an applicant’s guide to phd interviews: they’re not as scary as you think

A few months ago I wrote about my experience applying to graduate school as someone with a first-generation, low SES background (you can read that post here). Since publishing that post, I’ve mentored four undergraduate and post-baccalaureate students through the application process. However, now we’ve entered interview season, which is a little outside the scope of that initial post. On Sunday, I decided that sharing my experience with interviews might be just as helpful, so I have polled Twitter and my mentees to determine what burning questions exist for current applicants. So as Philip DeFranco would say, “Let’s just jump into it”.

Congratulations! You’ve gotten an interview, that’s a big deal! Maybe it’s a preliminary Zoom interview with the person you applied to, or a direct invitation to the school’s interview day; either way, hooray!

My first piece of advice is to stay off GradCafe, just don’t do it. If you do succumb, do not take it too seriously. It’s become a minefield of trolls who crave schadenfreude.

Anyway, once you’re done being excited, you’ll realize that you’re going to meet with people who are going to decide whether or not you’re going to be admitted to graduate school, and that can be a little terrifying. Okay, maybe a lot terrifying. One thing — maybe the most important thing — to take away from this post is that from the moment you receive an official invite to after the interviews, it is no longer a matter of it you’re “smart” enough, it is solely about the fit with the person and the program, in that order. Everyone who gets an interview is smart, but not everyone who gets an interview is a good fit.

You’re probably thinking, “What does that even mean?”. That’s a good question. Well, getting an interview means that you’ve passed the first hurdle for being considered for admission. The person you’ve applied to work with now wants to find a person, or multiple people, who will fill gaps in their lab’s research, or has interests that align well with the lab’s ongoing or future work. What they’re looking for is someone who can generate ideas, talk about their previous research experiences, explain how those experiences have shaped their interests, and make direct connections between their current interests and the PI’s research. If you can do that for the person you’re interviewing with you’ve got a solid chance!

informal interviews

I get asked a lot by my mentees about how informal interviews differ from formal ones. A quick answer is that informal interviews are more of chance for the PI to feel out if a person is as good in-person as they are on paper. For example, maybe your current PI heavily helped craft your application (which is totally fine and even expected), but it’s a question of if you are able to bring those thoughts to fruition in talking to your prospective PI. Are you just regurgitating your application or are you thinking critically and making explicit connections between what the PI is saying during the interview and your previous experience and current interests? It’s imperative that you be yourself and genuine about your interests.

Are informal interviews scary? Uhm. They can be? Sometimes they’re just awkward at first and that makes them seem scary. Maybe you aren’t sure what questions to ask during the informal interview versus the formal one and you don’t want to ask something “silly”. A good rule of thumb is that informal interviews are meant for you to get to know the PI and their research so if you have a question about something pertaining to that, go ahead and ask! You can have questions about the lab (e.g. size, culture, etc.) ready, but I would suggest saving them for formal interview day when you have access to their graduate students.

I’m not naïve, I know not all PIs are the same. Some can be intimidating and will drill you on your research. I don’t have a good reason why some people do that and I’ve had my share of experiences like this during interviews, but please believe me when I say, this is not the majority. If you feel like you’re being grilled, just remain calm, smile politely, and try to really understand where their question is coming from.

  • Are they trying to figure out if you can come up with research questions on the fly?
    • A silly tactic that is ultimately unnecessary. Any time you think of a new study, you’ll spend days, weeks, and even months figuring out how to ask it the right way. No first year project is entirely determined in a 20 minute meeting. No good ones anyway.
    • Alternatively, they’re assessing if you’re afraid to be wrong. I’m very comfortable being wrong and acknowledging I don’t know everything. Often when I’m not sure, I start my response with something like, “Well let’s play that out. If this, then I could imagine this.” A tip given to me by not one, but three people, during my interview process.
  • Are they attempting to assess if I’ve really thought about why I want to go to graduate school?
    • This is something you need to answer for yourself. Why do you want to go to graduate school? Why not get a Masters or go into industry? What can these programs add to your quality of life?

In general, answer the question the best way you know how and if they don’t like it, there’s not much you can do. I will say that if you felt like you did not get along well with the PI during this interview, consider that they’re someone you may not want to work with. Remember, you’re interviewing them too.

For more informal interview prep, I love this document: Phone Calls with PIs

formal interviews

Interview days are fun! Please do not be overly nervous. You’re only nervous because you don’t know what to expect. Here’s a quick run down. I’ve attended 5 formal interview days in my entire academic life, and they all boil down to a schedule that looks more or less like this:

  • Day 1
    • Welcome/Orientation
    • More department information either with faculty or graduate students
    • Typically a lunch break
    • Long afternoon of interviews with free time and breaks sprinkled in
    • Dinner break
    • Social event with graduate students
  • Day 2
    • More department information but typically the fun kind mainly featuring graduate students and their day-to-day or research talks

Basically, day 1 is the stressful part, but I definitely had fun. You’re probably reading this post because you’re concerned about the interview portion and you’re thinking, “How many faculty do I have to interview with? How long do I have with each faculty member? How much am I supposed to know about the faculty outside of the person I’m applying to? What do I ask the other faculty?” To those questions I say, “sure that’s fair” and “it depends”.

First, let’s change “interview with” to “talk to”, it’s less intimidating. “How many faculty do I have to talk to?” That number will vary by department, but plan to talk to at least two other faculty members. Sometimes you’ll get to pick beforehand, and if possible you should pick the other faculty you mentioned in your statement of purpose because you already know how they fit with your interests. This is not because they’re going to grill you on their work, but because it will give you something to talk about. Depending on your schedule you’ll have anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes with each faculty member.

