How to interview for grad school

Posted on July 22, 2016

This is a repost of my blog's Feb 15th entry.

PhD interviews in the US are very different from interviews in the UK and Europe. In the UK and Europe, you get the sense that there are hundreds of people lined up for the spot you want, you’re just one possible cog in the mechanism, and the instructors are going to drill you down until you have no idea what you’re talking about and then maybe they’ll generously bestow this beautiful spot upon you. In the US, there’s this limited pool of students all getting passed around the top universities, and the driving force of the interview process is to try to convince these students to stay. The situation is actually probably the same in both cases, but the approach is veerrrry different.

US interviews (about 30 minutes each) go like this:

(*This is what you want to study for your PhD, and is not necessarily the same as your previous research experiences. It’s nice when you can weave a story with what you’ve studied and where you want to go, however. Also, HAVE DETAILS! I mentioned three papers in particular when I described my interests.)

(**Read the professor's papers and mention what you found interesting!)

Again, I’ll get into the details of this at some point in the future, but basically you can settle into a nice script once you’ve done this a few times. Schools generally have you interview with between three and eight professors—fewer professors if you’re at a school without rotations, and more if you’re at a school with rotations. Rotations are when you spend the first year of your PhD working in 3-4 different labs throughout the year, and in the end you pick the lab you’re going to work in for your dissertation. Non-rotations are when you enroll in the school knowing which lab you’re going to work in from the beginning.

When you apply to graduate science school in the US (only graduate SCIENCE school, and not medical school or MD/PhD or anything else but science PhD programs), schools pay for your education, and they pay to fly you out to visit their school for interview weekends. This means that if you get invited to an interview, the school most likely wants you to come. In my experience, you can actually get a sense of how much a school wants you based on how much time professors spend on the above points when they interview you. (Most professors will hit all the points that I’ve mentioned, but they’ll spend more or less time on each point.)

If a school really wants you to come, they’re likely to spend more time on 2. (research interests), 3. (professor research), and 4. (research intersection). Specifically, if you’re talking to a professor who you want to work with, you’ll do a lot of 2. and 4. If you’re talking to a professor who you don’t necessarily want to work with but are talking to in order to gain a greater understanding of the breadth of the program, you’ll do a lot of 3., and usually quite a bit of 5. (questions). If the school isn’t yet as committed to wanting you to come, you’ll do a lot of 1. (previous research). This is accompanied with a lot of hard follow-up questions, just like the UK interviews.

The above is a nice generalization, but of course you’re going to get a lot of variability with individual professors. Some professors like to push a lot harder than others. And I have to say, the most fun interviews are when you know the professor likes you, you’re calm (this is what either defines it as fun or terrifically stressful) and the professor is still pushing you all over the place :).

My favorite interview so far was with a very emotive professor who I’d been warned likes to push prospectives. You can tell he’s well-meaning, he makes you laugh throughout, but he likes tearing work down and seeing if you can build it back up again. I was unusually calm for this particular interview, because I’d be warned about it beforehand, and this wasn’t my first interview weekend. What I’d been told was to talk out loud—say what you know, attempt to make some conclusions, and see where it goes. Most professors want to work with you when you’re describing your research—it’s always interesting when you have someone describing all of their doubts instead.

At the end of it—it was really spectacular, I loved his 3. (professor research) at the end of the talk— he consoled me with the fact that most people fell apart, and that I’d done as well as anyone else :). He then told me he liked how I thought, which was fortunate since he had to write a report about how I thought. Most interviews aren’t like this at all, by the way—not nearly so frank, and it’s extremely rare to get feedback. But this professor had a strong personality, was well-established at the university, and had obviously been doing interviews this way for years.

It was so invigorating because that’s pretty much the highest compliment you can give, that you like how someone thinks. There I was, given a half an hour with one of the most famous professors in their field, with a high flush and trying to think on my feet, failing pretty spectacularly but knowing that this was pretty much what was expected out of me. It truly is amazing to me that we’re given such a large chunk of time with some of the busiest and best people in this whole academia conglomeration. The first time my schedule was handed to me I was staring at the first name, just sitting there, thinking: WOW. I’ve seen this guy’s talks, I’ve read his papers, and here I am getting to meet him in person and he’s going to listen closely to what I’m saying for thirty whole minutes.

(Then again, this is the girl who looks up grad student pictures on websites and then get very excited to see them in the hallways. I enjoy my science celebrities.)

And as I went on to interview with many other people, and became calmer about the whole process through knowing what to expect, it just became so much more a fun experience. Each of the questions professors ask you aren’t meant as a test—they’re just trying to get information out of you to figure out your best fit. The question “what are you research interests” is a really hard one to prepare, and I’d practiced it over and over like a test question. And I think that is a good way to prepare it, because you have to have it ready to deliver at a moment’s notice, but it’s not nearly so much a test as a practiced delivery of what your life goals are so that people can help you achieve them. It’s the single most important question you’ll be asked, and you’ll be asked over and over, because it’s your driving force behind your research, the reason you’re doing this is the first place and the goal you’ll be circling for years trying to get closer to. It’s the Big Question your life will be spent trying to answer.

