How to have Successful Graduate School Interviews
What are graduate school interviews?
If you are advancing to the interview stage, congrats! If you are thinking preemptively about graduate school interviews, congrats for being prepared!
After everyone has submitted their applications, the admissions committee will decide who gets to visit campus for interviews. Interviews are a way for the program to meet the applicants and for the applicants to gauge the program. This is an opportunity for you to interview the school as much as the school is interviewing you. You’ll get to talk directly with the faculty in the program you care about. During these events, applicants will chat with several faculty members in one-on-one interviews.
Graduate school interviews usually happen between the months of January and March. At some schools, being invited to interview means you are as good as accepted. But you can still screw things up, so be prepared and give a good impression. At other schools, only a fraction of the interviewees will be accepted. No matter the case, always be prepared and show your best!
How to prepare for graduate school interview weekend
Before going to the interview, you will get a list of faculty members you will speak with. Generally, you will interview with faculty you listed in your application. It is helpful to visit the lab websites of the faculty or read about their research interests. Taking a trip to Google Scholar to look up their latest publications doesn’t hurt either. At the very least, you should have a basic idea of the research the PIs are doing.
You should try to prepare two to three questions to ask the PI during the one-on-one sessions. Remember, you are interviewing them too!
Make sure you know your research well. Prepare a few ‘pitches’ of your past research and rather than just list the findings or lack of, comment on an experience you enjoyed. Let that enthusiasm for what you love come to life.
Traveling for interview weekend
Depending on the location of your interview, you can take multiple modes of transportation. You can travel to campuses near you through train, bus or car. If the institution is considerably far, you will usually be traveling by plane. The institution will reimburse the travel expenses. That’s right, it’s all for the sweet, sweet price of ~*f-r-e-e*~. Just like you are showing your best self, the program is showing its best self too.
Public transit options can be arranged by a program administrator or by you. When an administrator is handling it, they will ask what the best travel times are for you. If you are buying the tickets, you will submit a reimbursement form to the program after the visit. If you need to ride public transit to the airport or train/bus station, you can put those expenses on the form as well. Sometimes, the program will give you a cap on the expenses. Also, keep all of your receipts! You will need them for the reimbursements.
The school can put you up in a hotel or have you stay with current students. If you are staying in a hotel, you will most likely share a room with another applicant. While it might be awkward at first, it’s also nice to try to ease each other’s nerves. After all, your roomie may be your future colleague! You should establish when people are going to shower/use the bathroom before the interview day. That way, you’ll avoid stepping on each other’s toes. Also, don’t be a monster and keep the light on all night if your roommate wants to sleep. Don’t be that person.
What does an interview session look like?
An interview session/weekend is a 2 or 3 day event. It is generally a mix of formal interviews, social events, and designated mingling. Here is what an average event may look like:
- arrive at the hotel at 8 PM
- maybe a mini social with other interviewees (around 9pm)
- Breakfast and welcome at 9 AM
- Overview of graduate program at 10 AM
- Tour of labs at 11 AM
- Lunch at 12 PM
- Interviews with faculty from 1-4 PM
- Panel discussion with current students at 5 PM
- Dinner with faculty and students at 6 PM
- Nightly activities with current students after 8 PM
- Breakfast at 10 AM
- Oral/Poster Presentations by current students and/or professors from 11 AM-1 PM
- Light lunch with current students and faculty at 1 PM
- Fun activities at 2 PM
As you can see, you will have plenty of opportunities to chat with faculty and current students. There are student-only events as well, so you can ask your burning questions without fear of judgment.
How to impress your graduate school interviewers
Think of the interviews as more of a one-on-one science-oriented conversation. A lot of interviews are totally casual. The professor will first ask you to describe your past research. Professors will rarely, if ever, ask you traditional job interview questions like, ‘what is your biggest strength’, etc.
At this stage of the interview, make sure you know how to describe your own research confidently. You should be clear on what you did, why you did it, and what you found. Don’t make it sound like you did things you didn’t do. But on the flip side, don’t sell yourself short either! Ultimately, you should also know how your past research fits into the context of the field.
Sometimes you’ll get a terrible interviewer who will try to trip you up. It’s rare, but it happens. Don’t panic! In case of mental emergency, NEVER make things up. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t answer immediately, think first, and try to reason out an answer. In all cases, keep a cool head. If you don’t perform as well as you hoped, you will always have more opportunities to talk to other faculty. We tend to think that silence is bad, but silence shows that you are critically thinking and that’s good. Our impulse is to respond immediately. Don’t. Silence is okay.
Afterwards, the professor may start talking about his/her own research. The most important part here is to stay engaged and ask questions. The worst thing you can do is sit in your chair like a zombie. You should ask follow-up questions to what they are saying. If you don’t understand what they said, ask them to explain in an alternate way. If you think of a question about their research after interviews, you can always email the professors! This shows that you have been seriously thinking about your discussion.
Go forth, interview, and prosper!
What to wear for graduate school interviews
Ah, what to wear! The good news is that graduate school interviews are not as formal as other interviews. What you wear to an interview depends on the weather of the school. Sometimes you will have to be shuttled from building to building. If you are interviewing at a school where it’s cold, you should wear sensible clothes.
For men, a collared shirt, slacks, and nice non-athletic sneakers are acceptable. Applicants usually do not wear suits and ties to their interview. Don’t dress too casually, this is an interview after all.
For women, a nice blouse, sweater, slacks, dress or skirt are the norm. Flats, loafers, any non-athletic shoes are good. Because you will have to walk from place to place, applicants don’t usually wear high heels.
What interview weekend can tell you about the program
The graduate community
Take this opportunity to get a sense of whether the program is a good fit for you. I know, I know, you’re nervous about getting in! However, this is a big commitment, and there are a lot of factors to consider. One of the great things about interview weekend is that you get to interact with people at different levels in the academic hierarchy. I would argue that the most valuable resource is not the professors, but the current graduate students. Though we are all told to plug our programs (ha!), you can actually get a sense whether the grad students are happy in their programs or not. They can also give you the inside scoop about cool resources that you might not have known about when you applied.
The fellow interviewees
The other group of people that you can gauge is your fellow applicant pool. This is important because you could potentially become classmates with those you interviewed with. On the whole, did you enjoy interacting with your fellow students? A graduate experience can bloom or be doomed by the people you are going to be surrounded with. If you really didn’t like anyone else you interviewed with, this could be a potential red flag for you.
What to do after interview weekend
Now, you just have to wait for the acceptances to start rolling in! People can start receiving acceptances as early as February or March. If you have any lingering questions, you can email the program administrators or the professors you spoke with.
A word to the wise: Do. Not. Be. A. Dick. Don’t be a dick to your fellow applicants. Don’t be a dick to the grad students and administrators. Do not try to flash attitude about how you got a billion interviews, had to turn down hundreds of PIs knocking on your door, and published like a bajillion papers. It’s tacky and gross. Of course you should try to answer conversational questions truthfully, but there is a humble way to do it, and a humble-braggy (or just braggy) way to do it. Grad students can pick up that sort of thing and potentially mention it to the admissions committee. Even if you don’t plan on going to the school you are interviewing at, you should still try to be nice and personable. After all, you might end up as colleagues with the people you’re chatting with one day.
Now, you are hopefully prepared for graduate school interviews. Good luck!
- How to choose graduate programs to apply to
- A Guide to graduate school applications – Tackling the beast
- How to have successful graduate school interviews
- Deciding on your future graduate program