What should I expect in a PhD interview?
January 31, 2007 5:51 AM   Subscribe

What is involved in a PhD interview? What should I expect, and how should I prepare?

I've been invited to interview at a Cognitive Science PhD program, and it's looking like I'll be invited to interview at an Information Science PhD program soon after. (My field is human-computer interaction.) I've never done an academic interview before, so I'm a little in the dark about what to expect. How do PhD interviews work in general? What are they like in these specific fields? Are they formal or informal? With one individual, or the entire review committee? Are you quized on your knowledge, or asked softer questions about intentions, goals, etc.? Or both? Should I wear jeans or slacks? Pearls or fleece?
posted by waxwing to Education (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I've done these from both sides of the desk (Cognitive Science/AI).

Unless you know the people, and know that they're informal, I'd treat it like a job interview. Here in the UK, it might just be your advisor, or it might be them and a postdoc, or it might be a panel of professors. Different institutions have different approaches to this. So the sensible thing to do is to go smart.

Questions to ask:

How many other PhDs are there in your area? In the school as a whole?

Are there any Journal Clubs/research reading groups in your area?

Is there a seminar series? (You could find this out on the web before hand and ask specific questions).

Ask about the publication rate of PhD students, and whether there is funding to attend national or international conferences and meetings a) if you get a paper in and b) if you don't (for development purposes).

The question we asked in the most recent round I was involved in:

What's the (relevant) thing you've done that you're most proud of? Describe it, and describe what's novel about it. This should be an opportunity for you to show off what you know and what you've done, and a candidate who fluffs this question is almost always out. In some of the interviews which go well, this is pretty much the only "set" question, because most of the other questions are about the details of the work.

You'll probably get asked why you want to do a PhD, too.
posted by handee at 6:05 AM on January 31, 2007

Ask the student advising office about what to wear. In my grad school prospective visits, I was dressed just a step above the just-in-from-the-field outfits the professors wore, but I also know that standards of casual dress are different for different fields and different departments, and I would have been very underdressed elsewhere. There should be someone in the department at the admin level you could ask without feeling too silly. (And in fact, I think enough people had asked that they sent out an email to all of us telling us not to worry about dressing up too much.)

I can't speak at all to what a PhD interview is like — I visited programs only after I'd already been accepted. But I dressed nicely and asked the faculty members what I thought might be insightful questions about their own research, and they offered me a fellowship at the end of my visit.

Mmm, on preview, handee's questions that you should ask are great. I wish I'd been more persistent about asking those kinds of questions when I was visiting grad schools, and I think an interview scenario will give you a good chance to ask them.
posted by limicoline at 6:13 AM on January 31, 2007

My interview for a graduate program in Computer Science wasn't too formal, similar to a low-key job interview. All the candidates had a period to talk with each of the professors in our focus areas individually. I suppose other schools might do a panel interview instead.

They'll probably ask questions about any projects you've done related to the field and you should probably ask them about the research that they're doing too. If you can talk intelligently about your work and discuss theirs, you should be ok.
posted by demiurge at 6:37 AM on January 31, 2007

A lot depends on where you are in process. When I was interviewing (HCI/CS PhD as well) it was only at places I was already admitted to, which changes the tone substantially. Are you already accepted at these schools, or not?
posted by heresiarch at 6:44 AM on January 31, 2007

It would help if you provided some additional details, such as in what country you are interviewing, and if these are pre-admission or post-admission interviews. As you can see answers to your questions will be significantly different depending on these factors.
posted by needled at 6:58 AM on January 31, 2007

Best answer: As others are saying, such things are very institution-specific. There is no "standard" format for interviewing for a PhD program. If you're hot stuff, and you know it, you can interview *them.* Ask about requirements, funding, placement history, time to degree statistics, availability of faculty, major grants received, etc.

If you're not such hot stuff, you have to sell yourself, first and foremost, as a *dead serious* person -- not the specific ideas that interest you (though those matter and you should be able to speak to them articulately) -- but a more general sense that you understand what getting a PhD entails, that you have the discipline and intelligence to do it, that you are self-motivated and ambitious but collegial and friendly too. Your absolute "chops" -- level of qualification -- can be gleaned from your application materials in most cases in the fields I know. An interview is to size you up as a person whom the faculty will have to work with -- sometimes very closely -- over the next 5 or 6 years.

