Graduate school interviews are challenging and make even the most qualified applicants nervous. Interviews are most common in graduate programs offering doctoral and professional degrees. Don't fret if a few weeks pass after the application deadline and you have heard nothing from the graduate program. Not all graduate programs interview applicant finalists. If you are invited for an interview, however, remember its dual purposes. Interviews offer graduate programs the opportunity to meet you, consider you as a person apart from your application, and evaluate your fit to the program. Many applicants focus so much on pleasing the admissions committee that they forget that interviews serve a second purpose - to determine if the graduate program is right for you. Keep your own interests in mind as you visit the campus and participate in the interview. Evaluate the graduate program to determine if it will meet your training needs.
Prepare for a Range of Interviewers As you prepare for your interview consider the various people you will meet and plan accordingly. For each, consider what they are looking for. We have discussed common questions to expect from professors and admissions committees as well as appropriate questions to ask them. Many applicants, however, do not realize that graduate students usually have a role in admissions decisions. Certainly they do not make the decisions themselves but they provide input and faculty usually trust and value their input. Graduate students might interview applicants one-on-one or in groups. They will ask about your research interests, with which faculty you'd most like to work, and your ultimate career goals.
Prepare Questions for Current Graduate Students
It's easy to forget your dual purposes in interviewing, but keep in mind your goal of learning whether the graduate program is a good match to you. Current graduate students are a very important source of information. Ask questions to learn about the following:
About Coursework: What is the coursework like? Do all entering graduate students take the same classes? Are enough classes offered?
About Professors: Who are the most active professors? Who work with students? Do one or two professors take on a great many students? Are any professors only "on the books?" That is, do any professors travel so extensively or teach classes so infrequently that they are unavailable to students? Take care in asking this.
Living Conditions: Where do students live? Are there adequate housing opportunities? Is housing affordable? What is the community like? Do students need cars? Is there parking?
Research: Ask grad students about their research interests (they'll likely enjoy talking about their work). How much independence are they afforded? Do they work primarily on faculty research or are they encouraged and supported in developing their own lines of research? Do they present their work at conferences? Do they receive funding to travel and present at conferences? Do they publish with faculty? How do students acquire mentors? Are mentors assigned?
Dissertation: What is the typical dissertation like? What are the steps in completing a dissertation? Is it simply a proposal and defense or are there other opportunities to check in with the dissertation committee? How do students choose committee members? How long do most students take to complete the dissertation? Is there funding for dissertations?
Funding: How do they fund their studies? Do most students get funding? Are there opportunities for assistantships, research or teaching? Do students work as adjunct instructors at the college or at nearly colleges? Do any students work outside of school? Is outside work permitted? Is there an official or unofficial ban on graduate students working off-campus?
Climate: Do students spend time together after class? Is there a sense of competitiveness?
Remember Your Place
Remember that graduate students might not be able to answer all of these questions. Tailor your questions to the situation and the openness of the students with whom you are interviewing. Above all it is critical to remember that your graduate student interviewers are not your friends. They will relay most or all of the conversation to the admissions committee. Avoid negativity. Don't curse or use vulgar language. Sometimes applicants may be invited to a social event, such as a party or gathering at a bar. Consider this an opportunity to learn about relationships among graduate students. Remember however that they are not your friends. Don't drink. If you must, one. You're being studied and evaluated even if they're friendly. Not to make you paranoid but the reality is that you are not yet peers. There is a power differential that you need to recognize and respect.