Graduate School Interviews - The Down & Dirty Details
**Originally published on my original blog, Unstoppable Grad, and then on The Fit Nerd**
It's interview season!
..or at least it's really close! If you're interviewing for Medical School, then you're probably already done interviewing or very close! If that's the case, sorry this is coming so late! I'm on a grad school applications timeline, and I didn't interview until January/February.
Note that this is a BEAST of a post...but it's a long process and I wanted to describe all of it! I've broken it into parts within this post, in case you want to tackle one part at a time...
PART 1 - PRE-INTERVIEW
I frankly can't believe it has already been almost a year since I submitted my applications! I definitely still feel like I made the right choice, after all was said and done. But that's for a different post. This post is about one thing and one thing only....
Now, I don't pretend to be an expert, but I like to think that I can help in the sense that I know what to expect when you go on an interview. I applied to 10 universities for PhD programs, was invited to interview at 8 of my 10 schools, interviewed at 6, and got into all 6 I interviewed at. So, I can tell you about the different flavors of interview weekend, or at the very least what to expect.
I originally tried to type this up as a single post about interviewing, but frankly, the thing was a BEAST!! Like, would've have easily been 4-5x longer than any other posts I've ever done! And I've done some doozies! What can I say? I'm kinda chatty! So - I've broken this sucker up into 3 parts! And because I'm totally not creative, they will be broken up into pre-, during, and post- interview topics! I'm gonna try my darndest to recap everything I can remember as far as pertinent interview subjects...so here goes nothing!!
Pre - interview!
You've just worked your tail off submitting your apps, harassing your letter writers, frantically tracking your GRE scores, etc. If you're like me you're quite high-strung! Having thoroughly freaked myself out on numerous occasions, I would like to say one thing. Relax! You're done! If you worked as hard as I did on your apps, then you've done all you can do. Now, it's time for probably the least fun part of this whole process.
The WAITING GAME!
What am I referring too? Well, hearing back from the schools you applied to! So, when should you expect to start hearing from schools? I started hearing back from schools two weeks after I submitted my applications, and had heard from all the school I got interviews at by early January, having submitted all 10 apps between Dec1st and Dec 15th. So for about 3-4 weeks I was hearing back from schools. I got phone calls and emails from schools to let me know that they wanted to invite me out for an interview. The phone calls are the really exciting ones!!! I personally didn't expect to hear anything via a phone call, and was out Christmas shopping when I got the call. Can you say ECSTATIC?? Depending upon the school, you may only hear from people via email. This does not mean anything about how much they want you! Different programs just recruit in different ways! So...now to the next chapter...
Travel arrangements, CONFLICTS, and ALREADY making tough choices.
Now hopefully not long after they tell you they want to interview you, they will send you information about dates and who to contact to set up travel arrangements. As these offers start rolling in, you'll probably notice that there are tons of conflicts! If you applied to more than, oh, let's say, 3 schools, it's entirely possible that some of your schools will have overlapping interview weekends, or potentially the exact same interview weekend! This sucks. I know. I swear, these schools plot against us so that we have to start making tought decisions before we've even experienced any aspect of what the school is really like. But, unfortunately, it's part of the process.
You're probably going to have to eliminate some options right out of the gate because interviews conflict, but before you do that, let me tell you what I did! After I got all my offers, I immediately scheduled the interviews for my top programs. For these interviews that you absolutely know you won't pass up - the earlier the better! Also, you want to go to the earliest interview possible! If it's one of your topic choices, you schedule that sucker and you be there early! The sooner they get you on their radar, the more likely they'll be to try to snatch you up early! Early is good for the really competitive programs! Once you've scheduled your top choices, CALL THE OTHER PROGRAM! I had TONS of conflicts in my interview schedule. So, I started making some calls, and, let me tell you - if they want you, they will do what they have to do to get you there! And, if they're not flexible, then oh well. You will inevitably have to start crossing some schools off your list, but if you really want to go to as many interviews as possible, like I did, make some calls! It doesn't hurt to ask!
Packing and INTERVIEW CLOTHES.
This may not seem like a pre-interview kind of topic (or maybe it does...), but this is something you should start thinking about soon! Building a professional wardrobe is surprisingly hard! Especially because there is definitely a bit of confusion in how to dress. A lot of interview information I got said that the dress was "business casual," but everyone you talk to will probably tell you that it's better to look professional - more on the dressy business side. Personally, I wanted to look polished, but age appropriate - a style I wanted to maintain for the entire weekend, not just the interview day. I'm not a boring, neutral wardrobe kind of person! I like pops of color, even in my professional attire. So, what I did was to look for some basic staple pieces. I stuck with very basic bottoms - khaki, black, gray slacks. You also can't go wrong with a great pair of nice, dark washed jeans, which you could dress up with a blazer. I got one skirt that hit me at the knee and was a very flattering cut on me (third image below). Then, I had a little bit more fun with tops. I love blazers, so I had a little bit too much fun with this. I got a gorgeous, fitted grey blazer (far right) an open-front black one (first, second image), a sort of cranberry colored blazer (third), and a teal blazer (not pictured). I also got a few cardigans. Cardigans are great for a fun pop of color, which you can layer over a couple more basic pieces, like a black T and khakis/dark-wash jeans. I've posted a couple of (very crappy quality) pictures of interview outfits I put together for my own interviews. The khakis aren't shown, but they were great and I paired them with the top pieces I wore in the first and third images, as well as the top in the fourth image.
