Applying to Graduate School: Part 3.

Interviews

This is the third post in a four-part series on applying to graduate school. Today’s entry details the interview process.

Disclosure: I applied to PhD programs for the Fall 2021 semester, meaning that my interviews (12/2020–02/2021) took place during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, and therefore happened virtually (typically over Zoom or some other video conferencing platform).

It has been several weeks since you submitted your last application, signaling the waiting period you now find yourself in. At first, it was relaxing. No applications to finish. No transcripts to send. No more deadlines to keep track of. All was well.

But then someone in your class heard back from a school. Then someone else. Then another. Your anxiety ticks upward with each piece of good news for others while you experience radio silence. Every email notification on your phone makes your heart skip. You hastily answer your phone for each unknown number because it might a school calling you with important information. You hear, “Congratulations, you have won a free cruise”. $@*#

Then at long last, you hear back!

Invitation to interview.

The first battle is won. You have convinced them that you worth the time of an interview. Winning the second battle, convincing them to accept you, will depend on how that interview goes.

Step 1: Prepare

If you want to maximize your chances at being admitted to the program, then you should do your research and prepare for these interviews. If you are told beforehand who you will be interviewing with, then look up their profiles on the school/program website, skim through their keystone publications, and write out a list of questions you think you might want to ask them. If you do not know who you will be meeting with, then at least look up the names and research interests of all the primary faculty (i.e. the people you are most likely to meet with). You will also want to have a more generic list of questions planned- questions that could be answered by almost any of the program faculty.

Step 2: Arrive (Virtually)

As I mentioned earlier, I only had virtual interviews. If you have a virtual interview on the horizon, take note:

· Show up early. The last thing you want to have happen is to show up right on time but struggle through 5 minutes of technical issues before the interview can actually start. For that reason, I suggest signing in 5 minutes beforehand to make sure you can access the meeting, your headphones are connected, the camera is working, etc.

· Check your environment. Take advantage of the fact that virtual interviews mean you can control the environment you are interviewing in. This means testing elements such as…

o Lighting: Lights too bright or too dim can make it difficult for interviewers to see you, which can negatively impact the first impression you make on them.

o Background noise: This can’t always be avoided, but to the best of your ability, try to limit the amount of background noise that could come through in the meeting. This might mean putting your dog in their kennel for 30 minutes or asking your roommate to keep the noise down while you are interviewing.

o Background display: Be sure to remove items that may be distracting to your interviewer. For example, if there is a door behind you that is going to open and close throughout the meeting, turn your computer so that the door is no longer in view. I also recommend against having a plain white background. I have read this advice before, but I always think it looks bad. The other prospective students I met in interviews that had plain white backgrounds always looked washed-out. You certainly don’t need to have a fancy painting behind you but breaking up the plain background is a good idea.

Step 3: Engage

Time for the actual interview. Your goal for the interview is to come off as competent, authentic, and engaging as possible. Actually, your goal is to get accepted into the program, but you do that by being competent, authentic, and engaging during all phases of the interview.

Phase 1: Introduction. There may be interview sessions during which you meet one-on-one with 8+ faculty members during the course of a single day. This means that you will be introducing yourself a lot. Practice doing so in a way that is both engaging and short. If they have more questions about you, they will ask. Even if you are meeting with only one or two faculty members it is best to practice introducing yourself in a concise manner.

Phase 2: Answer Questions. During some interviews, you will be asked a lot of questions. Some of these will be more personal or biographical (e.g. what made you decide you wanted to study biochemistry? Why did you apply to our program?). You should plan for common questions like these and practice answering in an authentic way. Other questions will be technical in nature (e.g. how would you solve this programming problem? What are some common study pitfalls?) When they ask you a technical question that you know the answer to, speak confidently to that answer. If they ask you a question you do not know the answer to, say that you do not know the answer for certain, but if you had to take a guess, then you would say [ insert best guess here]. Don’t try to B.S. your way through these interviews by pretending to be confident even when you don’t know the answer; however, don’t sell your competence short by being timid about information that you know well.

Remember to also show the interviewer your human side! As you are answering questions, feel free to make a joke or reference to something in your personal life.

Phase 3: Ask Questions. This is your opportunity to really get a feel for what the program would be like if you went there. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to learn valuable information. Remember that the faculty you are speaking with may be feeling the same level of interview fatigue that you are. Make yourself stand out by asking them unique questions about their research- tailored to what they are telling you during the conversation. Moreover, don’t be afraid to talk about non-research topics. I was feeling quite worn from the interview process when I joined yet another 1:1 interview with a faculty member. We chatted about her research briefly, but then spent most of the time discussing a shared experience: being a new mom. This ended up being one of my favorite (and least awkward!) interviews from the entire interview season.

Most of your interviews will be with faculty, but some will be with current students. Treat these interviews differently. Save student life-related questions for the current students, and keep in mind that current students tend to be more candid about expressing their frustrations with the program (no program is perfect).

Here is a list of questions to consider asking any faculty member (or current student) you are interviewing with:

FACULTY

o What kind of research would you have me doing?

o Why did you get into this area of research?

o Where do you see the program heading over the next 5 years? 10 years?

o What would you say is the biggest strength of the program?

o What would you say is the biggest weakness of the program?

o What other parts of the school or city does this program have a collaboration with? Can you describe that collaboration?

o What projects do you have on the horizon?

o What is something you are really excited about right now?

o Are there any other areas of research that you are trying to break into?

o What would need to happen in order for you to take on a PhD student next year?

o As a department, what are some of the goals you are working toward right now?

o What are the expectations for selecting a mentor?

o When do students typically begin researching?

o How do you think your program sets students up for success better than other programs?

CURRENT STUDENTS

o Why did you opt to attend this program? What elements did you weigh in your decision?

o What would you say is the biggest strength of the program?

o What would you say is the biggest weakness of the program?

o What is something you would change about the program if you could?

o Can you detail your typical workload for me?

o How responsive are faculty members to student concerns?

o How do you feel this program is setting you up for success?

o What are some of the industries you have seen other students go into following graduation?

o What advice would you have for prospective students choosing between schools?

Phase 4: Connect

Once the interviews have wrapped up, you will want to consider sending a few emails out to your interviewers. Was there a conversation that got cut short, so you want to send over some final thoughts? Email that faculty member! Is there someone who you felt like you really connected with? Thank them for their time and express what you enjoyed about your conversation! Did a faculty or staff member seem to put a lot of work into scheduling and arranging the interviews? Send them a thoughtful and appreciative email! Some people suggest sending emails like this to all interviewers, but I don’t think that is necessary. I would recommend just reaching out to a handful of people whose words or actions were particularly impactful.

Resources

This entry has certainly not been comprehensive. Search for other media sites that also cover this topic in order to get a thorough viewpoint on graduate school interviews. Additionally, a resource that I heavily utilized during the application and interview process was TheGradCafe.com. This is a webspace where students can post their admission or rejection results to various graduate schools across the country. There is also a forum area, with hundreds of threads going on at any time. Many threads are specific to a particular area of study, which can provide you with timely information about when schools are sending out rejection letters, interview invitations, and acceptances. This resource was clutch for me as I navigated the graduate application process, though I admittedly checked some forums obsessively.

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LexRx

LexRx

Graduate Student in Pharmaceutical Outcomes & Policy Research