*Side note about schedules: Some places will give you a schedule around two weeks in advance, whereas others might give you the schedule on the day of the interviews. I think, this cycle (the Zoom cycle), schools have been sending out schedules 1-2 weeks in advance. There’s no rhyme or reason for it other than logistical planning and you could ask the person who sent you the formal invite when/if you will receive your schedule. Anyway, back secondary faculty interviews.

How much am I supposed to know about the faculty outside the person I’m applying to? That also depends. If you picked them to interview with, know how to connect your interests with their research, or maybe they have a line of research you think is cool. Honestly, I did not do much secondary faculty preparation when I didn’t get to pick them. It’s a waste of time, mainly because you’ve entirely made up a situation in your head about what that discussion will look like. It probably went something like:

You: Hi Professor so and so, I’m X.

Interviewing Faculty: Hi. What’s your favorite paper of mine? What do you know about my research? Why do you think we should admit you? Please come up with three research projects on the spot.

I’m here to tell you, that’s most definitely not going to happen. The closest you’ll get is someone asking you if you’ve read their work before, and it’s okay if the answer is no (assuming you didn’t mention them in your statement of purpose or list them on your application).

Worrying about these secondary interviews is also a waste of time because you literally do not know what to expect. Sometimes you’ll walk into the room, or enter a Zoom call, and the person will ask you to ask them questions and that will be your whole interview. Other times they’ll ask you to tell them about yourself, your projects, and how you fit with the person you’re applying for and that will be that. Alternatively, the faculty member will just talk about their research for as long as you let them. I’ve experienced all of these in some form or another. My biggest suggestion is just to have some go-to questions. Mine included:

  • What’s your favorite ongoing research project in your lab?
  • What’s the best part about being in this department? What would you change about it if you could?
  • Is the department open to collaborations? Are you collaborating with any grad students from other labs?

I won’t reinvent the wheel for other questions. Here’s a resource floating around the Twitterverse that I liked:

You’ll for sure get the chance to talk to current graduate students. Do not pass up these opportunities! You might think that the faculty interviews are the most important part of these days, and sure that’s true from an admissions perspective, but hopefully you’ll get to decide if you want to go to that school and be apart of that department. The graduate students in the lab you’re applying to are fountains of knowledge and advice, so ask big questions, little questions, and everything in between!

Questions that I asked current graduate students:

  • Does your lab have a lab manager? (This was important to me because when labs don’t have one, sometimes administrative responsibilities fall onto grad students, and that’s fine, but good to know ahead of time).
  • Would you select this same program/person if you had to do it all over again?
  • How could the department improve?
  • Are you adequately financially supported?
  • What’s the department culture like?

Graduate students will tell you the truth. They have nothing to lose by being honest with you. Feel free to ask them any question you have, if they don’t have an answer they can probably direct you to someone who does. If you ask them something out of their set of knowledge, they’ll tell you if that question is better suited for your PI or the graduate coordinator, so no question is too silly to ask a graduate student.

Talking to graduate students for your current PI is not an intense interview, but if you are rude to them or other applicants they will let their PI know, so please be kind to everyone. It’s not a competition in the way you think it is. If your PI ultimately decides they want prioritize a research interest other than your own, then there’s nothing you could have done. Not everyone you interview with will have the same interests so try not to worry about competing for a spot, just be yourself.

Finally, you’ve made it through the interviews and the social events and you should take a nice long nap, and maybe eat some cake. After my interviews, I’d head to the airport (or drive home) and treat myself to nice glass of wine (or two) and a non-pizza meal because I am a middle-aged woman trapped in a 20 year old body (you Zoom interviewees are really missing out on all the pizza, sorry). Anyway, you did it! You made it!

thank you notes

The next day, or maybe 2 days later, I began my thank you notes. I thanked my grad hosts, the faculty I talked to, and any graduate students/lab staff/post-docs that were in the lab I interviewed for who spent time dealing with my questions and telling me about their experiences (even if I knew them personally already!). Some people will tell you that no one responded to their thank you notes, but anyone I had a good conversation with did! I spent a lot of time making my thank you notes purposeful. Was I literally just going to write, “Thanks for chatting with me!”? No, no, no. Let’s not do that. Really think about what you talked about with that person, even if it wasn’t during an interview (maybe it was at “dinner” or a GatherTown event).

Here are some examples. I wrote a thank you email to one faculty member (who was a secondary faculty interviewer) about an an errant thought I had regarding a talk I saw his 5th year graduate student give. I sent a graduate student I talked to a paper I mentioned during my chat with them. I had thanked Lindsey (my current PI) so much in person that I almost didn’t send her a purposeful thank you note, but I remembered that she hadn’t named her lab yet, so I sent her a list of lab names to consider in lieu of trying to convince her that I had some great scientific epiphany on the plane ride back to Baltimore. Thank you notes are important, but be genuine! If you really can’t think of a single purposeful note to write, then default to the “Thank you for your time” email but really try, okay!? There has to be something specific you can say, I just know it.

That was pretty much my entire interview day experience, from start to finish. I loved them (though I wouldn’t want to do it again for obvious reasons). They’re fun and you get to meet like a million people who love to talk about research. If you skimmed this long post here are the things I want you to remember:

  1. Be kind to everyone, including yourself.
  2. It’s not a competition in the way you think it is.
  3. No one’s going to think you’re dumb, it’s just about the fit now.
  4. You’re interviewing them too!
  5. Have fun!

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