Roadmap to Graduate School: Navigating Interviews

Happy New Year!  After a (hopefully) restful respite, we are back on the Road to Graduate School.  Most deadlines, especially for doctoral programs, have passed, and you’re in a waiting stage, while selection and admission committees review applications, deciding on whom to invite to the next stage:  The Interview.

Today, the interview can take many forms:  Skype, over the phone, in person (either on your own, or the school might invite a group of applicants to visit together for an extended weekend).  But no matter how the interview takes place, the purpose of the graduate school interview is to get a sense of you as a person and to see how you might “fit” with the program, its faculty, students and staff. Graduate school can be a stressful and sometimes challenging experience, so faculty are looking for applicants who can manage the challenges and succeed in their program.  So, how do you prepare for an interview?  Here are common questions and answers – think of them as your ‘packing list’ for preparing for an interview!

What should I expect during an interview? 

Most programs invite you to visit the campus, usually for a weekend, and plan for you to attend and participate in many events, such as:

  • A group social where you meet students, faculty and staff.
  • A tour of labs, buildings or the campus.
  • A poster session, during which current students demonstrate the work they are doing.

At the core of the visit, however, are the interviews. You most likely will meet with many faculty members, either individually or in a group setting. If during the application process you were asked to identify particular faculty members whose research or area of work were of interest to you, you most likely will spend time with them and talk about their research and training style.

This sounds very stressful. How do I prepare for an interview?

No need to be nervous; you have been invited for an interview because the program and faculty already view you as a strong candidate, so the interview is not a time when you have to prove yourself.  Instead, the members of the program will be trying to get a sense of how if you will succeed here, will you be an enjoyable student and colleague, and are you truly excited about coming here to study and train. We suggest that you take the “Triple I Approach.” Come into the interview Informed, Interested and Inquisitive.

Being informed is about knowing the faculty, their research, and/or as well as knowing something about the basic program requirements. What distinguishes the program? What does it offer that is distinctive and of particular interest to you? Think carefully back to what made you apply to this program and why you thought it would be a good fit for your career aspirations.

Being interested is easy. You are interested or you would not be taking the time to attend the interview or to have applied in the first place. No need to say anything that isn’t true, but if you are genuinely interested and see yourself coming there, it wouldn’t hurt to say so.  You’ll need to explain why you think that is so – but if you can’t explain that, then maybe it isn’t the right place for you.

And as for inquisitive, nothing signals interest more than asking questions. During the interview you will have a chance to ask questions, so it is a good idea to have a set of questions prepared.

Good questions ask about:

  • Courses and training requirements.
  • Typical length of study, and what graduates do upon completion
  • Costs of living and attending there, and funding and financial assistance available (Check out our video first, to learn more about the costs of graduate school and how funding and assistance works).
  • What student life is like.

If you are asked to participate in a video or phone interview instead of a campus visit, you should prepare the same way. Remember, one of the ultimate goals of interviews is to determine goodness-of-fit for both you and the program.

What happens after the interview?

When you finally arrive back home you can take a sigh of relief. You’ve made it through the first part of the interview. Now you have to follow up with the program and do some important thinking and evaluation.

It is always important to say thank you and take the time to express your continued interest in the program. To write a solid thank you letter or email, you need to consider what you learned, how you feel and whether or not there is any other information you still need about the program. If you find you still have one or two simple questions, feel free to ask them in your thank you note. If you did a video or phone interview, asking to speak with a current student is a good idea so you can get a student perspective of the program and if it is a good fit for you.

Remember, the interview is about fit – and that goes both ways!

Look for what matters to you. Are the facilities and support in place that you would need to be successful in the program? What are the faculty-student relationships like and how would you describe the program atmosphere? How about the current students (or other interviewees): Do they seem like people you would like and be able to work with productively? Look at the campus, at the community and at the lifestyles of current graduate students. Do all these features feel comfortable to you and could you see yourself as being happy and productive in this context?

A Final Thought:

Remember, your goal is not to just get into graduate school; it is to successfully get through graduate school. So many factors contribute to successfully completing a program, that we can’t list them all here.  But going to the wrong program is a guaranteed way to not successfully complete.  If you’ve been diligent and honest about why you want to go to graduate school, selecting the programs that meet your needs and career goals, whether  you have the qualifications to succeed, and honestly assess if the environment is a good match, then you have done all you can to find a good fit.  With that – you’re on your way!  Be sure to have fun!

About the Author

Garth A. Fowler, PhD
Garth directs the APA’s efforts in producing resources and information to help psychology graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and those that teach them, improve their training and career success. Before coming to APA Garth was a faculty member and Assistant Chair in the Department of Neurobiology, where he managed the departmental office staff, advised students, taught courses for undergraduate, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, and was the director of the MS Program in Neurobiology. His first job after finishing his postdoc was the Outreach Program Manager for Science Careers, the online career resources for Science magazine & AAAS. When not reading about educational policy and best practices, he enjoys traveling, running through the city, and cycling with his friends. Garth has a B.A. in Psychology from the College of Wooster, a Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of Washington – Seattle, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute in San Diego, CA.