If they "invited" you for an interview, expect it to be a relatively formal interaction; dress somewhat formally, and comport yourself like a professional. Bring a copy of your CV to hand to the interviewer in case s/he needs a memory refresher, and have things to ask when s/he says, "so, do you have questions for US?"

I'm also speaking from having been on both sides of this. I interview around 50 PhD applicants a year for a social science field.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:13 AM on January 31, 2007

Interview: I had interviews for 3 PhDships in the UK, all were pretty casual, popping in to meet people in different offices, then more involved talks with potential supervisors. Obviously they will be weighing you up in this period do you need to be on the ball about any questions you get. Have a short prepared description as to what it is you want to do which you can reel off when they plonk you in front of someone. This will not be enough to get you through the whole interview but it will help with one on ones with indidvidual academics.
Dress: I went in shirt and tie, but then my field requires attendance at formal events on a fairly regular basis, our biologists here are scruffy, clean jeans and a shirt would be the upper end of expectations, a tie with anything would make you out of place. So I'm repeating what others have already said, you'll have to figure out what's appropriate to the field.
What you should know: This is difficult, you're not expected to be totally familiar with the field (at least in theory), but being able to meaningfully contribute to the conversation is going to make a difference to whether they take you on.
At the very least you need a good answer as to why you are interested in the field. If there's something you want to pursue specifically then you should be able to describe it and preferably have some idea of what the work will relate to in the field. Most specifically you want to avoid the situation whereby the interviewer says something like 'but didn't Munkiluv already do that work?', however even if they do, then it's not the end! Ask what Munkiluv did specifically, how did it relate to X? where can you find Munkiluv's paper? Make it apparent that you're keen. Being keen is the only thing that will get you through the PhD so quite a bit of value attaches to it at the interview.

I suspect the amount you are expected to know will vary with institution and between academics, top ones can afford to be fussier of course.
posted by biffa at 7:27 AM on January 31, 2007

Response by poster: To clarify: this is a pre-acceptance interview in the US.
posted by waxwing at 8:07 AM on January 31, 2007

Response by poster: Another clarification: I've been called by professors from both labs I'm interested in already, so the "casual chat" portion is out of the way. However, neither indicated what the visit/interview portion of the process would entail.
posted by waxwing at 8:11 AM on January 31, 2007

Best answer: I'm not entirely sure about cognitive science, but PhD interviews in the hard sciences (where lab research is done) at major research institutions go something like this:

Early morning: breakfast meeting with other recruits and the faculty in charge of grad recruiting. (If the department brings in all the recruits at once)
Morning: meet with individual PI's and tour their labs. The PI's will tell you about their research, ask you about your prior research experience, and ask about what you are interested in working on in grad school. About 30-45 minutes per PI.
Lunch with representative sample of grad students and other recruits. The department should cover this cost.
Afternoon - more meetings with PI's.
Late afternoon - wrap up meeting with faculty in charge of grad recruiting.
You might also meet with the department's grad student coordinator, who should talk to you about things like official paperwork, course requirements, stipend/fellowship type stuff, how to work out lab rotations, etc.

If you will be doing lab type research, I would not wear a business suit. It gives a vibe of "I'd rather be at business school and I don't want to get my hands dirty." A nice pair of slacks and a nice sweater will be fine.

Be polite, but be confident and definitely ask questions. Big turnoffs are people who act like they already know everything (they never do) and people who act like they don't care. The PI's should talk to their students about the various candidates and whether they think they will "fit" in the lab.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 8:39 AM on January 31, 2007

My experience with an interview that was part of the admissions process for an Information Science Ph.D. in the U.S was similar with what mbd1mbd1 described in terms of schedule, with the addition of an actual admissions interview with part of the admissions committee. This interview seemed to be more about determining "fit" with the department, as I was asked about my expectations regarding the Ph.D., a bit about my research interests, and why I applied to that particular department. There were also some additional questions on particular items in my CV and my statement of purpose.

As for what to wear, I saw the full range from business suits to jeans and fitness wear, as if somebody had just wandered in from their yoga class. In my case I wore nice slacks, nice shirt, and a nice leather jacket (not the motorcycle type).