It’s nice too to get comments on your Big Question. Apparently, mine’s not so much a Big Question as an Eclectic Broad Domain of Questions, but I’ll get there eventually. I’ll also describe my domain of questions in a future post once everything’s been decided. (Clue: it involves a lot of key words and some papers I cite that never have to explain because I get three words in and people start nodding. In one interview I started describing a paper and the professor turned me around and showed me she’d drawn a depiction of this exact study on the whiteboard the day before.) But it was nice in several respects to get responses, because I learned a few terms for the ideas that I was describing, and also learned that I do have a pretty consistent idea that didn’t change much throughout the interview process. It’s still incredible to me that I could find a unifying idea at all in all of my past experiences, and find an idea that drives a lot of my scientific curiosity, and that there are people who study related things. It just astounds me that there are fields that can be and have been combined to study what I want to discover.

A lot of the professors gave advice, too. One of the questions you will be asked is what other schools you’ve applied to. And most of the professors will think about that and be able to tell you which schools they think you’re a good fit at. And there’s other advice, as well. One professor told me that publishing papers is all about producing work you’re satisfied with, more than an external validation (though hopefully that will follow). One professor told me all about the grant writing process, and how she allows ideas to percolate and be presented so that she actually enjoys the process of grant-writing. One of the things that I’ve learned is actually somewhat unique about my situation is that I have an amazing group of mentors who have helped me get to where I am now. I think part of that is that I value these mentors so highly, and spending time with these professors felt a lot like that.

And the students. I didn’t click with all of the students, but enjoyed all of my visits with and adored some of my visits with the graduate students. I won’t say much about this until later, but it was fascinating seeing the differences in the graduate students I met, and also in my fellow prospectives. There are some pretty awesome prospective students applying along with me right now.

And that’s all I have to say about the interviews right now, actually! I’m so glad they’re done, but looking back, it was a great circuit. I’m leaving out all of the stress, especially at the beginning and just before the first interview of each school. But after I’d gotten that first one out of the way at each school, it really just did become (albeit tiring) fun.

--- Continuation: repost from my blog's March 14th entry plus some additional stuff

I talked previously about grad school interviews but they aren't the sum-total of the grad school visit. Most of your time is spent in interviews, sure, but there are also different events that give you the opportunity to check out the campus, and most importantly, meet the graduate students!

First things first. You get invited to visit; you buy flights, arrange transportation, and save all of your receipts so you can get reimbursed a certain fixed amount. The exact amount varies by school and depends upon whether you're flying international or not—I got about $400 per visit, which was NOT enough for a flight from London to California. They alert you about a month before—buy as early as you can, and tag-team different interviews if you can to split the cost between schools.

To figure out if you need to book flights or not, check gradcafé frequently, because if everyone there is posting that they’ve gotten an interview, then you know you shouldn’t schedule a flight for their interview weekend and you’ve gotten rejected :). If not, you’re good to go!

You fly in, head off to the graduate dorm you're staying in (sometimes cheap hotel!) and usually start out with an activity right away with your fellow interviewees and graduate students. Interviews are usually the next day after you arrive.

Have fun. There are usually interviews / campus visits / lectures during the day, dinners with faculty in the evening, and parties with the graduate students at night. Ask a lot of questions. Especially what the graduate students think of the advisors and the environment. You can tell a lot by what they say and don’t say. I asked a lot about what people do on weekends and how stressed people are. I wanted a school where it was normal for people to not work on weekends, and people had lives outside of work. And where people seemed like they were enjoying their work rather than stressed all the time. Overly optimistic, perhaps, but I was aiming in that direction.

I was looking for advisors with a more hands-off approach, which I’ve determined that I like, and not with too strong of personalities. I was looking for good teachers and good mentors. I was looking for faculty with strong ties and collaborations, and for friendly and welcoming students.

I had such a good experience at each of the schools I visited. I could definitely see myself at one of the schools I eventually turned down, and saw some excellent things I wanted in the others. I ended up applying to eight schools, getting interviews at five, and getting accepted at four. I would have gotten accepted at the fifth school, but at that point I’d already decided where I wanted to go and so had the luxury of being picky about what I wanted to research at the interview. It was a good interview and I think explains a lot about why you wouldn’t be accepted at the interview stage: the supervisor told me at the end that she thought I was a great candidate and she would be following my career in the future, but that she didn’t think that my and her research interests exactly matched up (which was exactly my sense).

And then you wait until February / March, though you usually have a good sense as soon as the interview weekend was over. I received emails from many of the professors at each of the schools I applied to, which shows how personal a process it is at this stage. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to learn about the research from each of these very prominent researchers—and many of them just wished me well and told me that they would be following my progress in the future :).

