Interviewing, Part 1: The Basics
What to expect when interviewing for admission
Posted April 12, 2011
Preparing a graduate school application that stands out is only the first step on the path to getting into graduate school. Once a program is convinced that you look good on paper, you will be invited to an interview. Interviewing for graduate school is a complex issue with many components and perspectives. Thus, this post will cover only the basics of what to expect when you get invited to an on campus interview, for example, the format of the interview, who you will meet, what to wear, etc. In later posts, we will talk about questions to prepare for and about what both faculty members and potential colleagues are looking for in a candidate. Interviews for Ph.D. programs and Masters degree programs are quite different so they will be discussed separately.
Interviewing as a prospective Ph.D. student
Completing a Ph.D. is an individualized process and this begins at the interviewing stage. There are 2 routes Ph.D. program interviews usually take:
1. A full-scale interview day (or day and a half) with many (3-20) candidates
2. A private meeting with your potential faculty advisor (might happen on the phone)
Whether you are invited to a full-scale interview or a private meeting depends on many factors. For example, some programs (usually the larger ones) have a tradition of holding an annual interview day, others do not. If a program is planning to recruit a relatively large number of students that year, it may save time to do one full-scale interview day rather than a many individual meetings. It could also depend on faculty preferences. Some prefer meeting prospective students separately while others prefer meeting all prospective students in one day.
Format to expect on a full-scale interview day when you are in a group of candidates:
For full-day interviews, there is a set itinerary. Faculty members and graduate students spend a good deal of time preparing for these days. Oftentimes, prospective students first meet each other (i.e., those who are also interviewing that day) and attend an informational session. In this session, the program requirements (i.e., classes and degree hurdles you would have to pass to graduate) are usually covered as well as information about funding (i.e., assistantships). The prospective students also have a chance to ask questions. The informational session is usually followed by hours of individual meetings with the faculty members and group meetings with graduate students conducted in a "round robin" style. There will also be meals and/or social events planned into the schedule, including possibly lunch, dinner, happy hour, pot luck party at someone's house, etc.
Format to expect when you are meeting one-on-one with a faculty member:
In a one-on-one Ph.D. interview, prospective students meet mostly with the faculty member whom they have applied to work with. The topic of this meeting is mainly research- the candidate's research experience, the research he or she would like to do, the research the faculty member has done and where he/she would like to head in the future. Other topics might include departmental resources, teaching, and just getting to know one another. The meeting might involve going out to lunch or grabbing a coffee together. The faculty member might also introduce the prospective student to one or more of his or her current Ph.D. students and/or take a tour of his or her laboratory space. He/she may see if other faculty or graduate students are available to meet with the prospective student, but the agenda will not be as planned as a full-scale interview day.
What to wear to a Ph.D. interview:
For job interviews, the rule is to always wear a suit. When interviewing as a prospective Ph.D. student, however, it is my opinion that candidates feel uncomfortable and out-of-place in a full suit. Research environments are notoriously casual so, instead of a suit, I recommend aiming to look professional, but not stuffy. For women, I think dress pants and a quality-looking cardigan with either a collared shirt or nice top underneath is appropriate. Women should also feel free to use some eye-catching, but not overly-flashy accessories (e.g., a scarf, tasteful earrings). For guys, I recommend a button-down shirt tucked into pants (not cargo pants), but no jacket or tie. In my opinion, sneakers are not appropriate for either gender.
Money, travel, accommodations for Ph.D. interviews:
Before the economy went sour, prospective Ph.D. students often had expenses paid for interviews, including flights, ground transportation, hotel (if applicable, see below), and meals. This was even more likely the case if interviewing at a private institution as opposed to a public university. When I interviewed as a prospective Ph.D. student, I received a set amount of money to cover my expenses. It wasn't enough to cover everything so I ended up paying for part of my travel out-of-pocket. While it's possible that expenses (or at least part of them) will be covered, prospective graduate students are more often expected to pay for at least their own transportation to and from campus. You will likely be treated to meals during the interview though.
Another important point about travel and accommodation is that, traditionally, prospective Ph.D. students are invited to stay at the home of one of the current graduate students instead of at a hotel. The thought of staying at the home of someone you've never met may be somewhat uncomfortable, but, my advice is to go with it! It will likely turn out to be a pleasant experience and it's a great way to get real, insider information about the program.
Interviewing as a prospective M.A./M.S. student
Completing a Masters degree involves both class work and preparing for work in a professional psychology setting. This is reflected in Masters degree candidate interviews. To my knowledge, there are typically 3 types:
1. One-on-one, 30 to 60 minute interviews
2. Group interviews that last 2-3 hours
3. Full days with a combination of one-on-one and group interviews
When invited to a Masters degree interview, it is often hard to predict which type of interview you will be attending. If you haven't been explicit told which format to expect, it doesn't hurt to ask. If the admissions committee doesn't want the candidates to know which they will attend in advance, the answer to your question will be kept vague.
Format to expect at a one-on-one interview:
Prospective students can expect to be interviewed by either a graduate studies coordinator or a professor in the program to which they have applied (sometimes the interview holds both of these roles). Candidates are usually asked about their career goals, why they would like to be admitted to the program, and situations in which they have used or developed skills that are necessary to achieve their career goals. Some one-on-one interviews, especially those for professional degrees (e.g., school counseling, mental health counseling), are designed to simulate a client-professional interaction. The interviewer may purposely include sensitive questions or introduce stressful situations to see how the candidate handles it and reacts under stress.
Format to expect at a group interview:
Group interviews generally involve 8-12 prospective students and 2-4 interviewers. At the beginning, candidates are usually given the opportunity to introduce themselves to the group, state their career goals, and why they would like to be admitted to the program. After a few questions have been posed, the format for answering questions may change from each candidate having their own specified time to speak to an interactive discussion in which individuals must "jump in" with their remarks. The group may also be asked to perform a task together or do an activity, such as watch a video clip and discuss it. In group interviews, the interviewers are interested in how the candidates behave in a simulated classroom discussion. Do they make important contributions, but also listen carefully and respond to the other "students" (i.e., candidates)? Are they respectful of others opinions and are they aware of the multiple perspectives that can be taken on sensitive topics?
What to wear to an M.A./M.S. interview:
Because Masters degrees in the field of psychology are often preparing students to be professionals in the field, I recommend wearing a suit for both genders. In a pinch, however, an outfit like those described above for Ph.D. interviews will also be appropriate.
Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: www.gradadmissionsconsulting.com to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.