Guide to the graduate interview season: Making the most out of your visits.

By Emlyn Resetarits Jan. 2017

It’s interview season for prospective graduate students! If you were lucky enough to be asked to come out for an interview, congratulations! Although acceptance is not a done deal, you have a good chance of getting accepted. Why else would they fly you out there? So, relax! The interview process is a two-way street: yes, your potential mentor and faculty are interviewing you, but you are also interviewing THEM. Finding the right mentor and department is very important for your later success as a graduate student.

Make the most out of your visit! This is your chance to assess how well a given department or advisor will fit you! All departments and mentors are looking for something slightly different in their graduate students, but here are a few tips on how to impress:

Before you arrive:

  • Read up on the faculty. Get a sense of what everyone does (in general terms), so that you are more prepared if/when you run into them. You don’t need to memorize their research, just get a sense of what they do. If you have a schedule beforehand of whom you will be meeting, focus on looking up these faculty members.
  • Make sure you can answer the following questions:
    • Why do you want to get a PhD/Masters?
    • What are your research interests?
    • Why are you interested in this university, specifically?
  • If there are specific faculty that you want to meet with besides your potential advisor, make sure to mention that when scheduling your trip. You want to make this visit as informative as possible.

During the interview/recruitment weekend:

  • Dress comfortably! You will be running around all day, continuously meeting faculty and students, and the last thing you want is to feel self-conscious or in pain because you decided to break in a new pair of shoes during this visit. A suit may be overkill, but also don’t wear sweatpants and a t-shirt. You’re not there to impress anyone with your sense of fashion, but looking sharp will help you give a good first impression.
  • Meet as many people as you can! This is your chance to get the details on the department, the university, and the people! Get to know what your potential faculty work on and what graduate school is like in this department!
  • For your meetings, treat them like a first date. What I mean is, give a quick summary of your interests and experiences, ask about what the other person does, actively listen and engage, and don’t be a creep. You should try and make all of your meetings (with graduate students, prospective advisors, and other faculty members) a conversation rather than an interview.

One way to impress people is to be prepared with questions. Even if you aren’t looking at any other places, asking probing questions makes you seem more desirable and more sought after. Also, it’s the best way for you to make your decision of where to go, if you do have multiple programs you are looking at.

Here are a few questions to ask when interviewing:

Ask your potential advisor(s):

  • What is their mentoring style? Are they hands off or hands on? Do they give deadlines to their graduate students or do they let their graduate students work at their own pace? Are they open to weekly meetings? Different students flourish under different mentoring styles. It’s important that you have a sense of what type of mentoring style you would like from an advisor, and see if you and your advisor are compatible.
  • What type of funding do they have and what funding are they applying for? What could that funding provide for you? Research money? RA positions? Conference fees? Some faculty may have a large grant, but if you aren’t interested in working on that specific project, then that funding might be unavailable for you. It is important that you figure out how much funding you may have to come up with yourself and how realistic that is.
  • Is your advisor thinking of moving from their current institution? This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but is important to know before you move to that institution for them. If your potential advisor is thinking of moving, make sure that there are other faculty members in the department that you could be advised by. I’ve know many students who have had to change labs because their advisors decided to move half way across the world for a new academic position. Most of these switches were successful, however, because there were other faculty members who had similar research.

Ask advisor’s graduate students:

  • What is your favorite and least favorite thing about your advisor? About the lab in general?
  • How collaborative is the lab? It’s nice to have the flexibility to do whatever project you want, but it can also get a bit lonely if you don’t have anyone working on a similar topic. Does your advisor collaborate with graduate students on projects? Do graduate students collaborate together?
  • How cohesive/social is the lab together? Does the lab do anything outside of work? Does everyone go home to their families at 5pm? Or does the lab go out for beers monthly and have a Christmas party? It’s surprising how much lab events can impact how you feel about graduate school and your lab in general.
  • Are you planning on pursuing a career outside of academia? How helpful has your advisor been in preparing you for this alternative career?
  • Does your advisor give quick and thorough comments on your papers? Does your advisor prioritize graduate students getting their papers out quickly? These questions are ones that are rarely asked during the interview process, but I think are some of the most important. I’ve known many fellow graduate students who have had a paper completed to the best of their ability, and are just waiting for comments from their advisor. For some students, getting feedback on their paper takes months and is like pulling teeth. There is very little more frustrating and demoralizing than waiting and waiting to submit a paper and feeling like you are getting farther and farther away from your goals. I have even known late-stage graduate students that have given up on academia entirely, because they are 6 years in and have not been able to submit any papers yet. Of course, if you just ask your advisor, it’s likely that they will tell you, “Yes, of course! I think it’s vitally important to help graduate students publish early and often.” Of course, faculty want this, but the question is, do they emphasize it in actuality? The best way to determine this is to ask late-stage graduate students in the lab if their advisor prioritizes this.

Ask any graduate student:

  • Do you think my potential advisor is a good advisor? If you ask enough graduate students this, you will be able to piece together an accurate representation of them, one that is perhaps more comprehensive than if you just ask graduate students from your potential lab. Graduate students from your potential lab may be more hesitant to give you the dirt on their advisor than others are.
  • Are you happy? This may seem like a stupid question, but it can tell you a lot about the graduate student climate.
  • Is the graduate student stipend sufficient for you to live comfortably? How will you get paid through the summer? Are you expected to teach your entire graduate career, or will you never be seen in a classroom? This is a big consideration. If you are applying for a PhD program in the biological sciences, you should NOT be taking out any loans, nor should you be eating only rice and beans and living in the windowless basement of some creepy man’s house to afford to go to school. While a program that offers teaching assistant positions only to students might provide you with the living wage you need to survive, you also have to consider how teaching time will impact your ability to finish your own research. During my interview at one school, I was scared away because many graduate students had to take out loans to afford to live there. While most graduate students are entering PhD programs without expectations of large wages in the future, that doesn’t mean finances should not be an important consideration when choosing your graduate school.
  • In a similar vein, ask what the housing market is like. You will be living in a place for 5-6 years and buying a house, if feasible, is a great alternative to paying rent for that whole time.
  • How cohesive is the graduate community as a whole? Do you feel like people are pretty social, outgoing, and have diverse hobbies? These will be your peers and your social circle for 5-6 years, so it’s important that you feel like you could have fun with them!

Ask faculty:

  • Ask them what they do! What projects are they most excited about currently? What projects are they planning for the future?
  • What do your graduate students do?
  • What graduate courses will you be teaching?
  • What resources are available for graduate students? Departmental grants? Sequencing facilities?
  • How collaborative is the department? This will give you a sense of the environment of the department. If the department isn’t very collaborative or a faculty member gives you a knowing look, then perhaps there is a lot of departmental drama or factions. A collaborative department is a good sign!

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of questions to ask, but it should help you get the most out of your interview visit. Most of all, have fun and engage with people! Faculty, advisors, and current graduate students are looking for students that will be active members of the scientific community, that means they want you to be a dynamic human, not a work-obsessed robot!

Good luck!

 

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