Interview Tips for Students Applying to PhD Programs in Psychology

Preparing for interviews for a PhD program in psychology can be very stressful as well as very exciting. This is likely the first time that you will be interacting face to face with multiple professors and graduate students from the program you are applying for, and it is important to make a good impression. It can be difficult to find the ideal balance between self-praise and humility; you want to sell yourself as a dedicated and accomplished student without coming off as arrogant. Also, keep in mind that this is also your chance to interview the program. They have expressed interest in you as a student by offering you an interview, and now it is time for each of you to decide if the “fit” is right. I will get back to “fit” later on in this post, because I want to express just how important this feeling of “fit” is in making a final decision when fielding offers. In this blog post, I’ve tried to compile some useful tips from my own experience as well as from advice I received when I was preparing to interview.

Arriving Prepared

When I was traveling for interviews, I did not check any bags. I packed lightly with all my toiletries and clothing in carry-on luggage (including a garment bag for my suit.) The last thing you need to be worrying about during interviews is lost or missing luggage. However, even with the most (seemingly) comprehensive packing lists, you may realize that you forgot something important. On one of my interviews, I realized that I had forgotten to pack black socks! Thankfully, the convenient store in the airport had a pair of black socks in stock that went well with my suit (it truly was a convenient store in every sense of the term!)

Interacting with Other Interviewees

It can be nerve-wracking to interact with other students that are interviewing for the same program, but keep in mind that these individuals may be your future classmates. I would recommend getting to know one another beyond the superficial level. When talking with other interviewees, avoid questions like “how many programs are you interviewing at?” and “so how many publications do you have out?”, because these are likely very stressful topics to engage in a discussion about. Rather, I would suggest getting to know about one other’s hobbies and other activities that you do for fun. In all likelihood, you all have a vested interest in the same field, so it may also be interesting to share experiences that motivated you to be interested in psychology. Remember that you are not being evaluated by these other interviewees and that you are here for yourself. Try not to compare yourself to them and focus on what makes you the best candidate for the program. If you view other interviewees as potential collaborators or colleagues rather than competitors, you will most likely have more pleasant interactions with them.

Interacting with Current Graduate Students

The current graduate students are one of the best resources to use when learning about a particular program (if given the opportunity, I highly recommend staying with a current graduate student during your interview). Some programs will formally incorporate graduate students into the interview process while others solicit their feedback in a more informal manner. Regardless, it is important to speak with as many graduate students as you can during your interview so that you can get a vast array of perspectives. One of the most important factors for me when I was deciding on the right program was the overall mood of current graduate students. I encourage you to gauge whether the students seem generally happy, productive, and hardworking or dissatisfied, overworked, and generally unhappy. More likely than not, students will display a wide array of emotions about the program, both positive and negative, but it can be useful to evaluate the general environment of the program. Also, these students will likely become your student mentors and collaborators should you enroll in the program. It is important to evaluate whether or not you could see yourself working and interacting with them. Lastly, it is extremely important to interact with the current graduate students in the lab you hope to join. They can give you invaluable advice about the advisor you hope to work with from the perspective of a current advisee. They can also give you helpful indications as to what types of research projects are ongoing in the lab and what roles they play in those projects.

Here are some ideas for questions that you can ask current graduate students:

  • Do you feel supported by the program?
  • What are the opportunities for collaboration in research?
  • What current research projects are you working on?
  • How is your quality of life given the location and the stipend?
  • How is your relationship with your primary advisor?
  • If you could change anything about the program, what would it be?
  • Is the course load manageable in conjunction with the expectation for keeping up your research?
  • What do you do for fun in the area?
  • Do you generally get along with other students both in and outside of your cohort?
  • (For clinical programs) How is the clinical training?

Again, graduate students are great resources to tap into when understanding if a program is right for you. However, take their advice with a grain of salt—their experience (whether positive or negative) is likely to be different from yours. In the end, you’ll have to make the final call for yourself if a program feels like the right fit.

Interacting with Faculty

When interviewing with faculty members, it’s usually a good idea to know what their basic line of research entails, but do not exhaust yourself by reading multiple publications by each professor in the department. I would recommend reading papers published by the professors you hope to work with (either in a primary or secondary advisory role), but only for the purpose of being familiar with their work. In other words, I do not think it necessary to reference specific papers when interviewing with faculty members unless there is a very good reason to do so. For the most part, the faculty members want to know about your career goals, research trajectory, academic history, and personality rather than your knowledge of their publications. However, I do think it is helpful to know each professor’s general area of research when preparing for an interview with them.

