What To Expect At A Graduate Interview

graduate interview

What To Expect At A Graduate Interview

Getting an invitation to a graduate interview can be one of the most exciting and terrifying experiences of your professional career. A lot seems to hang in the balance, and what makes the situation worse for most applicants: they have no idea what to expect. This combination is a catalyst for severe anxiety.
Fortunately, most U.S. programs follow a similar method to their graduate interview process. This lets us make some safe generalizations so you know what to expect and consequently help you to manage or eliminate your anxiety. Curbing stress is very important for two reasons (1) it will allow you to perform better in the actual interview and (2) you’ll be able to get a clear and objective perspective of the university and faculty members. The importance of the latter cannot be overemphasized. In most cases the graduate interview will be your only exposure to the campus, culture, faculty, and research before you have to make your decision. It’s imperative that you focus your attention on whether or not you want to attend that program rather than merely “getting through” the day without a serious cardiac episode.
** We should note briefly that many programs do not interview candidates, but rather send out invitations to an open house after accepting students. While the general tone of the open house is slightly skewed toward wooing you into accepting, the structure of your day will be nearly identical, as hard as that may be to believe. For this reason you should try to approach the interview as a simple “Visit Weekend” rather than a job interview. Some programs will treat applicants more like potential employees, but by and large these programs are located outside the United States. For example, a graduate interview at Oxford or Cambridge University essentially involves an oral exam. United States programs do not do this, so take a deep breath and relax. **
Below is a break down of what a typical graduate interview day might look like, and has been modeled after standard protocol at top 25 programs. While specifics may vary, this is a good approximation of what you’ll experience.

First Contact

Sometime in January or early February you’ll get an email from the department administration or from a faculty member interested in your application. It will provide dates and a few pdf documents describing the financial aspects of the visit. To a typical applicant this first email can leave a lot to be desired. The information provided may seem somewhat vague, or in extreme cases the nature of the event might even seem ambiguous (e.g. is it an interview or open house?). Don’t let these things throw you, it’s natural to feel a bit overwhelmed.
Some programs will book travel for you, others will expect you to book it yourself with reimbursement up to a specified amount, and some will expect you to pay for the travel on your own (perhaps only providing accommodations). This information will likely be in your initial contact email. Before writing back with a hundred questions be sure you’ve read through the email in its entirety along with any links or documents provided. Usually the information is readily available online, but a lot of students miss information due to excitement. This produces extra work for the administrative team and forces you to wait needlessly, so be sure and read through absolutely everything (twice if need be) before responding with a host of questions. That said, if you have read through everything and still cannot find information you need, don’t hesitate to ask questions! Better to get them answered then waste time worrying.


Interview Prep

As we mentioned before, it is very unlikely that you’ll be drilled with complicated questions or interrogated in the same manner as a typical job interview. These types of interviews are usually less about validating your worth (afterall, you already got to the interview process, so they clearly think you’re capable!) and more about fit. Faculty want to know if you would be a good fit in their lab given your goals. A 10 minutes conversation is usually better at teasing this out of a student than reading their entire application. Given the relaxed attitude most professors have about the interview, you don’t need to spend a lot of time prepping for hard questions the way you might for a typical job interview. You won’t get any of the awful “Name your three biggest weaknesses” types of questions that we all hate. Questions that you are likely to get are listed below.
  • What makes you want to study [insert program field]?
  • What was your favorite thing about [insert previous research experience]?
  • Where would you like to work after you complete your PhD?
  • What drew you to my research group?
  • Why do you want to come to [insert school name]?
These are all fairly generic “get to know you” questions that aren’t intended to trip you up. The faculty just want to get to know you and where your interests are relative to their own. Because of this, it’s important that you have a good idea of what they actually do. You most likely did  research on each program before you applied, but it isn’t a bad idea to refresh your mind before attending. If you know who you’ll be interviewing with, go to their webpage and read through their publication list. If you don’t know, be sure and browse the departmental website to get a good idea of why you would want to go there, that way when you’re asked with such a question you have an honest answer.
Beyond this, you likely won’t need to worry about interview prep.

Travel

Be sure and read out guide on what to pack to a graduate interview before sweating your outfit or travel too much. You won’t need more than a carry-on worth of clothes, and certainly shouldn’t bring more than that to a graduate interview. Keeping your baggage to a minimum will make the travel easier (especially if you have to take public transportation) and can even help keep your brain more focused without the distraction of too much stuff laying around.

