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October 31, 2006 11:35 AM   Subscribe

How can I best prepare for interviews with potential advisers for Grad school?

I understand that the key to getting into grad school is getting professors in the department to want to work with you, and that meeting them in person is a good way to go about doing that. But then what? How should I view the purpose of the chat? What are good topics to bring up? What are some questions I should prepare for? I'm not really even sure where the conversation should end up -- should I try to get some agreed-upon projects, or just try to understand what some potential areas for study would be?

I've already read most of the "sample publications" on their home pages, and have some questions prepared regarding those. Anything else I should prepare to talk about?

Any killer questions to ask / avoid?

I'm applying for ecology / conservation programs, but really any insight into any science-based (or hell, humanities-based) grad interviews is much appreciated. Bonus points for advice on the follow-up e-mail a week later.
posted by one_bean to Education (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I will triple and double endorse reading everything that you can get your hands on by them.
posted by k8t at 11:52 AM on October 31, 2006

In one sense, interviewing with a potential advisor is a lot like a job interview: be prepared; show that you are interested in the topic at hand and have some aptitude for it; and prove that you have the qualities necessary for them to "hire" you (e.g., accept you into their graduate program). The second part of the interview - unlike many job interviews - is to determine your compatibility with them as an advisor. In some cases, you might go to a school just to work with a particular advisor (though this is not necessarily a good idea), so you need to determine whether you can work with this person. With these ends in mind, you should:

1) Becoming familiar with a potential advisor's research is a must - not only what they have published, but what their current and future research is. What they have done is nice to know, but what they will be doing while you are a student is even more important. Ask them what they have in the works, and what sort of role you might play (and might want to play). This is what you're going to be hearing about and working on for the next 4-8 years, and is as, if not more, important than talking about their published research.

2) Prepare to talk about why you want to study with him/her specifically. Not just "I think your work is great" but "I would like to make soil science the foundation of my future projects, and your work is integral," etc.

3) Ask them about their previous students - what they studied, where they have been placed (a good guide to how well the advisor will work in getting you a job), and their roles in his/her research.

4) Be yourself. Don't try to game the system - say what you really think and see how they react and how you get along.

5) Talk to their current students. Insist on this - it is the single best way to get an idea for how they are as an advisor, and how the program treats its grad students in general. [My decision on grad school was heavily influenced by talking to grad students, in both a positive and a negative sense].

Best of luck.
posted by googly at 12:37 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm in the humanities, so it's quite different. Here are some thoughts; science profs will do better than this probably.

Most important piece of advice I can give you about looking at grad schools: interview the grad students, especially the ones working with the person you would be working with. Be nice to them, give them the impression that you are discreet and won't blab what they tell you -- try to get as candid a picture as possible from them. Believe them if they say the person is an overbearing jerk, or terminally disorganized, or bad about funding, or bad about letting you have co-author credit, etc. Bring a notebook so you can write down names of people you've met, and in a separate section write down the things you've heard (not attributing to individuals) -- do the latter privately, not during the conversation.

You can take notes during your conversation with the prof.

- What kinds of projects is your lab working on now? (better if you have done your homework and can say "I enjoyed the 2004 article on the bee lifespan project. Is that work ongoing? What other work is the lab doing?")
- What kind of funding is there for these projects, and how is that funding disbursed to grad students? Who decides whether I will get paid? Do I have to write grants myself, for my own projects, or will I be working under your grants, on your projects?
- Where do you sit in various methodological/philosophical debates in ecology? (You need to do your homework on this. Talk to your undergrad advisors if you can about this. I don't know what kinds of big divisions there are to be mindful of in your field -- but you can bet there are some, and where your supervisor sits with respect to them will make a big difference to your experience.)
- What is the pace of work like in your lab?
- How much field work vs. how much lab work?
- How many grad students do you usually have at a time? Do they collaborate on projects or mainly do independent work?
- Is it expected that students will publish one or more papers before they defend?
- What's the process like (how many years of classes, what kind of qualifying exams, how many years does it usually take to write the PhD)?
- What's the town like? What are the advantages and disadvantages of living here?
- How is your job placement record over the last 10 years?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:37 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

I applied to PhD programs in Pharmacology in 2004, spent a year doing rotations, and have been in my thesis lab for a little over a year now. I'm not sure if your program allows/expects you to do rotations, or to start full-speed with your dissertation lab without any sort of trial period, but I would definitely recommend the former, if possible. I spend just as much time with my PI as my boyfriend, so I'm glad I got a chance to figure out if out personalities and expections were compatible.

You should already know the general area of their work, and some smaller subsets - go in prepared to discuss which subsets you would be interested in, and why. Also, have some soft-ball questions to ask them that will mostly get them talking about their projects and show that you understand what they do and have taken the time to read their publications (eg - Your group has been measuring the amount of ToxinX in soil - have you done any studies measuring the absorption of ToxinX into plantlife?). And be sure you're able to discuss previous work/skills you have and how you could apply them to their research.

A huge part of the interview, though, should be you deciding if they are a good fit for you. Ask:

-If they have graduated students, and where are they now? How long did it take them to defend?

-How big is the lab? If there are a large number of other students/postdocs/lab techs, how difficult is it to schedule time with the PI? Are there regular lab meetings to keep informed what other lab members are doing?

-If they have any ongoing collaborations with anyone else at the institution, or if the institution has core facilites and equipment that they make use of.