--- Continuation: 07/22/16

I mentioned a few times in the previous-previous post that I'd describe what I usually talked about in my interviews. I was waiting to discuss this because the protocol is a bit strange. When you apply to graduate school, you apply to a lot of labs (I had around 20). You need to connect your research and future goals to all of them. Now, you've hand-picked these labs so that you are interested in all of them, but it's not possible to pick twenty labs that do identical-enough research that you can present the exact same story every time. So things get a bit flexible, at least until you've been accepted at a school you really want, at which point you can afford to be picky.

Most of the hard work was already done when you wrote your graduate applications. I had a slightly different spin for each school that I applied to, depending on the professors who I wanted to work with there. Keep in mind that you've already researched these professors, written to them, and written an application to the school, so you know how you're selling yourself to each school already. In the interviews, you just go more in depth—read their papers and mention what you've found interesting if the opportunity comes up. (It will. It's good to do this when the professor is talking about their research.)

Here are the things I hit for every single school I visited—my internally consistent story of where I wanted my research to go. This list was also how I selected which schools to apply to.

Easy enough!

At different schools, I pushed different specifics. These included "neural representations of high-level concepts / transformations", "Bayesian modeling", "inference", "decision-making", "reinforcement learning", and "social cognition". These are all circling the same topic, and are things that I'm interested in and would be happy to work on (otherwise I wouldn't have applied to these labs!). However, I'm more interested in some of these specifics than others, and played it by ear as to which I'd bring up.

Basically, the sooner I knew that I was accepted to a school, the more I could push what I was most interested in. It can be difficult to know when you're accepted. I got lucky at my first school—I was really worried because I wasn't clicking with any of the professors, and then all of a sudden during my third interview a really dynamic and upfront professor told me that I was one of their top candidates and I was guaranteed to get in. It was all pretty much smooth sailing from there.

At my second school, I was scheduled to meet with my most intimidating professor first thing at 10am in the morning. I was terrified and sort of stumbled my way through. However, he sent emails out to his lab members and two other professors to see if they would be interested in meeting with me, so I knew we were good to go from that point. It became even more obvious on my… uh, I did a LOT of interviews at that school, but it was very obvious by the eight and ninth interviews that I was in. The professor for my ninth one commented that I seemed absurdly relaxed; I was just enjoying it by then.

Note that there's one school that I applied to that accepted students only on the basis of Skype interviews. This is quite a weird thing to do, and everyone I talked to considered it a red flag; it indicated that the school didn't want their potential graduate students to see the school and talk to the graduate students in person. However, I later learned that this school invites all of their accepted students to do an in-person campus visit later on, which would have given me a better impression had I known. So keep this sort of thing in mind, though most schools will follow the standard interview-acceptance format.

Finally, I wanted to bring up one more point about the "selling yourself" / "spin" thing. Something I didn't anticipate was that professors were expecting me to describe my interests differently than I did on my application. They read my application very closely before I come in, and had ideas about what I might want to talk about. They expected more detail of me than on my application (pick three papers to describe your interests and use it like a script for each interview; you have to fill 30 minutes). But the most bizarre thing was that even when I threw a curveball out of left field ("…and I know I didn't talk about it on my application, but actually these interests were sparked by this-interest-than-I-didn't-mention-for-this-school-but-I'm-actually-fascinated by") no one was phased. "Oh, I thought you were going to talk to me about physiology!" was the only comment one professor gave before moving on to describe some research that I might be interested in related to my left-field topic. Most professors didn't even comment, skipping right to describing any research that was related to that area. The professors know the process; I bet that's why they fly us out to talk.

So that was my interview process—I interviewed at five schools out of eight, and would have been accepted at all of them had I not gotten ridiculously picky by the end :)). It depended on the school, but some of the people I was interviewing with were accepted to interview (…and that usually means accepted to the school) at two schools, and some were interviewing at eleven out of eleven. Everyone was really accomplished regardless—there seems to be a lot of chance about the whole process. For example, the school I was most confident about getting an interview for, I didn't, and the school I was least confident about getting an interview for, I did.

Finally, summaries: how to prep for these interviews.

Oh, and a miscellaneous thing: I didn't know what to wear in interviews. It's business-casual. So I wore a nice pair of pants and a nice shirt and cardigan; on one occasion I wore a dress, but they're kind of a bother to pack. I wore ankle boots; I saw a few people with heels, but you're going to be walking around a lot (interviews are occasionally across campus, and you're doing campus-tour things) so make sure you're comfortable in them. For guys, nice pants, nice button-downs. Some people went full-on business: suit-jackets and suits with ties. There's usually one or two of those in the room, so you're not going to look completely strange, but it's better to stick with a bit casual because all of the professors are in their normal clothes and you'll be walking around campus with all of the students. (People could already tell we were interviewing.) This is for neuroscience / psychology, of course, and applies to the schools I visited. Try to bring wrinkle-free things. You can re-wear clothes. Just don't turn up in jeans and sneakers and you'll be fine.

And that's all for the interviews! Let me know if you have comments or questions—mgates at berkeley dot edu :).

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