I hope that helps for the actual interview clothes! As for the other things that you should bring....
Please CHECK THE WEATHER BEFORE YOU GO!! I was interviewing in the mid-west for a couple of my interviews, and in the south for a couple more. So, I bought clothing accordingly for my trips! For my trips to the midwest, I bought a new, fitted black pea coat, brought gloves, a hat, and a scarf, and, probably the best purchase I made all season, a pair of black, waterproof, wedge-heeled, fleece-lined (or some other sort of warm soft-ness) boots with great tread for walking with my slightly-too-long dress pants in the snow! Those boots are the best and I got them at PAYLESS for like $20! STEAL!! For my warmer trips to the south, I bought a lighter, nicer, very professional looking hip-length trench coat, and brought a really light scarf and my trusty boots!
Since I love talking about my awesome boots, and because this really needs to be brought up, ladies please reconsider your foot-ware! This is not the time to bust out stilettos. Think practical and comfortable, because you're going to be doing a hell of a lot of walking, and depending upon where you're going, it might be in the snow! So, just think about that. Low heels, flat, or - if it's snowy, wear snowboots and bring flats! No one will judge you!
Last but not least, regarding pre-interview is this...plan ahead! I don't mean packing. We already talked about that. I mean planning ahead for the actual interviews. The time leading up to your interview is the time to think about formulating a response to what your interests are. It's okay if they're not well-formed! You're just starting off, and nobody seemed to mind my vague answers. But, you should definitely have some response in mind!
A few questions to think about ahead of time:
What are you interested in researching?
Why do you want to go to graduate school?
If you have research experience - Tell me about your research.
Have some answers to these questions thought out ahead of time! I'm going to talk more about the kind of answers I recommend, based on my experiences in the next segment of this topic. But, these are good places to start.
Another thing to do ahead of the interviews is to read up on the people you're interviewing with! I did read publications from the people I was interviewing with, but that ended up being overkill. Just be familiar with what they study, and maybe some general sub-projects. It is impressive to people that are interviewing you when you have done your homework!
PART 2 - INTERVIEW WEEKEND
The Schedule. For all (except one) of my interviews I was flying from the opposite coast to get to the school. So, I flew out at the crack of dawn Thursday morning, and got in to the respective cities on Thursday afternoon/evening. Hopefully they'll have arranged transportation for you. I was very frustrated by the places where I wasn't actually picked up by the people in the program. One place, which will remain nameless, had us take the light rail system into the city and then find our hotel from the light rail stop. I got a little lost. And it was raining. Not fun. But anyways, you'll fly in, get to your hotel, get situated, etc. Hopefully, you've got a roomie! Now, maybe you're not the roommate type, but trust me it's better! The one place where I didn't have a roommate, my alarm didn't go off on the day of interviews, and I got ready to go interview in 15 minutes! Let me tell you - that was by far the WORST set of interviews of my whole lot because I woke up stressed and was never able to calm back down!
But, anyways (ahh...tangents!), you'll probably be treated to dinner, most likely broken up into department groups, or maybe the groups will be completely random! But, anyways, you'll probably be escorted by students from the program. You may even have a specific student serving as your host! Be jovial and social, tell people about yourself, and ask about everyone else - interviewees and student hosts! Just be friendly! The current students do count and don't think they're not interviewing you in this process, so make sure you socialize with them. If and when they're asked who they liked, they'll be much more likely to remember the friendly person who was enjoying themself than the one who quietly ate in the corner.
Another thing that should be addressed since we're talking about socializing and eating together - more than likely, there will be alcohol available to you. Every interview trip I went on, drinks were provided at some point during the weekend. If you don't drink, no worries! Nobody wants you to be who you're not! If you do, go ahead and enjoy a drink! Maybe even two! Have a good time, but don't get sloppy! Remember, you want to make a good impression on these people. But, I personally don't think that means you should be someone you're not. The biggest opportunity you'll probably have to have a few drinks is on Friday night after the interview, but we'll talk about that later.
