Creating a lasting (virtual) impression: U-M welcomes doctoral applicants during pandemic

February 24, 2021  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership,

The U-M Program in Biomedical Sciences (PIBS) invites students to explore their passion for science through its interdisciplinary gateway program, which coordinates admissions and first-year graduate studies for 13 doctoral disciplines. In short, PIBS provides one application for access to 13 doctoral program options.

Typically, potential students come to U-M to meet with faculty and staff, explore campus, network with prospective team members and chat with current students. However, as we all know, this year has been anything but typical.

So how did PIBS pull off the annual Interview Weekends while keeping campus and applicants safe? And how did they do so in a way that made it an engaging experience that showed off all U-M has to offer?

It took a creative spirit sprinkled with a bit of innovation, but the event proved to be a rousing success.

When were Interview Weekends held?

This year, Interview Weekends were held from Jan. 28-30 and Feb. 4-6, inviting approved students to get a feel for the biomedical programs they applied to within PIBS. 

Interview Weekends serve as the next step after the application process.

“Think of these weekends as a tremendous way to create a lasting first impression,” said T.J. Shannon, director of graduate enrollment management. “We typically immerse them into Ann Arbor and the culture at U-M so they know what the next stage of their academic career could look like.”

The Interview Weekend is planned so that applicants have an opportunity to:

  • Meet with faculty
  • Visit labs
  • Spend time with a student host
  • Explore the U-M campus and Ann Arbor
  • Meet with current PIBS students
  • Learn about other programs/departments of interest

In 2021, Shannon and his team had to pivot and reproduce as much of that experience as possible through virtual means.

The planning process

Shannon began planning for the 2021 Interview Weekends early.

“Each of our 13 Ph.D. programs is intimately involved in the planning and execution of Interview Weekends,” Shannon said.

To transition such a large-scale event from a wholly in-person format to a fully virtual one required months of regular meetings and collaborative decision-making.

“The individual program staff and faculty were truly instrumental in evaluating and restructuring every detail of the event, from virtual content and branding down to the length and frequency of breaks in the schedule,” Shannon said. “The positive experiences had by guests are in no small way due to the diligence and consideration of our staff and faculty.”

Using the event platform Attendify, the Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies (OGPS) and PIBS added content, prepared an intricate Zoom link and breakout room structure, and scheduled the weekends for students.

Enhancing engagement

The virtual weekends proved to be a big hit.

The event involved 268 registered guests, 205 current student hosts, and 256 interviewing faculty who conducted 1,335 individual interviews.

Although things were different this year, feedback on the virtual format has been overwhelmingly positive from participants:

  • “I definitely felt like I was able to get a good feeling of what it would be like to come to the PIBS program at U-M despite only visiting virtually.” – Ph.D. applicant
  • “Most of my other interviews have not included any interaction with current students or faculty outside of the interview due to the virtual format. Due to PIBS having all of these events, I was able to get a very good idea of the environment at U-M.” – Ph.D. applicant

“This virtual format produced significantly higher interactivity and engagement from participants than we had seen in previous years,” Shannon said. “In fact, we may be rethinking our strategies moving forward to see if there is some sort of hybrid model we can adopt.”

In the end, on top of their career aspirations, the potential graduate students relayed strong interest in career and professional development, along with health and wellness.

“That’s the sort of feedback we love to receive from events like this and we will use it as we plan our programming and resource offerings in the years ahead,” Shannon said.

Postdoc Preview

Like Interview Weekends, Postdoc Preview is a similar, smaller-scale event held twice a year for the purpose of bringing postdoctoral researchers to the U-M Medical School. For more information on Postdoc Preview, email