Faculty members will want to know several things about you. They will most likely want to know about your past research experiences. Come prepared with an in depth summary of a particular research project you worked on, probably with notable contribution (e.g. honors thesis, independent study, etc.) You should be able to articulate the goal of the project, the theoretical rationale, the hypotheses, and the method. In my experience, some faculty members wanted to know about my results whereas others did not. Although some professors will want to know about the implications of your work, others may only want to know if you can adequately articulate your previous work.

For clinical applicants, professors may also ask what skills and/or experiences can be translated to becoming a good clinician. Previous experience with assessment or direct client exposure would be obvious examples of translatable experiences, but many applicants may not have these types of experiences (I didn’t). Any experience that speaks to your interpersonal skills will most likely convey your aptitude as an effective clinician.

Professors may also ask about your future career goals, what types of research you want to pursue, where you see yourself in either 5 or 10 years, why this particular program is of interest to you, and what you do in your spare time apart from study. It is important to have thought about each of these questions beforehand, but I caution coming across as over rehearsed. You don’t necessarily want to pull out cue cards with a longwinded response as to what your future career plans would be. This is your change to engage in conversation with a faculty member about not only you hope to achieve, but whether this is the right place for you to do so. Faculty will help you understand what is expected of you as a student in their program as well as whether the program fits with what you are looking for, and it can be very helpful to ask them questions. In fact, many of them will expect you to have insightful questions towards the end of the interview. If you are interviewing with your primary mentor of interest, this is your chance to uncover what their expectations of you would be if you were their student. You can also learn about their own perception of their advisory style, the available projects they have for new students to become involved with, and what the overall atmosphere of their lab is.

Here are some potential questions that a faculty member may ask you:

  • Can you tell me about a particular research project that you were heavily involved with? What did you take away from this project?
  • What types of research questions would you be interested in asking if you were a student here?
  • What are your professional goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? How about 10?
  • What appeals to you about this particular program?
  • What do you like to do for fun?
  • (For clinical applicants) What skills or experiences have prepared you for a clinical program? What was most enjoyable or challenging about these programs?

Here are some ideas for questions that you could ask a faculty member:

  • What are your current research projects?
  • What is your mentoring style?
  • Do you have opportunities for students to collect their own data as well as perform secondary analysis on existing data?
  • What is your idea of a successful PhD student in this program?
  • How closely do you work with students? Is your approach more “hands-on” or “hands-off”?
  • (For clinical applicants) What types of clinical populations do we have access to in this program?
  • (For clinical applicants) What are some common placements that your students go to for externships or internships?

Thank You Notes

A simple thank you note can go a long way. Some may recommend writing thank you e-mails to faculty and graduate students, but I would opt for the handwritten notes. It’s largely personal preference, but I believe there’s an increased sense of intentionality and personability that comes with a handwritten thank you note. However, do not pre-write generic thank you notes that can be given to faculty or graduate students immediately (I’ve seen this done before…) Rather, take a minute to reflect on a specific interaction you had with a faculty member or graduate student that stood out to you and write your thank you note based on that. You can decide to mail them after you return home or leave them in their campus mailboxes on your last day. I would take time out of my day to write thank you notes, and it was a great way for me to reflect on my interview experience. I would think “wow, that graduate student really helped me understand that this program has a lot to offer” or “I’m so glad this faculty member encouraged the type of research I’m specifically interested in pursuing.” These reflections ultimately helped me when I was making a final decision as to what program was the best fit for me.

Final Remarks

The interviews can be exhausting, because you rarely have time to “turn off.” Even your behavior in the social get-togethers will most likely be evaluated by current graduate students (don’t be that person who acts completely unprofessional as soon as the group leaves campus for dinner or for a happy hour; remember that you must always present your best self.) However, the rewards are usually worth it: to better understand whether or not you could see yourself as s student in that particular program, working with a particular primary advisor, and interacting with the other graduate students on a day-to-day basis. This feeling of “fit” is hard to quantify. It’s perhaps just as hard to explain. Sometimes a certain place or program just “clicks” or “feels right.” Try to trust your intuitions. If you have to continually justify why you may have perceived a program as generally negative, you may not be happy there in the long run. Keep in mind, a PhD program is a long process (it’s a marathon, not a sprint), and you want to make sure that you are willing to make such a substantial commitment. Also, congratulate yourself on even being offered an interview…you most likely are doing many things right if you’ve gotten this far already. If you do not receive any offers, then do not be discouraged. Many students re-apply during the next (or even future) application cycles with great success. It may also be helpful to keep a small notebook to jot down pros and cons of each interview experience. Rely on other students or mentors you may know that can give you helpful advice, and try not to be too overwhelmed by the process.