Friday is interview day! Your day will start with breakfast, and, more than likely right after breakfast, you'll jump right into interviews. You'll likely have multiple faculty appointments, and don't be surprised if they're not very long! I didn't have any interviews longer than 30 minutes, and let's face it, you can't talk about much in 30 minutes, but, again, that's a different topic in and of itself. Intermixed with your interviews will be lunch (they're not gonna make you skip it!!), and then after that you're free to learn more about the program! Friday afternoon will probably be a mixture of poster presentations, coffee hours, seminars maybe, or even a walk around campus! Take advantage of what you want to take advantage of! Some places might even have a break! Let me tell you that you'll probably be absolutely exhausted by this point in the day! It's a very draining process - interviewing. So, if you feel so inclined, go back to the hotel and take a nap! Then - post-interview dinner! My favorite dinners were the ones where the dinner was hosted at a faculty members house and catered. It was a good chance to chat with either someone you didn't get the chance to interview with, OR finish the conversation with someone with whom you really enjoyed talking during interviews. Other places might simply take you out to dinner at some place around town! Again, it depends upon the school and department! But, I personally loved the dinners at faculty homes. To end the absolutely crazy, long day, you'll probably get the chance to go out and blow off some steam with the other interviewees and the students in the program! I say, take full advantage of this opportunity. A lot of people don't feel like the social component of this process, but, when you're having a really shitty time with lab or classes (or maybe even both), you want to make sure that you're surrounded by great, fun people that you get along with to pull you out of the slump. Take this opportunity to gauge how much you enjoy your fellow interviewees, since they will be your incoming 1st year class, and also to gauge how much you enjoy the current students.
Saturday is by far the most relaxing day of the process! The hard, interviewing part is over, and all that's really left right now is to see how much you enjoy and click withe values and offerings of the respective programs. For some of my interviews, Saturday was a day of seminars and poster presentations, while still others had campus tours and visits too football stadiums (ya...the BIG HOUSE). Others will potentially even take you on a housing tour. There was one place we went where the student giving the tour took us to her actual apartment, and yet another, in Chicago, where they took us around to multiple different student apartments. These were such valuable experiences, and I really felt like I left these places with the best idea of where I could potentially be living. There will probably be many different opportunities to choose from on Saturday, so determine what is most important to you, and choose accordingly.
dun, dun, DUN!!! THE INTERVIEW!!
I've very vaguely covered th whole weekend schedule, but before I wrap this installment, I want to talk about the actual interview.
Potential interview questions:
Tell me about yourself.
Why did you choose your major/university/field?
What drew your to our program? What do you think we can offer you?
Tell me about your research.
How many programs have you applied to?
These are just some examples. Frankly, I don't want to bombard you with questions that you'll potentially be asked. In my experience, the interview was more like a conversation with a scientific undercurrent.
The biggest thing I want to tell you about interviews is this - your interview will be more like a conversation than the 3rd degree. So don't stress! At the school I ended up at, during 2 of my 5 interviews, we bonded over non-science things. I bonded about music with one interviewer, and about soccer with another. It isn't all going to be grilling you on your ability to rattle off science facts, signalling pathways, or woo them with your publication history...or at least it shouldn't be. Just me at ease, be yourself, and let your personality shine through!
And that's it! You're done with the interview weekend! Not so scary right? I hope that you allow for some enjoyment on the trip! Remember - you're going to be at this place for the next 5-6 years, so finding the right fit for your personality and style is equally, if not more, important as finding a good research fit.
PART 3 - POST INTERVIEW
...Where will you end up? So needless to say, you've kicked ass at your interviews, am I right? You let your personality shine through, and you were friendly and engaging, while maintaining a professional and intelligent demeanor. So, now you're done! And now, you're waiting on...
...Hearing back from schools...!
Unfortunately, now it's another waiting game! I don't know what I can say to put your mind at ease and not stress about this. We all have our different ways of coping with this kind of uncertainty. But, what I can do is give you the timeline that I experienced. Redundant...I know. But, it's the only thing I know!
I started hearing back from schools very soon after interviews. The first school I interviewed at called me 2 weeks after my interview. I missed the call because I was on a flight to me third interview, and I was absolutely giddy when I landed on the tarmack and was waiting to de-board the plane. That same moment that I'd listened to the voicemail from school #1 telling me of my acceptance, I got a phone call from interview #2 accepting me to their program as well! (...and I'd gotten upgraded to first class on this flight. It was a good day!)The results of my interviews rolled in consistently from that point on. Basically, I progressively heard back from schools within a couple weeks of actually interviewing with everyone, and had heard back from everyone by Mid-March (my last interview was the first week of March).
