and Hoài Tâm. Unlike Tren, customers can clearly detect the owners’ efforts in running their restaurant. We love their clever logo and the seasonal decorations that adorned their restaurant. The food was good, though not amazing. We thought their appetizers and desserts truly hit the mark. But their specialty entree of bún mắm fell short of expectations.

Loving Hut

We met up with a vegan friend who chose this eatery. It is a fitting name as the place is rather tiny. The walls are adorned with photos of famous vegan celebrities. Next to the cash register is a mini library containing spiritual books. So unique! We also love the foods and strongly recommend Hainam Grilled Rice.

Tebo Tebo

We always have a soft spot for tea shops (ex: Tea Garden & Tea Time). Tebo is larger than most. While it mostly serves tea, you can also order foods here. We felt their fruity drinks leaned more toward desserts than actual tea. The place was indeed busy, but service was slow and inattentive. The drinks were just average (not worth the wait), but Nhi did love their blossom tea.

Phước Lộc Thọ

You can’t mention Little Saigon without mentioning Phước Lộc Thọ (Asian Garden Mall). There is a nice food court in the center on the first floor. We personally wouldn’t do any shopping here, but it’s a nice gathering of small stores where you can find Vietnamese clothing and products. Side note: we did replace watch batteries for really cheap.

Laguna Beach

California has a full coastline of beaches, with Laguna being one of its most famous. It is indeed beautiful and offers a nice stroll to enjoy the California sunshine, but the best beach to us remains Siesta Keys in Florida with its smooth, white sand.

Downtown Disney

Walking by foot and trying to follow road signs, it is somewhat confusing to find. It was rather small and underwhelming. (Florida boasts a much more impressive Downtown Disney.) We went during the daytime, so perhaps there was nothing going on. However, as expected, Frozen was on full display. We saw Elsa everywhere!

It seems like everything is very spaced out on the west coast. Orange County lacks an easy-to-use subway/metro system. It seems the best way to get around is to have a native be your chauffeur (you can rent a car, but be warned that California drivers are crazy). Of course, such a luxury is not easy to come by. Uber made getting around a cinch with its mobile app. With the tracking GPS system and built-in payments (no money exchange occurs between you and the driver), you just need a few simple clicks to get here and there. We don’t know how Uber’s fare compares to taxi, but the convenience definitely is a big plus. You can always check the estimated fee before agreeing to each ride. We find the estimated fee has always been accurate. After each ride, Uber asks you to rate your experience and provide feedback (optional). Their manager replied to our minor negative feedback within minutes. Should you like to try Uber, let us know! We have a code for a free ride and we’d love to share it with you.

We Say
While the “Golden Coast” seems to “curse” us with headaches and troubles before we get there and after we leave, we can’t complain too much when we are there with the sunny weather and delicious, authentic, and inexpensive Vietnamese food in Orange County. We certainly wouldn’t want to live in California, but a trip now and then to visit friends and whet our appetites makes the frustration worthwhile.

Book Review: Around the World in Eighty Days

Title: Around the World in Eighty Days
Author: Jules Verne
Genre: Fiction
Length: 248 pages

To honor an absurd bet, Phileas Fogg set out to travel the world in 80 days. That is, he would go from train to steamboat to train, back-to-back in order to cross the continents and loop back to London before the 80th day expired. All odds – including weather, kidnappings, natural disasters, etc. – were against the eccentric Fogg. Would he win the bet or would he face financial ruins?

He Said
Verne’s novel enchants the reader into a fantastical, globe-trotting journey. While certain aspects of the plot are indeed incredulous and the characters lack depth, the details don’t matter so much as the wonderfully thrilling adventures of Fogg and crew. I found myself rooting for Fogg as he ingeniously overcame every obstacle. I enjoyed the view into the world of the late 19th century – a world before airplanes/cars made traveling a no-brainer. With the snappy writing and page-turning action, the novel felt really short. It is such a fun, heartwarming, and touching story with endearing characters.

