PhD Admissions: Interviews!

If you are reading this post, that means you have most likely made it to probably the most important phase of the grad school application process.


Let me stop. Congratulations on getting an interview! I promise they are not as scary as you think. They were actually my favorite part of application season. I started working on this post earlier this year before any of us knew how bad COVID-19 would be (i.e., switching from in-person to virtual interviews), but I hope it can still be useful (both for applicants applying this year and future applicants). Here are my 10 tips for having a successful interview:

  • PRO TIP #1: Be yourself! Don’t try to be someone you’re not or someone that you think your interviewer wants you to be. The admissions committee already likes you if they invited you to interview, so you don’t have to pretend to be anyone else but yourself. Remember, you deserve to be there! For all of my introverts out there, I know that it may be a little nerve-wracking to have to be around so many people for so many hours, so try to take some quiet time for yourself when you can.
  • PRO TIP #2: Know your past research well enough that you can talk about it in-depth when asked. During a PhD interview, expect that almost all of your interviewers will have read your application and have some notes on the research that you’ve done. Be able to answer questions such as what made you interested in doing a specific project and why you decided to carry it out in the way that you did (i.e., your methodology).
  • PRO TIP #3: If you can, do your research on your interviewers ahead of time. For each interview, you will most likely get a schedule beforehand about what your day/weekend is going to look like. This includes who your interviewers will be. If the schedule is given to you a few days before and you have time, try to look up what each of their research areas are or a project that they are currently working on that you find interesting. Doing so will not only prepare you for the interview, but will also help to keep the conversation going.
  • PRO TIP #4: To look even more professional, bring along a padfolio to keep your notes and questions! Here is the one that I bought from Amazon. As far as the dress code for interviews, I would say to dress like you are going to a conference (i.e., business casual). Some programs may have specific requirements for what they want applicants to wear, so be sure to keep an eye out for those.
  • PRO TIP #5: Make sure that you have LOTS of questions. Everyone that you meet is going to ask you whether you have any questions, so be sure to have some. I will include the master list of interview questions that I used during my interviews at the end of this blog post. Remember, you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you!
  • PRO TIP #6: Talk to grad students! Grad students are going to be the most honest with you about what a program is really like. Faculty members will try to make it seem like their program is the best one in the world, but grad students will tell you the real deal. LISTEN TO THEM! They will let you know the professors that you should stay away from, whether you should pick another program over theirs, and what the day-to-day life is like in their program. They will give you invaluable information that you won’t be able to get anywhere else.
  • PRO TIP #7: PLEASE trust your gut when you visit each program. If you don’t get the best vibes when you visit a school, lean into that feeling. When I visited my initial first-choice program, I quickly realized that it wouldn’t be the best fit for me. That’s also a reason why you probably should refrain from doing rankings; a program may look like the perfect match on paper, but could be completely different in-person. Something I did that I think really helped when making my final decision was to write down how I felt after each school visit on the “Notes” section of my phone. You can also make a pros and cons list (which is something else that I did). All in all, trust your instincts. You will know which program is right for you!
  • PRO TIP #8: If you are going to have a drink at any of the social events during an interview/recruitment day or weekend, please don’t get drunk. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway. You should have a good time, but not be falling over because you had too much to drink. Know your limits and stick to them! You don’t want to be remembered as the prospective applicant who got drunk and started dancing on tables.
  • PRO TIP #9: If you have the option to either stay at a hotel or with a grad student, stay with the grad student! I know it can be very awkward to be at someone’s house who you don’t know, but it’s a good opportunity to pick their brain about the program.
  • PRO TIP #10: Feel free to practice responding to common grad school interview questions (e.g., why did you apply to this program?) with your mentors, friends, or anyone else who is willing to listen! I didn’t do this, but I can definitely see how it would be helpful.

NOTE: In addition to in-person interviews, you may also have phone and/or virtual interviews (e.g., through Zoom, Skype, etc.). The benefits, especially with phone interviews, is that you can have your notes with you and your interviewer won’t be able to tell. The same can be said for virtual interviews, but you may want to have your notes printed out (and try not to make it obvious that you are looking down at them) or have them up on your screen (again, try not to make it obvious that you are looking at them). Group interviews can also be a possibility for some programs. Although I didn’t have any group interviews for PhD programs, I did have one when I was trying to get into a fieldwork class in undergrad. My advice for those would be to try your best to answer the questions first (especially if you are more of an introvert). I pushed myself to do this and I think it helped my chances.

NOTE: Something else that I wanted to mention is that some programs will have you interview and visit the school first before you find out whether you have been accepted or not, while other programs will accept you before you visit. I have experienced both scenarios and the former is definitely more anxiety-provoking than the latter. But, you got this!

Another aspect of interviews that are important to mention is the COST. This is field-dependent, but most programs will pay for you to visit. In my experience, they will pay for your trip up to a certain dollar amount (e.g., $500) or they will have you make your own travel arrangements and reimburse you at a later date. Now, this is not true for all fields; some will unfortunately have you pay out-of-pocket for everything, so try to plan ahead for that if you can.

Check out Science Underdog’s Guide to PhD Interview Weekends:

Check out APA’s Finding Fit: The Graduate School Interview:

Also check out this great Hello PhD podcast episode about navigating virtual interviews:

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