So, you might be thinking...."I got into my top choice! So, I should cancel the rest of my interviews, right?" WRONG! I highly advise against doing this!! I lucked out, in a sense, because I couldn't even go to the interview for my first choice school until 3 weeks into my interviewing process. By this time, I had really already fallen in love with another program. And frankly, as good of a program as it was, I didn't like it there! I didn't get along with my prospective classmates. I didn't enjoy the demeanor of many of the PIs I met with. It really just wasn't for me! After interviewing at all 6 places, I found that the school that would've been my top-choice ended up being third in my personal rankings, just based on how well I felt the program and the people fit my personality. You really never know how you're going to fit into a program, so don't base your decision solely on rankings or pre-conceived notions about a school or a program.
Which brings me to the final part of my interview series...
....Decisions, decisions, decisions!!
I hinted at this above...but, the biggest point I want to make here is that your decision about where you go to graduate school should not be as simple as "oh, this program is ranked higher." There are so many things to consider here! My full on ranked the schools I'd been accepted into using the following criteria...
- Ranking - Yes, this should factor into your decision...but it shouldn't be the thing that makes the decision for you...
- Funding... A lot of the schools I interviewed at flaunted information about how much NIH funding they received as a department. This should definitely factor into your decision, because the presence or absence of funding in a department will directly influence who even has the money to take you on as a graduate student...
- Time to degree...This is a big one! A PhD is a big commitment, and would you rather spend 7 years or 5 completing it? Some schools have longer times to graduation, and that is something you need to consider...
- Program...This factored into my decision personally because I was looking at programs that were immunology, microbiology, and infectious disease-based. What's the difference, you might ask? Well, I'm personally interested in the host-pathogen interaction, but more from the angle of the microorganism, not the host. Some of the programs took more of a host-angled approach...so whether or not their program meshed with my interests was something to consider...
- Research...Does the research that's going on in the department match your research interests? I really hope that you looked into this before you applied to a given program...but anyways, find a program that has research that you're interested. Some will have research that better suits your interests than other programs, so score the programs accordingly.
- Location...Location was a big one for me! Could I see myself living in a big city, like Chicago, coming from the small town that I spent the last 6 years living and working in. Could I do another college town? Location was huge for me...because you really need to be comfortable in the environment you're living in, because you'll have enough new things to cope with. This also encompasses how far you want to move away from your family. I love my family dearly, but I wanted to really dive head first into a new place and a new experience, so places that were too close to home were negatively impacted in this category.
- Other perks...Are there advantages to the program that you won't get anywhere else? Like, for example, the one of the programs had close affiliations with a health organization which would have opened doors. Another had the opportunity for pursuing a dual degree which would allow me to simultaneously pursue my interest in public health.
- Students...How much did you enjoy the current and prospective students from your interview weekend? This is something you should consider because these people will be your cohort, your friends, your mentors, and it's important to be surrounded by good people who will get you through the tough times!
- Faculty...How much did you enjoy the faculty you met? A good mentor is a really important thing in graduate school, and if you only met faculty members who seemed irritated by you, why would you want to join that department? Were the faculty friendly? Did they seem positive and excited about you coming to the program? It's definitely something important to consider...could you see yourself working with any of the faculty you met?
- Overall gut feeling...You may laugh, but this was one of my ranking categories. I had some overall gut feelings about places I interviewed, and how much I would actually enjoy studying and living in these different conditions. How much did I enjoy the interview experience? Yes, this really was a category for me. I think it tells you a lot about how well you'll fit into a given department. Like I mentioned, I really didn't have a good-feeling about the school that started being my #1 choice. I had similar feelings about other programs. You need to take these gut feelings into consideration.
If you're struggling making a choice, email the professors you're interested in working with at the different schools to make sure they are actually planning on taking students. This is a good thing to check on in advance anyway! The last thing you want to do is choose a program where all the faculty you want to work with have no money, or have a full lab, and you have to settle for a lab you didn't want to be in.
Bottom line - don't choose based on rankings or research fit! Graduate school is a tough, long road, especially if you're going into a PhD program. And there are going to be times when research isn't going well, and life is hell, and if you aren't in a place you enjoy with great people around you to pick you back up, then your graduate school experience is going to suck...and you may get fed up and not finish. So, choose a place that FEELS RIGHT!
Why did I choose the school I chose?
For me, the school I chose boiled down to a gut-feeling. I loved my interview! The program was established and successful, at a great school, with great opportunities, the people were great, friendly, excited, and accepted me with open arms from the get-go. The prospective students were fun people, and the current students in the department were fantastic and friendly. They're proven to be even more so since I arrived. Location was also a big deal for me! I almost went to Northwestern (Chicago campus), but decided that I couldn't see myself moving from my small little cow-town to downtown Chicago! Bottom line - my heart told me the right place to go and that's where I went!
I really hope that this post has helped! If you have any other questions for me about interviews or applications, please do not hesitate to ask! I really want to help if I can! :-)