10 Pieces of Advice for Graduate School Interviews

If you’ve gone into a store in the last week, you've probably noticed that Valentine’s day has already exploded in all of its heart-shaped-flower-bundle-glitter glory. If you’ve talked to a prospective Ph.D. psychology student in the last week, you’ve probably noticed that interview season has also sprung up in all of it’s anxious-nail-biting-obsessive-email-checking ugliness.

Tis the season!

The interview process is different at every school, for every department, and no two students have the same experience. However, there are some basic pieces of advice that apply to a wide range of Ph.D. Psych interview weekends. Below, I outline my top 10 pieces of advice for prospective students for interview weekend. 

  1. You can monitor interview invites online. One of the worst things about interview weekend is wondering if you are getting an interview. Admittedly, the system is pretty awful. Most departments who know they won't admit a certain student will not send out a rejection until March/April, even though interview decisions are made much earlier. One way you can try to track down the status of invitations is by going onto The Grad Cafe’s Search Results. The search results are a place where prospective students report if they have been contacted by the department for an interview, or received admission. So, if there are multiple entries for interview invitations for UCLA in Developmental Psychology, the interviews have probably gone out. But if there are no entries, they might still be coming!

  2. Be a nice human being, all the time. This second piece of advice goes for all facets of life, but it is especially important for interview weekends. Be a nice human. Coming to visit a university is an opportunity for you to see how well you fit in with the campus climate, graduate students, and faculty. Psychology departments put a lot of effort into interview weekend, so be appreciative to all of those around you. Be nice to the graduate students transporting you, housing you, interviewing you, giving you tours, and the ones who hand you a much-needed napkin at lunch. Be nice to the staff in the front office, the parking attendant, the reimburser, the faculty, the custodial staff. People talk to each other and word gets around real quick when there is a rude or entitled prospective student lurking about. On top of being a good human, try to roll with the punches. There are bound to be unexpected challenges during interview weekend (running late, coffee stain, acne breakout, etc.). One of the greatest strengths in graduate school is the ability to remain flexible and stay focused, so take the hiccup as they come and stay positive.

  3. Don’t wear new shoes!!! Many prospective students show up to interview weekend wearing new shoes that look chic and fashionable. Don’t wear them. They will tear up your feet and make you miserable. No one cares what sort of shoes you wear-- this is not project runway. This is academia, this is professional, and wearing boring shoes looks a lot better than walking barefoot at the end of the day with blistered feet. If you must bring fancy shoes, bring comfortable ones as well (ladies, you can tuck a pair of flats into your bag for later). On a similar note, make sure to wear layers because it is often freezing outside and scorching hot inside the building (but NO short skirts). You need to be prepared to adjust to any weather. Oh, and you don’t need to wear a double-breasted suit either. Just look professional, and bring your intellectual A game.

  4. Know the research. While it’s a no brainer that you should be able to recall the major findings in the last five studies your potential PI has published, you should also take the time to have a general sense of what other faculty study. At most interviews, you will meet with other faculty and familiarity with their area of research can go a long way. Starting a conversation with “so what do you do?” just makes things awkward. During your travel, look up featured publications faculty often have on their websites and read the abstracts. Simply having a vague idea of what the person studies can earn you much more respect than having no idea. 

  5. Prepare a response to “So tell me about yourself.” This question is pretty lame, but when energy runs out at the end of the day, it’s a low hanging fruit that many people reach for to start a conversation. While no one can really explain who they are in just a 30 minute interview, try to come up with 3 easy things you can talk about. For example, my response usually went something like, “There's really three main things about me, there’s my research, there’s what inspired me to go to graduate school and study psychology, and then there’s what I like to do for fun.” I would then give a brief overview of my research interests, a quick background of what made me prepared to succeed in graduate school, and then I usually talked about one of my dorky hobbies. You can also talk about your family, or your dog. Fun facts can help you come off as more personable, so try to pick something interesting about you. Saying you like to cook, run, or do yoga is a little boring and forgetful. Instead, tell us you finally mastered the chilli renello, you beat your 9 minute mile, or that you are working on your handstands.

  6. Always stay engaged. A lot of people equate graduate school to a marathon race where speed doesn’t matter as much as stamina. In your interviews, you will be exhausted. Your mind will feel empty, you will be tired of talking about your research, and you’ll just want to curl up in a corner and check out. Don’t do this. If you need a break, take a walk if you can, or find a bathroom and just take a minute to close your eyes. When prospective students are seen sitting alone and playing on their phone, it paints a picture of disinterest. One can think, “How will they last 5-6 years of graduate school if they can’t even keep up with interview weekend?” You need to be on, all the time.

  7. Get to know the graduate students. If you ask me, graduate school isn’t actually a marathon, it’s an extremely long relay race. You will need friends to pick you up in your low moments, to keep you motivated, to take notes in statistics class when you have travel to a conference, and to enable your addiction to the campus taco bell. While normal friends are necessary, graduate student friends provide a special kind of social support. They are fellow allies in the trenches with you who can truly empathize. A department with good culture is worth its weight in publications. Talking to graduate students at interview weekend will give you an idea of what the culture is like, and they will also be honest about their experiences with faculty and the department. Get to know them well and thank them for taking the time out of their schedules to meet with you.

  8. Bring questions. Toward the end of the interviews, you will likely be asked if you have any questions for the graduate student, the faculty, your POI. Never leave them hanging. Prepare a list of questions and always ask something. Even if it’s something not related to research, such as  “what makes a good graduate student?” you will come off as being prepared and engaged.

  9. Send a thank you. After an interview send your deepest thanks for a great experience. I think it best to send hand-written cards in the snail mail to POIs, but you can also send some/leave some to graduate students who housed you. But no matter what, at least send an email thank you. It help brings a sense of closure to the experience and reminds the receiver that you are a nice human being who is truly grateful for the experience.

  10. Choose carefully. If you get lucky, you will interview at multiple universities. If you are even luckier, you will be granted admission to a few of them. The decision of where to go is sometimes quite easy, but other times it is a very difficult choice to make. Know that no matter what place you go to, you will always miss out on awesome opportunities. When I received a few offers, it almost felt worse than just getting one offer because I had to look amazing, wonder, and brilliant departments, faculty, and students in the eye and say “no thanks.” It’s an awful feeling, but this is all part of the process. Every faculty member I met on my interview journey clearly communicated that they wanted what was best for my educational journey, so in the end you just have to listen to your gut. While I wish there was a way to work with all of our research heroes, the reality is you get one only one ticket. Chose carefully and enjoy the ride!