Graduate Program Interviews: Cognitive Psychology

So you applied to PhD programs in Psychology in the fall, with some kind of interest or focus in cognitive psychology – memory, attention, perception, thinking, learning, cognitive neuroscience, computational modeling of cognition, etc. Now interviews are coming up. Want to get the inside scoop on the interviewing/decision process? What questions to ask, what to consider, advice for how to decide?
First, a brief aside: If you aren’t going into cognitive psychology, some of this will not apply to you, but the advice and insights may still be helpful. If you are going into social, health, or clinical (two for clinical) psychology, there are blog posts tailored to you. For more general advice on psychology PhD interviews, see this post. For information about the psychology PhD application process, see this post.

Here’s the scoop on interviewing for and deciding on cognitive psychology grad programs – answers to your questions by current cognitive psychology graduate students:

What are some notable differences between cognitive psychology programs?

  • Size – There is a tradeoff between a more personal environment and exposure to more cognitive people and ideas, more faculty and grads doing research interesting to you and similar to yours.
  • Focus/methodology – Departments may have certain preferred methods (behavioral, imaging, etc.) or foci (memory, computation, perception, etc.), and different research equipment, research software, and statistical software available.
  • Non-research requirements – Programs vary in terms of coursework, examinations or writing in lieu of exams, and teaching requirements: each of these take time from research, but also help you gain more knowledge and skills that can be beneficial as well.
  • Collaboration – This is definitely a buzzword these days, but how it plays out each program is different: professors cross-listed in multiple areas, joint lab meetings, ongoing collaborations, co-advising and collaboration via students with overlapping interests, etc.
  • Lab status at admission – Sometimes you are admitted to the department, other times to a specific area or lab. Sometimes you are required to do rotations through several labs.
  • Funding – This can come from teaching, from professor’s funding, outside funding, etc. Your source of funding can influence your time for research and how much independent or collaborative research you can do. Find out how long you are guaranteed funding, and about each program’s success at funding its students. Also find out the cost of living in the area.

What additional aspects of programs should cognitive psychology applicants ask about or consider?

  • Size of subject pool – If you are doing research on undergrads, larger schools have larger pools. If not, learn about your access to your subject population.
  • Professors – You are going to plan to work with someone for several years, so someone you connect well with is key, but their tenure status and health are also considerations: untenured faculty will want to publish a lot but also need to get their name first on many and sometimes change institutions. Tenured faculty publish less often but have more connections. However, older tenured faculty can reach retirement or (once in a long while) pass away during your graduate career.
  • Labmates and other grads – Their hours in the lab and happiness are your best guess for what your hours and happiness will be like. You will spend time with labmates and other grads, and likely work with them and seek their advice, so consider lab and department rapport.
  • Lab – The day-to-day functioning and physical lab and office space can impact your experience. Find out about meetings, lab socials, research assistants.
  • Life beyond the lab – Because you are committing to live somewhere for several years, the housing, social life, weather, etc. matter too.

What should someone going to an interview day/weekend expect?

  • Lots of information – This might even become information overload. You will receive a schedule, find out general department information, have interviews with faculty and sometimes grads, hang out with grads, attend more meetings about research, a dinner or party, and little sleep. Plan to take notes and know ahead of time what questions you want to ask and what factors you want to consider.
  • Interviews with faculty – You will meet with the person or people you would like to work with, and often additional faculty. Read one or two of their articles ahead of time, so you can discuss their work. Most likely, they will ask you if you have any questions for them, so prepare. If you are meeting with someone who is not a potential advisor, have questions about the coursework or the campus or graduate life to ask.
  • Time with current graduate students – This will give you an idea of what your colleagues will be like (and your fellow interviewees are potential colleagues as well). They may be asked for their opinion of you later, so stay polite and sober the entire time. Remember, you are being judged.

What questions did you ask in interviews that helped you decide on a graduate program?

  • What is your current research?/What is the direction of your research? – Publications tell you what was done 1-2 years ago, so this question gives you the current state of the lab.
  • What is your mentoring style? – Find out how many grads and postdocs are in the lab, how much they collaborate, how often you could meet with your potential advisor, whether they are hands-off or hands-on, their collaborators, their openness to research that is outside of their main line(s).
  • What is the typical time to degree? – Self-explanatory.
  • What are people doing with their degrees? – If not everyone is becoming a professor, then there may be more support for going into business or education or government.
  • What is your opinion of (professor’s name)? – Ask this one to graduate students. They can tell you about the professor’s advising style and expectations, as well as the students in that professor’s lab.
  • Why do you want me to come here? – This is a serious question. You have more at stake in your advisor as a graduate student than they do in you.

What questions or kinds of questions did professors ask you?

  • What are you working on? – You will be asked about your research experiences and interests constantly, so have a brief summary prepared. This question can be asked as a casual conversation starter, to help determine if you will be a good fit for the lab and program, as a way to evaluate how you understand and can communicate the process of research, or even as a way for the questioner to get an idea of what designing a research project with you would be like.
  • What kind of research are you interested in? – This is a similar question, but it tends to get more at what you want to be doing and why you want to do it at a particular place or with a particular person.

What factors were most important in your decision of where to attend?

  • People – Your relationship and fit with the faculty and grad students that you will be working with is even more important than the research you will do.
  • Reputation – This is of both your advisor and of the institution, because your name will be linked with your advisor’s and, to a lesser extent, with your school’s name forever.
  • Location – Again, you will be living somewhere for the next few years, so make sure you won’t be miserable all of your hours outside of the lab.

What was the best advice someone gave you about interviewing and/or how to decide where to go?

  • Grad students have a higher stake in the mentoring/advising relationship than professors because you only have one (or maybe two if you are co-advised) who will be your primary recommendation for many years after you finish your PhD.
  • Interviewing is like dating: you and your potential advisor are finding out if you like each other enough to start a long-term relationship.
  • If you’re torn between two places, flip a coin. If you’re happy with the way the coin lands, go with it. If you’re unhappy with it that tells you where your gut wants you to go, so go against the coin.
  • Pay attention to whether the current students are happy, productive in research, and what they say about their advisors. Chances are that if they are unhappy (or happy) you will be too.
  • Even for schools that you don’t end up attending, this is an opportunity to network. The faculty are very busy, and getting an hour of one on one face time with the famous people in your field will only happen a couple times in your career. This is a chance not just to figure out where to go, but to set yourself up for the rest of your career.
  • Go somewhere you will be comfortable and content for the next several years, because you will work and produce better research when you are happy.

What is your advice for students who are going to interviews?

  • Take time to break and breathe, and remember that it is about fit, not qualifications at this point. They have already decided that you are qualified.
  • Limit your conversations about other interviews and visit days because it makes people uncomfortable. Also, don’t be silent.
  • Be yourself – you will be spending 4-8 years in this place with these people, and you want them to want to work with you for who you are. If they don’t like you, you don’t want to be there, and getting rejected would be the best thing you could hope for. So, be yourself to weed out places that you’re not a good fit.
  • Academia is a small world, so get to know grads and fellow interviewees as well because you may see them at conferences and even collaborate with them in the future.
  • Good luck!