Interviewing Part 3: The bottom line
What candidates should take away from a graduate school interview
Posted Jun 16, 2011
Remember: There is a limit to the information that a program's website or brochures can provide. An interview is the candidate's best chance to learn more about its real, daily atmosphere. While candidates are being sized up to determine how well their profiles (i.e., aptitude, experience, and personal strengths) fit with a program or lab, candidates should also size up how well the culture of the program or lab works with their goals, work ethic, and personality. The best way to do this is by observing and asking questions. Here are some important aspects of a graduate program environment to notice or ask about:
Is the program productive? (i.e., does it produce highly regarded scientific publications, innovations in practice?)
Is it a competitive or collaborative environment?
Do graduates of the program get the type of jobs you are interested in?
Do you like the area the school is in? Can you see yourself living there? Is it affordable for you?
Overall, do you have a good feeling about the faculty members/your potential advisor/fellow graduate students? Are they people who you will learn from and enjoy (or, at the very least, not mind) being around?
Perhaps the best resource for learning more about the realities of being a student in a program is the current students. They are most familiar with the program's requirements, politics, problems, and strengths. If given the chance to talk to current students, candidates should view this meeting as a time to ask questions, obtain candid information, and also display high interest in the program. Although talking to current graduate students may be less formal than talking to faculty members, candidates should maintain a professional demeanor and ask poignant, but sensible questions. If candidates do not have a chance to speak with current students during an interview, they might consider asking for one's email address and then contacting a student who doesn't mind answering a serious prospective student's questions. These are some questions to ask current students:
What are your favorite and least favorite things about the program?
Are the students generally happy?
Do the faculty members and support staff provide what they need to succeed?
Do the grad students get along with each other? Do the faculty? Is there tension between labs or do labs help each other out?
Can you tell me about the styles of each the faculty members/advisors.
What is expected from students in terms of classes, teaching and research?
Do most students have assistantships? Do you receive funding for travel to conferences?
Where have recent graduates have gotten jobs?
Do you feel prepared to go on the job market?
How does the department support professional development?
Are you provided with teaching resources?
Following an interview, candidates should consider taking some time to record their first impressions. (I remember doing this while waiting for my flight after I interviewed for graduate school. I listed the pros and cons that were apparent to me about the program that I eventually attended.) Taking notes before your parents, spouse, friends, or roommate asks, "So how did it go?" is a helpful exercise for a couple of reasons. First, it's surprising how much an impression can change after talking about an interview with others and mulling it over for a few days. Impressions easily become polarized. That is to say, a somewhat positive impression is likely to become more positive (and, likewise, a somewhat negative impression will probably become more negative). Having access to your most immediate, raw impressions may be useful when making the final decision of which program to attend. Second, it may also be helpful to refer back to your notes when comparing two or more programs.
When candidates are forming impressions of a program based on the interview, they should ask themselves questions like these:
Is an environment where I can thrive (i.e., be productive and happy) for the next 2-6 years (depending on the degree)?
How well will the program help prepare me to meet my career goals?
Are my values aligned with those of the program?
And, perhaps most importantly, do I like the people (the faculty members, the current graduate students, and potential future ones)? Graduate school could be a pretty awful and lonely place if you don't enjoy being around the people. When you get along with your colleagues and advisors in grad school, however, it can be a great educational and fun experience.
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.