 

Big Day

This is guaranteed to be a day packed with excitement and possibilities as you envision your future; it’s also going to be tedious, exhausting, and long. Remember, each program will be slightly different, but most visit/interview weekends go something like this:
You arrive on a Friday, best case scenario you were only traveling for ~5 hours total. Worst case you were traveling for 10 hours or more. Either way you’re probably going to be slightly nervous until you’ve made it safely to your hotel. Most programs book students at double occupancy (you’ll be sharing a room). You won’t have to worry about having an insane roommate though. It’ll probably be a quick chat about applications and then lights out early, so don’t worry about it being awkward, you’re both there for the same reason and if anything, you can gain some extra information.
The next day will probably start with a breakfast orientation around 7:30-8:30am, so you’ll need to be up pretty early. From there each school is different regarding admissions interviews and open house events, but you’re looking at non-stop tours, interviews, luncheons, seminars, some more tours, coffee with current students, and then more interviews. At around 6 you’ll probably get 60-90 minutes to yourself before meeting up with professors or students for dinner. A sample schedule is outlined below.
8:30am   Breakfast and Registration
9:15am   Dean or Department Chair gives short “Welcome” talk
9:30am   Talks from various faculty / staff on research and program opportunities
11:30am   Campus walking tour, led by current graduate students
12:30pm   Lunch with current graduate students (and potentially faculty)
2:00pm   Graduate Interviews (and lab/office/facility tours) with 1-6 faculty members
5:00pm   Coffee hour with departmental seminar
6:30pm   Dinner with current graduate students, faculty, or both
9:00pm   Optional town outing with current graduates and applicants, often a pub crawl or museum tour
Needless to say, it’s a long day. Make sure you wear the right clothes and get a good nights sleep beforehand. If you’re feeling up to it, take the opportunity to go out that night with current graduate students–but do not, DO NOT, drink excessively. We’ve all heard the horror stories of applicants having a few too many and making a bad impression on current students or faculty. Spoiler: they never get an admissions offer. Just because the setting is informal compared to a professional job interview doesn’t mean it’s ok to revert back to college days where shotgunning beers or making advances at a party is considered acceptable. Never hit on anyone (applicant or current student), and keep it to 3 beers max even if current students are getting fairly drunk. If nothing else, you’re likely to get some really good information out of them and glean the true campus culture once they start getting tipsy–so it’s a good idea to stay relatively sharp.

Follow Up

You made it! Good, bad, or humiliating–you got through a graduate interview. So, should you follow up afterwards? Before answering this it might be helpful to let you in on a secret.
Often, in fact quite often, third or fourth week of February, perhaps even mid-March, applicants get an email asking if they’re still interested in the program.  This could happen at a program with no interview process, with a visit weekend, or anything in between. These emails are the university’s attempt to send out offers based on predicted matriculation rate. After sending out a first round of offers and rejections, admissions committees have to start making up waitlists and figuring out the last batch of students to accept. This is where the follow up comes in handy–if you legitimately know you would attend were you to be accepted, there is no harm in making sure they know you’re an acceptance with probability 1. The trick is figuring out who best to share the information with, and this will depend on your experience on campus and the program.
If you had a great one on one talk with a potential advisor and you know they’re the one making the decision to accept you to their group after the graduate interview, you should definitely follow up with them–if even just a quick thank you with an expression of interest. If the program does first year rotations and meetings with faculty were vague at best, send an email to the Department Chair or head of the admissions committee (if you know who that is) telling them how much you enjoyed your visit and hope to attend. Usually contacting faculty directly is seen as a bit bothersome, but if you cloak your interest in the program with useful information you get more bang for your email buck.
Programs want to know how to achieve higher retention rates of the students they admit, and some specific elements that really caught your eye or helped you decide that was your #1 program is information they’d love to have. A lot of schools will actually send out surveys or questionnaires post visit, but you’ll get more out of it personally if you share (and thank them) directly. It will make you look mature and proactive, and at the very least they’re more likely to remember your name from that stack of CVs.

 Relax!