-What is the typical schedule for researchers in his/her lab. When I asked this of faculty, the one I'm currently working with said that he treats his employees like adults, and as long as they're making progress lets them set their own reasonable schedules. The one I did not end up working with went on a rant about how when he was in grad school, students made it their life, and how he gets mad when his current students don't take advantage of the couch in his office for spending the night in the lab.

-Does he participate in the benchwork/fieldwork, or just direct the experiments and look over data? While it's not necessarily true that a PI at the bench will be a micromanager, it's more likely.

-Do not be shy about asking about their financial situtation. With the currently abyssmal funding levels at NSF and NIH, you need to know if they can support you and your research for the forseeable future.

Don't bother the faculty with questions about the program in general - course/teaching requirements, etc. The professor likely doesn't know, so save those for the program director and other grad students.

And definitely definitely talk to other grad students. They will best be able to answer questions about living in the city, dealing with administrative crap, and if there are any professors to avoid.

Good luck!
posted by twoporedomain at 1:28 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

Neuroscience grad student here. The setup for us was that you would apply to a program, and if they thought there was a reasonably high chance of their accepting you, they would invite you to their school for an interview day/weekend. Generally the day started with eating breakfast while listening to the program director say "Hi, I'm the program director. Here's the way our program works." This is where they covered things such as what the classes were, teaching loads, qualifying exam, avg. time to degree, etc. Tuition+stipend+health insurance was typically guaranteed by the programs as long as you were a student in good standing. (It may be worth worrying a bit more about funding though these days, given the current rough grant situation in many fields.)

Then you go off to the one on one interviews. Generally these are a combination of faculty you requested to speak with (a lot of places ask for a list of names when they invite you) and assorted people you didn't think you'd be talking to and know nothing about. 5-7 interviews was typical.

As for the content of the interviews, the vast majority were, "tell me what you've done and what you're interested in." You then talk about the research you've done, and where you want to go, and then they ask you questions about stuff you say. The one thing we all got sick of after all the interview weekends was talking about our research. Then the PI talks about his or her research, and you ask questions about that. So basically it's a conversation about research. I didn't spend much time asking the due diligence type questions brought up above, as some of those are addressed in the general information sessions, and others are not directly relevant to my situation (for instance, asking about coauthorship wouldn't be necessary in neuroscience, as it would be scandalous of a PI to not put you as first author on any papers coming out of your research), but I think it is a good idea to ask about what happened to the students of the PIs you are most interested. "How long have your students been taking?" is a perfectly reasonable question that I never thought to ask, since time to degree can vary from lab to lab. Be warned that some of the sample sizes may be small, though, as your typical PI may have just a handful of students over his or her career.

Other typical activities on the weekends: Meals with current students and faculty, tours of the city, etc.

Oh, and it may be different in your situation, but we certainly weren't expected to commit to a particular PI during the interviews. Had a year of rotations before we did that. But because you will be having to commit to one of these people eventually, it is good to at least think in those terms.

Note that if you don't get a formal interview with someone you could see yourself working with, there may be a chance to buttonhole him or her a bit later on at one of the social activities. Try not to take not getting an interview with the PI as a personal slight, as they may have been excited to meet with you if they had simply known about you. Sometimes wires get crossed. Then again, sometimes people are just jerks.
posted by epugachev at 2:30 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

I second (or third, or whatever) the advice to talk to current students with faculty members of interest. It was through doing that that I found out that faculty member I interviewed with was a complete and total cunt to her students. I'm very glad I didn't signup for that.
posted by rbs at 3:13 PM on October 31, 2006

Make sure you don't spend all your time and effort asking questions to impress. Ask some questions about the lab atmosphere and even ask to speak with some of his/her students. A good PI would be more than happy to introduce you to members of his lab and let you pick their brains. You'll be spending up to six years with the PI and the people in that lab. If you get any vibe that even remotely suggests other students aren't happy there, run! Best of luck!
posted by reformedjerk at 3:43 PM on October 31, 2006

I second all of this advice above, and want to add one more thing you should research: how have that advisor's students fared in the job market?

Also, depending on the type of program (MA/PhD), size of the graduate program, and the degree of your involvement with your advisor, you won't be really be known as one_bean on the job market. You will be known as Professor X's student until you build your own professional identity. You would like to know that Professor X will help open doors for you and will go to bad for you when making recommendations to future employers. Some faculty are better than others at that.
posted by Tallguy at 3:44 PM on October 31, 2006

Find out how long it typically takes someone to graduate, talk to some current students, and ask what they find interesting. You could also ask them questions you might not be able to get an answer from the PI for, such as, "What grants have been recently funded or expect to be funded soon, what are the criteria for graduation, is it a more academic or more industry focused lab, who's the big jerk everyone hates", etc.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:32 PM on October 31, 2006

If you get any vibe that even remotely suggests other students aren't happy there, run!

This is common advice, but I have trouble getting 100% behind it. On the one hand, it makes intuitive sense. On the other, however, can grad school ever be all wine and roses? (I don't know--I'm asking.) If everyone in Professor X's lab is bitter, then yes, run away. But I wouldn't rule out a lab just because the 5th year grad student there is in a bad mood and is ready to graduate.
posted by epugachev at 5:22 PM on October 31, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everybody; as usual, I'm having a tough time not giving everybody best answer status. I feel much better about the interview process now.
posted by one_bean at 9:46 PM on October 31, 2006

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