Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Grad School Guru

Interviewing, Part 2: Doing the talking

What to say and ask during a graduate school interview

Posted May 18, 2011

Interview questions
In this post, we will cover the specifics of what to discuss - and not discuss - during a psychology graduate school interview. Before delving into this topic, candidates should be aware that when programs interview for admission, they can do so with different goals in mind. Allow me to explain:

During some interviews, candidates' paper applications have already been deemed "acceptable." If these candidates pass the "in person check" by performing with no glaring problems during the interview, they will surely be accepted into the program (what I call "Check mode").

In other cases, however, the interview is not merely a check, but a major factor in the decision making process. Candidates are being compared to others and the quality of their interview performance matters a lot ("Interview mode").

Finally, in a few, very select cases, a candidate might have such excellent qualifications that the program is actively trying to recruit them during the interview. That is to say, the faculty believes the individual will improve the program and its reputation and, therefore, they really want him or her to choose to attend that program ("Recruit mode").

Unfortunately, it's impossible to know which goal interviewers have in mind in advance, so all candidates should play it safe and assume that their interview performance will be a major factor in their final admittance or rejection.

Talking to Faculty/Staff

Interviewing for a Ph.D. program

As discussed in the previous post about interview formats, candidates who are interviewing for PhD programs in Psychology will meet with one or more faculty members. During these meetings, candidates should expect to talk primarily about research. Be prepared to answer questions regarding the research you have been involved with, the research ideas you have, and the previous findings of the faculty members' research. It is imperative to be familiar with each faculty members' research before you meet them. To prepare, read some of their journal articles or book chapters and visit their labs' websites before your interview.

In these meetings, faculty members may also be interested in discussing the skills you have acquired through your previous educational and/or professional experience. This is your chance to assure a potential advisor that you are ready to hit the ground running with research if admitted. Convince him or her that you have learned many skills from your previous experience and you can start working in the lab with relatively little instruction. Be prepared to describe your skills whether they include collecting data from research participants, data analyses, experimental software programming, preparing poster presentations, or writing research reports.

Finally, faculty members will probably want to get a sense of what your personality, work-style, level of motivation and career goals are like in general to determine if you are a good match for the way they work and train students. They might also inquire about how interested you are in coming to that program if accepted by asking, for example, which other programs you have applied to and/or heard back from, and whether or not you would like to live in the place the university is located.

Questions to Prepare For

What experience do you have with research?

Tell me more about (specific research project you have worked on).

What are you interesting in doing research about as a graduate student?

How did you become interested in research?

What draws you to this program?

Why do you want to be an academic?

During meetings with the faculty, you will also have the opportunity to ask questions. You SHOULD ask questions. If you do not, you will appear underprepared and uninterested in the program. This is a very important opportunity to learn more about your potential dissertation advisor. Asking this faculty member questions and thinking over the responses should help you to understand his or her personality, expectations of graduate students, and whether or not this is someone who you can work closely with for the next 4-8 years. It is also important to ask other faculty members questions. Even if they will not be your advisor, you will still likely interact with them a good deal - they will teach classes you take, possibly serve on your exam and/or dissertation committees, and oftentimes PhD students are encouraged to do research with more than one faculty member.

Questions to Ask

What lines of research do you envision working on for the next 5 years?  

What could my role be like in those research projects?

What should I expect to work on during my first year?

How do you prefer students to propose a new research project idea?

Do you have regular lab meetings or one-on-one meetings with your graduate students?

Where have your students gotten jobs post-graduation?

Are there specific hurdles that you want your students achieve (e.g., a first authored paper within the first 3 years, a conference presentation, etc.)

Ask what I should do to be successful in grad school?

DON'T ask faculty members too much about coursework. It shows that you are more concerned with getting good grades than producing excellent research. Ask current graduate students instead.

Interviewing for a Masters program

Masters degree interviews are either one-on-one or group interviews. In one-on-one situations, interviews are conducted by a faculty member or a staff member (usually one who oversees graduate studies). He or she will likely ask you a set of questions that are more or less the same questions used in all candidate interviews. In the beginning, the questions are usually straightforward. Expect to talk about your goals, the experiences that have prepared you to pursue your goals and be a graduate student, and the factors that drew you to the program. The purpose of these questions is to determine how motivated and well-prepared you are to attend the program and earn a degree, but also to gain a sense of whether or not you come across as professional.

As the interview progresses, the questions might become increasingly difficult to answer. Questions might tap into your thoughts on sensitive topics (e.g., how you address difficult situations, ethical dilemmas, or politically charged topics such as race). These questions are asked to see how you react under stress. Remember, Masters degree programs hope graduates will become polished professionals who represent the program well in the workplace and practitioner community. Putting candidates in a stressful situation during interviews is an initial way to determine if they either completely crumbling under stress or if they can handle it with a composure and poise.

Masters degree interviews can also be group interviews with multiple candidates and interviewers present. Similarly to one-on-one interviews, the session might begin with typical questions about your goals and experiences. As the interview progresses, however, discussion topics might be brought up to the group of candidates. These topics might deal with questions that have no right answer, ethical dilemmas, "what would you do if" scenarios, or performing a group exercise. This type of discussion simulates a classroom. Interviewers are interested to see how the candidates interact with other "students." Do they contribute to or dominate the conversation? Do they listen to others or ignore what they are saying? Furthermore, oftentimes these discussions test whether candidates can view difficult questions from multiple perspectives. It is very important that future practitioners of psychology respect the ideas and beliefs of those who are very different from themselves and refrain from imposing their personal belief system on clients.

Questions to Prepare For

What drew you to this program?

What made you want to go into this field?

What are your career goals?

What experiences do you have that has prepared you to pursue this degree/career?

What would you do if you were faced with (an ethical dilemma related to the field you are pursuing)?

Tell me about a time you were faced with a difficult decision.

Is there a particular group of people you feel more comfortable working with?  Less?

During Masters degree program interviews, there will also be a chance for candidates to ask questions. This is an important opportunity to learn more about the program. Have a list of questions prepared. Here are some that you might want to include:

Questions to Ask

Will I be expected to/have the option to complete a thesis?

If I complete this degree, what additional steps will I have to take to become a licensed practitioner?

What support is available for helping me find an internship/practicum placement?

Where are recent alumni employed? What do most students do after graduation?

How will this program prepare me for a PhD program if I decide to pursue a PhD?

What types of financial aid are offered? What criteria are used for choosing recipients?

Another great resource on interviewing with other questions to prepare for and ask: APA Observer article

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.

About the Author

Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher in the iScience Group at Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.

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