It’s all over, nothing more can be done, so get out of town, go camping, leave your cell phone at home, do whatever you need to do to stay sane over the next couple weeks. You won’t get accepted or rejected based on how quickly you see the email, so take your mind off it as much as you can.
A trick to keeping yourself composed is to give yourself specified email breaks. Turn off your WiFi on your phone and only let yourself check it twice a day, breakfast and dinner for example. If you know you can’t check it for the next 6 hours it’s easier to stay focused on something else.
Good luck! Please feel free to share your interview or visit weekend stories in the comments!
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What To Expect At A Graduate Interview

graduate interview April 1st, 2016

What To Expect At A Graduate Interview

Getting an invitation to a graduate interview can be one of the most exciting and terrifying experiences of your professional career. A lot seems to hang in the balance, and what makes the situation worse for most applicants: they have no idea what to expect. This combination is a catalyst for severe anxiety.
Fortunately, most U.S. programs follow a similar method to their graduate interview process. This lets us make some safe generalizations so you know what to expect and consequently help you to manage or eliminate your anxiety. Curbing stress is very important for two reasons (1) it will allow you to perform better in the actual interview and (2) you’ll be able to get a clear and objective perspective of the university and faculty members. The importance of the latter cannot be overemphasized. In most cases the graduate interview will be your only exposure to the campus, culture, faculty, and research before you have to make your decision. It’s imperative that you focus your attention on whether or not you want to attend that program rather than merely “getting through” the day without a serious cardiac episode.
** We should note briefly that many programs do not interview candidates, but rather send out invitations to an open house after accepting students. While the general tone of the open house is slightly skewed toward wooing you into accepting, the structure of your day will be nearly identical, as hard as that may be to believe. For this reason you should try to approach the interview as a simple “Visit Weekend” rather than a job interview. Some programs will treat applicants more like potential employees, but by and large these programs are located outside the United States. For example, a graduate interview at Oxford or Cambridge University essentially involves an oral exam. United States programs do not do this, so take a deep breath and relax. **
Below is a break down of what a typical graduate interview day might look like, and has been modeled after standard protocol at top 25 programs. While specifics may vary, this is a good approximation of what you’ll experience.

First Contact

Sometime in January or early February you’ll get an email from the department administration or from a faculty member interested in your application. It will provide dates and a few pdf documents describing the financial aspects of the visit. To a typical applicant this first email can leave a lot to be desired. The information provided may seem somewhat vague, or in extreme cases the nature of the event might even seem ambiguous (e.g. is it an interview or open house?). Don’t let these things throw you, it’s natural to feel a bit overwhelmed.
Some programs will book travel for you, others will expect you to book it yourself with reimbursement up to a specified amount, and some will expect you to pay for the travel on your own (perhaps only providing accommodations). This information will likely be in your initial contact email. Before writing back with a hundred questions be sure you’ve read through the email in its entirety along with any links or documents provided. Usually the information is readily available online, but a lot of students miss information due to excitement. This produces extra work for the administrative team and forces you to wait needlessly, so be sure and read through absolutely everything (twice if need be) before responding with a host of questions. That said, if you have read through everything and still cannot find information you need, don’t hesitate to ask questions! Better to get them answered then waste time worrying.


Interview Prep

As we mentioned before, it is very unlikely that you’ll be drilled with complicated questions or interrogated in the same manner as a typical job interview. These types of interviews are usually less about validating your worth (afterall, you already got to the interview process, so they clearly think you’re capable!) and more about fit. Faculty want to know if you would be a good fit in their lab given your goals. A 10 minutes conversation is usually better at teasing this out of a student than reading their entire application. Given the relaxed attitude most professors have about the interview, you don’t need to spend a lot of time prepping for hard questions the way you might for a typical job interview. You won’t get any of the awful “Name your three biggest weaknesses” types of questions that we all hate. Questions that you are likely to get are listed below.
  • What makes you want to study [insert program field]?
  • What was your favorite thing about [insert previous research experience]?
  • Where would you like to work after you complete your PhD?
  • What drew you to my research group?
  • Why do you want to come to [insert school name]?
These are all fairly generic “get to know you” questions that aren’t intended to trip you up. The faculty just want to get to know you and where your interests are relative to their own. Because of this, it’s important that you have a good idea of what they actually do. You most likely did  research on each program before you applied, but it isn’t a bad idea to refresh your mind before attending. If you know who you’ll be interviewing with, go to their webpage and read through their publication list. If you don’t know, be sure and browse the departmental website to get a good idea of why you would want to go there, that way when you’re asked with such a question you have an honest answer.
Beyond this, you likely won’t need to worry about interview prep.

Travel

Be sure and read out guide on what to pack to a graduate interview before sweating your outfit or travel too much. You won’t need more than a carry-on worth of clothes, and certainly shouldn’t bring more than that to a graduate interview. Keeping your baggage to a minimum will make the travel easier (especially if you have to take public transportation) and can even help keep your brain more focused without the distraction of too much stuff laying around.