She Said
A novel at once adventurous, thrilling, and humorous, Verne offered a delightful read! Although the glimpses of various cultures around the world were stereotypical, I admire Verne’s ability to create circumstances around a seemingly boring expedition of mathematical precision. Although the characters were mostly two-dimensional, they possessed great charms. In fact, as little as we know about Fogg and his origins, this character is the exemplar of my literary hero – mysterious, charitable, respectable, innovative. I fell heads over heels for this Renaissance man.

We Say
Around the World in Eighty Days is a charming and exciting novel that’s fun for all ages. Upon finishing the book, we hastily recommended it to our niece and nephews who are avid readers.

Travels: Rome, Italy

We took the bullet train from Venice to Rome, passing by rural areas and graffiti towns, to enter the final leg of our honeymoon. Aroma (or Rome) is spelled backwards as Amora – love. Indeed, we fell for the ancient ruins that attract countless visitors from the modern world.


Standing 160 feet high and covering 6 acres to accommodate 50,000 people, the Colosseum is regarded as one of the greatest works of Roman architecture. Built around 72 AD, only 1/3 of the original Colosseum remains. This “arena of death” is where gladiators fought. The gladiator games were officially banned in 435 AD (until its reopening for the “Hunger Games” in a distant dystopia…).

Roman Forum

As the center of the Roman public life, the Forum held elections, speeches, trials, and commercial affairs. Today, the Forum is a sprawling ruin of architectural fragments. However, what remains still signify an era of majestic grandeur. The Forum lit up at night and offered a serene place for reflections.


Built in 27 BC, the Pantheon is a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods. Its dome later inspired Washington D.C.’s Capitol building. The Oculus eye in the sky (at the center of the dome) is the only available light source, giving visitors a glimpse of “Heaven”. Instead of statues of the gods, the Pantheon now houses tombs of famous Italians and the French poet Victor Hugo.

Bridge of Angels

The Bridge of Angels was completed in 134 AD by Roman Emperor Hadrian for transportation across the Tiber river. Today, the bridge is solely used by pedestrians. Facing the bridge is the Castel Sant’Angelo, which was a place Popes used to hide in during seiges and wars as the castle is accessible by a raised viaduct to escape in secrecy from the Vatican.


The morning we visited the Vatican, it was raining. This did not stop the huge crowd. Pope Francis was making a tour and giving a speech. We were too far away to hear him, but all around us, people were in tears and chanting “Papa!”. It must be a surreal moment for the religious.


There are approximately 350 churches in Rome. Despite our non-affiliation to churches, we find ourselves fascinated with the decorated architecture. Pictured above is an “unknown” church, not glorified in any travel brochures. And yet, its magnificence took our breath away. One can really visit Rome just to go on a church tour.

Rome by Night

We highly recommend exploring Rome after dark for a more intimate, romantic experience. While Paris might be nicknamed “City of Love”, it was an evening stroll among the ancient ruins of Rome with live music playing in the background that gave us a sense of amore. The structures came to life with orange, flood lighting that was reminiscent of torchlight. Everything felt grandiose and intimate all at once.

EuropeanDestinations made traveling to Europe a breeze. We were initially going to book everything ourselves, but we found it all very overwhelming and from our searches (adding everything up), we found EuropeanDestinations offered a reasonable price. While we are not sure if their packages will allow you to travel to Europe for the least amount of money, we are very thankful to have chosen them. Their packages include all airfare, hotels, and train (if applicable). You can modify according to your tastes (such as adding tour guides). Their customer service is readily available and helpful. We were leery about using them prior to departure just because we never used them before and didn’t know anyone who had used their service. We didn’t have any expectations and were therefore pleasantly surprised at how well everything turned out. There were no hiccups with travel. Hotels were all good and in prime locations (examples: we were walking distance to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and just outside St. Mark’s Square in Venice). We would use EuropeanDestinations again and would recommend it to family and friends because of how easy and reasonable the packages are.

We Say
Paris gave us iconic structures. Venice fed our ravenous stomachs. Rome gave us a unique look into the ancient past. Honestly, we had the most difficulty writing about Rome because the very act of describing art detracts beauty from it. Rome simply needs to be experienced and appreciated.

Click here to view all photos from our honeymoon!