Graduate School by the Numbers: Interviews

I survived graduate school interviews this year because of one very important mindset: they’re not just interviewing you; you are interviewing them.

In preparation for my four consecutive recruitment “weekends” (read: 15 days, 27 interviews, 2 committee meetings, 3 states, 6 flights), I scoured the interwebs for guidance.  My favorite resources were Philip Guo and Neurotypical.  And in the real world, I was fortunate to have the invaluable advice of my boss, our post doc, and the handfuls of graduate students currently enrolled in my programs of interest.  As is my nature, and that of many type-A research personalities, I over-prepared [read: way over-prepared].  In hindsight, it came down to three things:


1)   Be versed in your own research experience. If you have none, or are coming straight out of undergrad, be versed in your aspirations for research to come.  If you have publications, bring copies.  If you have pretty figures, be prepared to show them off.

2) Love science, but make sure your enthusiasm is somewhat focused.

3) Interview them. Read some papers from your labs of interest and have questions about the direction of current projects and grants.  Ask PI’s about their mentorship philosophy, and program chairs/advisors about travel/conference support and where students go after earning their PhD.  There are PI’s who will spend your whole interview talking about how great they are: find a way to get a word in edgewise and leave them with an impression of you.


You may learn that a graduate program is not all it was dressed up to be.  This was the case at one of my recruitments: despite my enthusiasm for two particular labs, the program dynamic fell short of my expectations, and the communication between faculty was somewhat disjointed, whereas I was looking for a strong collaborative atmosphere.

On the other hand, you may find that the legendary PI’s who were intimidating from afar are actually quite approachable and invested in developing your career.  I, for one, was totally star struck during a few of my graduate school interviews, but it seems that I managed to put on a good show of my own.


Natalie Goldberg is a Neuroscience and Chemistry addict in pursuit of a PhD.  Since 2008, she has worked as a research assistant at the Portland VA Medical Center rescuing the world from the throes of neurodegenerative movement disorders.  Her musings and experiences in science can be found in her blog.




Have any other tips for navigating graduate school interviews?



5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. phosphofan

    wrote on March 10, 2011 at 11:06 am

    In my graduate program, the faculty took student feedback into account during the decision-making process, so it's important to remember to be on your best behavior even when there's not a faculty member around. Students are looking for people they would actually want to hang around and interact with for the next 5 years. There are no shortage of stories of interviewees going to a grad student party and making a complete ass out of themselves to their detriment. Be aware that the entire trip is an interview.

  2. Natalie Sashkin Goldberg

    wrote on March 10, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Thanks, phosphofan — that really should have been point #4!

  3. Laura Mariani

    wrote on March 10, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    Good advice, Natalie (and much more succinct than mine!). I'm considering updating some of my "applying to grad school" posts now that I've participated in three rounds of interviews from the other side, as a current student being asked to organize recruitment activities and give feedback on candidates. It's not as stressful, but somehow even more time-consuming…

    Thanks again for the link action!

  4. Natalie Sashkin Goldberg

    wrote on March 10, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    but oh, the free food…

    you have a great idea there, Laura. the perspective on interviews from the current graduate students' side would be an awesome resource.

  5. Graduate School by the Numbers: Aftermath of the Decision | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on March 22, 2011 at 5:14 am

    […] Graduate School by the Numbers: Interviews […]

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