 

Big Day

This is guaranteed to be a day packed with excitement and possibilities as you envision your future; it’s also going to be tedious, exhausting, and long. Remember, each program will be slightly different, but most visit/interview weekends go something like this:
You arrive on a Friday, best case scenario you were only traveling for ~5 hours total. Worst case you were traveling for 10 hours or more. Either way you’re probably going to be slightly nervous until you’ve made it safely to your hotel. Most programs book students at double occupancy (you’ll be sharing a room). You won’t have to worry about having an insane roommate though. It’ll probably be a quick chat about applications and then lights out early, so don’t worry about it being awkward, you’re both there for the same reason and if anything, you can gain some extra information.
The next day will probably start with a breakfast orientation around 7:30-8:30am, so you’ll need to be up pretty early. From there each school is different regarding admissions interviews and open house events, but you’re looking at non-stop tours, interviews, luncheons, seminars, some more tours, coffee with current students, and then more interviews. At around 6 you’ll probably get 60-90 minutes to yourself before meeting up with professors or students for dinner. A sample schedule is outlined below.
8:30am   Breakfast and Registration
9:15am   Dean or Department Chair gives short “Welcome” talk
9:30am   Talks from various faculty / staff on research and program opportunities
11:30am   Campus walking tour, led by current graduate students
12:30pm   Lunch with current graduate students (and potentially faculty)
2:00pm   Graduate Interviews (and lab/office/facility tours) with 1-6 faculty members
5:00pm   Coffee hour with departmental seminar
6:30pm   Dinner with current graduate students, faculty, or both
9:00pm   Optional town outing with current graduates and applicants, often a pub crawl or museum tour
Needless to say, it’s a long day. Make sure you wear the right clothes and get a good nights sleep beforehand. If you’re feeling up to it, take the opportunity to go out that night with current graduate students–but do not, DO NOT, drink excessively. We’ve all heard the horror stories of applicants having a few too many and making a bad impression on current students or faculty. Spoiler: they never get an admissions offer. Just because the setting is informal compared to a professional job interview doesn’t mean it’s ok to revert back to college days where shotgunning beers or making advances at a party is considered acceptable. Never hit on anyone (applicant or current student), and keep it to 3 beers max even if current students are getting fairly drunk. If nothing else, you’re likely to get some really good information out of them and glean the true campus culture once they start getting tipsy–so it’s a good idea to stay relatively sharp.

Follow Up

You made it! Good, bad, or humiliating–you got through a graduate interview. So, should you follow up afterwards? Before answering this it might be helpful to let you in on a secret.
Often, in fact quite often, third or fourth week of February, perhaps even mid-March, applicants get an email asking if they’re still interested in the program.  This could happen at a program with no interview process, with a visit weekend, or anything in between. These emails are the university’s attempt to send out offers based on predicted matriculation rate. After sending out a first round of offers and rejections, admissions committees have to start making up waitlists and figuring out the last batch of students to accept. This is where the follow up comes in handy–if you legitimately know you would attend were you to be accepted, there is no harm in making sure they know you’re an acceptance with probability 1. The trick is figuring out who best to share the information with, and this will depend on your experience on campus and the program.
If you had a great one on one talk with a potential advisor and you know they’re the one making the decision to accept you to their group after the graduate interview, you should definitely follow up with them–if even just a quick thank you with an expression of interest. If the program does first year rotations and meetings with faculty were vague at best, send an email to the Department Chair or head of the admissions committee (if you know who that is) telling them how much you enjoyed your visit and hope to attend. Usually contacting faculty directly is seen as a bit bothersome, but if you cloak your interest in the program with useful information you get more bang for your email buck.
Programs want to know how to achieve higher retention rates of the students they admit, and some specific elements that really caught your eye or helped you decide that was your #1 program is information they’d love to have. A lot of schools will actually send out surveys or questionnaires post visit, but you’ll get more out of it personally if you share (and thank them) directly. It will make you look mature and proactive, and at the very least they’re more likely to remember your name from that stack of CVs.

 Relax!

It’s all over, nothing more can be done, so get out of town, go camping, leave your cell phone at home, do whatever you need to do to stay sane over the next couple weeks. You won’t get accepted or rejected based on how quickly you see the email, so take your mind off it as much as you can.
A trick to keeping yourself composed is to give yourself specified email breaks. Turn off your WiFi on your phone and only let yourself check it twice a day, breakfast and dinner for example. If you know you can’t check it for the next 6 hours it’s easier to stay focused on something else.
Good luck! Please feel free to share your interview or visit weekend stories in the comments!
By
@
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