Be careful what you say, even in what appears to be informal settings with the current Ph.D. students. Word gets back. Definitely avoid acting like you already know everything, it's a big turnoff for everybody.
posted by needled at 8:57 AM on January 31, 2007

Good advice above I won't repeat.
Have the professors given you the contact information for their current graduate students? If so, you could ask them about what to expect on the interview (what the local custom is). If you haven't been put in touch with current graduate students, at some point I would ask for their contact info-- current students will offer a valuable perspective on the program and the supervisor.
Oh, and you can't go wrong with dressing professionally.
posted by waterfall at 9:05 AM on January 31, 2007

Mbd1mbd1's schedule is similar to what we do at my PhD program. And yes, word does get back. If the grad students take you out for karaoke, don't sing. :)
posted by k8t at 9:08 AM on January 31, 2007

Best answer: My experience (HCI and CS departments, PhD) was pretty similar to mdb1's, but included lots of contact with students and the other admitted students. Depending on the city, they may want to try to sell the area to you, so I had lots of sightseeing tours, dinners at nice local restaurants, that sort of thing.

During the PI interviews, my guess is not just looking for personal fit. Since you're not admitted yet, it's not worth them putting lots of mental energy into trying to pick people for their lab. That will come later (somewhere between the first month and first year of the program, depending on the school's process). So they'll have that at the back of their mind, but you need to impress them broadly, even if your research interests don't match up. Expect them to ask about your research interets. This is worth rehersing in advance, because you're going to be asked it a zillion times. Also, have a list of your projects that are relevent and excited about talking about at length. I got asked what other schools I was accepted at very frequently, and most faculty wanted to opine on what that choice meant for me. In my interviews, I also seemed to be expected to run the show a little more than I wanted in terms of keeping conversation going, but that probably has to do with being already accepted and the event being largely about yield for them. I was never asked specifics about technology, theory, papers, etc, but being aware of what's going on in the field is super important for having nice conversations with student and faculty.

For dress, I didn't do a tie, just had a button down, nice pants, non-sneakers. I felt about right, though some of the women interviewing dressed up a bit more than I did.

Good luck!

PS - getting a call from faculty seems to me to be a good sign. They're not going to waste their time on people who they don't want.
posted by heresiarch at 9:30 AM on January 31, 2007

Lots of good advice above that I won't repeat. An added tip - if you know who you'll be interviewing with, take the time to read up on their recent research. I don't mean scouring their papers, but have a general idea of what they do - at least skim the abstracts. If there's an opportunity, you can then ask them a question or two about how their topic, and let them blather on for a few minutes. They'll be impressed that you took the time to do your homework, and there's nothing profs like more than talking about their own research. :)

Also, if your program has you go out with the grad students in the evenings for dinner and beer, be sure to go and have fun. The grad students don't have a huge amount of input in most programs, but if you blow them off or skip events that people worked hard to plan for you, it may reflect negatively upon you. Also try to refrain from starting barroom brawls, at least until you're accepted.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:26 AM on January 31, 2007

waterfall wrote "If you haven't been put in touch with current graduate students, at some point I would ask for their contact info"

If they do not give you a chance to talk to current students be wary. Good programs that treat students well (rather than seeing you as a low-wage slave to their own research goals for the next 6 years or so) will have enthusiastic students who want to see new people get involved.

The best sign you can get is a chance to speak with current students, on your own, without any faculty present, so that they are free to be as honest as they wish. In my PhD interviews I ended up joining the lab that allowed me the most time to meet the current people, and in retrospect it was the best decision I could have made. If your potential advisor has any quirks, etc. that you should be aware of prior to starting, you will want to know, and good students will quite likely find a way to feel you out to see if you will be able to fit in well.

Post-interview, my advisor always asked us what what we thought about the potential student. She understood that her opinion of the student might be different than ours, as the student might act differently with us than with her.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:29 AM on January 31, 2007

pst - the thing about the potential supervisor asking for their student's inputs? Absolutely dead on. You don't want to just impress the faculty, but the grad students as well. They're also interviewing you - they'll be thinking, "Can I put up with this person for the next few years?"
posted by porpoise at 4:07 PM on January 31, 2007

Great advice above. I've been on both sides of the table. One thing that was really helpful for me as interviewee was to memorize the department members' names, faces (from website pics), and one basic thing about each of their research/teaching areas. That way when topics come up broadly, you can approach the topic professionally or take an appreciated tangent relative to who you're talking to. You can also 'interview' the grad students- who are their supervisors? pros/cons? favourite profs/courses etc. Look to see what kind of grad student culture this is because this will be a great asset in working through the programme.
posted by kch at 9:36 PM on February 1, 2007

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