7 Key Questions to Ask During Your Grad School Interview

Ask these 7 crucial questions during your Ph.D. admissions interview.

Posted Dec 18, 2014

Infused with the holiday spirit as I am right now, it just doesn’t seem like the time to write about testosterone-tainted leadership or the physiological effects of cyberwar. Instead, I’m going to cover something that strikes fear in some people’s hearts: the grad school interview for Ph.D. program applicants. Besides, it seems like a timely follow up to my post on “5 Dirty Little Secrets about Getting a Ph.D.”

You see, ‘tis the beginning of the interview season for applicants to Ph.D. programs. Not all doctoral programs interview applicants, and not all interviewing starts quite this early, so don’t panic if you haven’t heard anything yet. But if programs you’ve applied to conduct interviews (phone and/or in-person), then you want to be prepared to convey that you’re a serious student with a firm grasp of the arduous journey you’re hoping to undertake with them.

Yes, “with” them. Faculty invest a lot of time and other resources in Ph.D. students, so you want them to believe that the resources they invest in you will not be wasted.

One way to demonstrate your serious intent and grasp of the task is by the questions you ask during an interview. You should have a good idea of the answers to these questions before you select a Ph.D. program, so the interview is an ideal time to get this information if you haven’t found it elsewhere.

Here are seven key questions to ask (OK, it’s not exactly seven—there are seven major questions and a bunch of sub-questions—I’m under-promising and over-delivering, as the marketing people say), in general order of importance to me, as well as a few italicized comments for context.

Let the questioning begin:

Where are your Ph.D.s getting jobs?

Are they teaching in colleges/universities? If so, what kind of colleges/universities—teaching or research? Or are they working outside of academia?

You need to have some idea of your ideal future job. For instance, if you think being a professor is the best job on the face of the earth, like I do, you should consider whether you want to end up working at a teaching- or research-oriented school, because they are completely different jobs.

Generally speaking, professors at teaching schools teach three or more classes a semester and get tenure (get to keep their job long-term) based on their teaching and university service, while professors at research schools teach two or fewer classes a semester and get tenure based on the quantity and quality of their research and grant funding. 

What percentage of your Ph.D.s gets a job within one year of graduation?

In case a student doesn’t get a job immediately after finishing, are there opportunities to stay in the department as an instructor for a year or so to get more time to find a job?

Though the programs I’ve been involved with place almost all their Ph.D.s, when students don’t find a job, the programs often give them a temporary position for a year while they find a permanent position. 

How long does it take your typical student to finish her/his Ph.D.?

How many years of course work? How many years to write the dissertation?

From my experience in the social sciences, many programs require about three years of course work, and many students take one to two years to write their dissertation. On the other hand, some business programs require only two years of course work and students take about the same amount of time to write the dissertation.   

Do you provide student funding during the school year?

Do you provide summer funding?

In other words, you’re asking if they pay salaries to Ph.D. students, which they should do at least for their better doctoral students. Funding usually comes in the form of a teaching assistantship (TA), where you help professors with grading and other instructional duties, a research assistantship (RA), where you help professors conduct their research, or a graduate assistantship (GA), where you do just about anything.

In addition to the financial support assistantships provide, these are real-world experiences that can be invaluable for learning how to teach and do research. Regarding summer funding, if you don’t get it, then you have to find some way to support yourself from at least June to August. 

Does the program provide funding for grad student research?

Research funding often goes to data collection and/or analysis (e.g., surveys, travel, or materials for experiments). Getting funding from your program can be really important because many dissertations require data to be collected. Without financial support, you might be left to fund your research yourself or to write a much different dissertation than you would like. 

Do faculty members regularly publish with Ph.D. students?

Doing real research with a professional scholar is an invaluable experience for learning to conduct your own research. I can’t overstate this (thanks to my former professor, Richard E. Matland, for giving me the opportunity to work with him). 

Do your Ph.D. students get a chance to teach?

Teaching experience is fairly important if you plan to go into academia after you finish. Besides, it’s a huge boost to your ego the first time a student calls you “professor.” 

Here’s to hoping your interview experience is full of good cheer, both yours and the admissions committee’s. Oh, and don’t forget to write a thank-you note.

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, I am the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University