Graduate school acceptance season is upon us!
If you’re reading this, you may have already applied for grad schools, and maybe you’ve been asked to come and interview in person. CONGRATULATIONS! That is such an important step and you deserve the recognition that comes with it!
When the time came for me to visit the two programs that were interested in potentially accepting me into a PhD program, I really had no idea 1) what to expect, 2) what would be expected of me, and 3) how to make a good impression.
Interviews for graduate programs are not like interviews for jobs. Many times, you are interviewing the program just as much as they are interviewing you (a point I will talk about in more detail later in this post). So, what do you do?
Because I found this to be a particularly stressful time for me, I thought I would put together a few words of advice and reminders regarding graduate school interviews, essentially a compilation of advice I received before my interviews and also what I learned by being on the other end of those interviews with prospective students.
So, let’s get into it!
Like I said before, you are interviewing the program just as much as they are interviewing you. What does that mean?
Well, first this means that you can relax a little bit. The burden of having to impress is not just on you. You may find that these programs are going to give you tours of facilities, talk about the many resources available to you, have you meet with other students that want to talk about how wonderful the program is, etc.
PhD programs WANT good students. You have been selected for an interview because they have identified you as a good student. They now need to show you why it would be good for you to go there.
Because of this, you do have a big responsibility of making sure to ask questions to check if this is the right program for you. Remember, you are committing to something for the next 5-7 years of your life. Making sure the program you select is a good fit will be essential to your success.
I found that a good way to start thinking about how to approach whether the program is a good fit was to think about what was important and valuable in my life. Here’s a list of potentially important topics to discuss.
- Program expectations
- Work-life balance
- Resources for underrepresented minorities
- Mental health
- Department dynamics
All of these issues can be phrased into questions for you to ask grad students, which many times will be the primary (and best) source for this kind of potentially sensitive information. You also want to make sure you’re asking grad students that are specifically in the lab you hope to be working in, if you’ve identified a mentor that would best fit your research interests.
Here are some example questions regarding some of the topics above:
- What is the curriculum for the program you’re interviewing for? How many classes do you have to take and what are your responsibilities as a teaching assistant, research assistant, etc.?
- How many hours a week do you put into work? Are these hours expected of you by your advisor or department or do you set them?
- What resources are available to help students from marginalized communities succeed? What is the department doing to retain these individuals and ensure their success? Does your potential advisor have training with this and how do they approach mentoring diverse individuals?
- Although there are disability resource centers on campuses, how does the department provide resources and ensure the success of individuals with disabilities? Are accommodation processes difficult and time consuming, and does the department have a good record of helping students in the regard?
- What resources are there for issues with mental health? Does the department support students going through difficult times, and if so, how do they do it?
- What is the mentorship style of your potential advisor? How does the mentorship style work for different students in the lab you’re hoping to work in?
- Does the department/advisor in question support engagement with extracurricular activities, such as doing outreach or being in positions of leadership in university organizations?
- Are there problems with department politics? Are there faculty members that are not supportive, actively cause difficulties with students, problematic, etc.?
These are just a few of the many questions you can (and in many cases should) be asking during the interview process. For graduate programs, fit matters a lot. You are the best judge of what values are important to you, and finding out if the institution/department/program/advisor you’ll be working with holds similar values is absolutely key.
Do keep in mind that the program is interviewing you, as well.
Many times, students will have the opportunity to meet with a variety of faculty members over the course of their interview day(s). During this time, take the opportunity to learn about the diversity of work being conducted by doing some research beforehand on the individuals you will be meeting with.
Programs will often send over your itinerary before the actual day(s) of your visit. When I was interviewing, I briefly looked up the general area of interests for people I was scheduled to meet that I was unfamiliar with (this will happen because your schedule will be a mix of both who you should be meeting with based on your interests, but also who is available to meet with you).
A quick Google search, in many cases, will give you a general idea of the work these individuals are conducting, and will be a good starting point to launch into a conversation with them.
One thing I want to stress (and perhaps this may be different in different programs) but, many times, programs want to see how you would mesh into the department. This may be in the form of meetings with graduate students, where they report back to faculty members and give their general impression of you. Faculty members will do this too. Remember to relax and be yourself. You were selected for a reason, your abilities as a graduate student were recognized, and you will most likely be just fine!
Make sure to ask the difficult questions about funding and quality/cost of living.
This may seem like a sensitive topic, but remember that financial struggles can be a very serious burden on top of going to graduate school. Understanding how funding works, how much (ballpark range) you will be making, and if that is going to be enough to cover your expenses IS ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL.
Ask graduate students if they feel their stipends are sufficient. Ask students about where they live, what options there are for you to commute to work, and if there are any additional costs associated with this.
Is there a good public transportation system? Are there parking passes on campus? Is housing very expense or very affordable? Are there graduate student communities that are more conducive to getting work done and living in peace? These are all questions you want to be asking because part of you going to this program means living somewhere completely new (for most people).
In my case, I moved to Pennsylvania from Florida. The idea of having to experience winter was kind of scary. It may seem like a silly thing to ask about, but this mattered to me because this was a complete change in my lifestyle. And I needed to know if I would be comfortable enough here to do well in my program.
Think about these aspects before you go into your interview, and don’t be afraid to ask graduate students about this, as they will be in the best position to explain to you the feasibility of living off of grad student stipends in the area where you’ll be moving to.
A little more on quality of life: keep in mind what makes you happy during these interviews.
When I was applying to grad school, I was often told that you select a program based on the quality of the program, and not necessarily the location and area you’ll be living in. At the time, I believed this was the best way to select a program.
Some may disagree with this, but I have since changed my mind about this sentiment. The quality of the program is not the only factor you should be considering. Ask yourself this: what will make you happy living in this new place?
Are you a hiker? Do you love being outdoors? Then ask about the recreational nature-focused activities in the area around your university.
Are you from a city and moving to a small town? Ask about the social lives of students that attend your program/university. Are there opportunities to be social and de-stress? If so, what are they?
Do you play a particular sport and want to maintain that throughout the course of your program? Ask about intramural sports, community teams, or other opportunities for you to continue doing the hobbies that you love and cherish.
Are you moving here with a significant other or a family? Ask about opportunities for your partner in terms of jobs within the community and overall happiness. What are the best school districts for your children, if you have any?
These are all important topics you want to ask about and consider during the course of your interview.
Remember, quality of life is just as important as the fit of the program.
Keep this in mind as you go through your interview process and ask questions related to this. You want to make sure other aspects of your life are fulfilled so you can be happy and productive in your program.
If you’ve already gone through your interviews, and didn’t have the opportunity to ask some of the questions I mentioned above, you should feel free to email students and faculty members with additional questions that weren’t answered during the course of your interview.
When I was interviewing, I didn’t really know what I needed to know until I had multiple interviews and until I got home and started thinking about what would be required of me if I were to enter into one of these programs.
Many times, grad students and faculty will tell you that you can email them with additional questions later on (and if they don’t, think about what that means in terms of the department). Take advantage of this. Make sure to have all of this information, because it will matter when the time comes for you to decide on a program.
Hope this post was helpful to you! If you have any questions about topics I didn’t address, feel free to message me. There’s nothing more important to me than making sure information like this is widely and freely available. I’m always here to help.
The process of interviewing can look very different across programs/universities. I’ve done my best to provide advice that (I think) is useful across the board. If you’re in grad school and have had different experiences or recommend different advice, I’d love to hear from you!
Alright friends, I’m off to spend the rest of my weekend cleaning up my house, because goodness does that suffer when you’re busy.
Stay warm (I know I’ll be trying to!),