Advice for Grad School Applicants

This month we asked our members to think back to their days of grad school interviews and share some of the best advice they received – and the advice they wished they had received.

Prepare!

  • Read recent papers published by the faculty members (and their colleagues) with whom you hope to work.
  • Get familiar with their research interests and think about how your interests align with theirs.
  • Pack professional attire and comfortable shoes. Interviews are often accompanied by a walking tour of the campus.


During the interview

  • Advisors want to know they can trust you with their projects as they will be dependent on your work for their success. Be sure to emphasize your qualifications as a responsible and competent student.
  • Enthusiasm matters! Show how interested you are and be sure to send thank you notes to everyone you met within two days.
  • Remember that publications are several years behind the lab; Don't assume people are still working on what they have recently published.
  • PIs probably don't know much about papers on which they aren't the first or last author. They were likely only advising and it may not be their primary area of interest.
  • Ask where their previous students are now. It can give you a good idea of how well they prepare students for academic jobs or alternative career paths.
  • Be respectful, be on time, and don't interrupt or talk over others.
  • Be prepared for a bit of academic exchange; you might meet a professor who challenges the way you approach a certain research idea.
  • Remember that it's not a test. You were invited to interview because they think you are qualified. No one is going to ask trick questions or make you prove what you know.
  • A majority of the interviews will be more like conversations rather than typical job interviews.
  • Know that everyone there wants you to succeed!

The interview isn’t over when the meeting ends

  • You are always being interviewed! Be nice to the person checking you in or helping you get a cab.
  • Every part of the weekend is part of your interview. Just because portions are more informal or in a relaxed setting doesn't mean that others aren't watching your behavior. It's never okay to talk negatively about other candidates or anyone else.
  • The students also have a say and will be asked for their opinions of you, so treat social times (dinner, drinks, informal times) professionally.
  • Clean up after yourself if someone is hosting you. Be polite, respectful and friendly!

You’re not the only one being interviewed

  • Remember that you are also interviewing them. Can you see yourself in this setting for the next six or more years? Do you get a good vibe from the lab and your potential supervisor? And most importantly, is the research something you are truly interested in pursuing?
  • Ask questions about the mentors. Their presentations may not be representative of their mentorship style. Be wary of mentors who have not published in a while or a lab that isn't active!
  • Ask what it's like to live on the stipend, how easy it is to get classes, what types of research funding they have available, and how visible the advisor is within the department.

The other candidates

  • Do not treat the other candidates like the enemy. They are your future collaborators and conference buddies. Befriend them. Connect and follow them on social media.  Making friends at prospective weekends makes everyone's experience more enjoyable and less scary.
  • It's not a competition though it seems like one as you are interviewing with others for limited spots. However, it's mostly about figuring out fit. You're not competing on that dimension. If you treat it like a competition, you risk coming off as a bit too intense and misrepresenting yourself.

Be prepared to ask questions

  • You will be asked many times "do you have any questions for us?" Please ask questions! Ask us about the school’s history. Ask about the most underrated building in the area. Ask about their favorite seasons. Ask about the dog park scene. Ask anything! Otherwise you risk flailing in an uncomfortable silence that can get filled with rambling and awkwardness.
  • If asking questions is not your strong suit, keep a list in your phone or pocket to review during breaks.
  • Ask about the stipend, the cost of rents and other living expenses, and whether healthcare benefits are offered. Ask about required classes. Ask about their interactions with advisers and what is expected of them from the program. Ask about the group dynamics of the lab and the program and make sure it fits with your personality.

During the weekend

  • Take care of yourself. Get good sleep. Stay hydrated. It's a fun weekend, but it's a marathon, not a sprint. Strong applicants will have MANY interviews and you cannot just run from one to the next.
  • Make friends and stay in contact with the other prospective students. SPSP is more fun when you have folks that you're excited to reconnect with.
  • Read between the lines. The things people don't say are just as important as the things they do say. People are unlikely to speak negatively about faculty or the university, so read situations where people avoid your question or avoid a specific topic. It's likely a sore spot for the program.
  • Don't be too intense. The department is looking for people who will fit in academically AND socially. Don't brag or exaggerate your knowledge.  Anything wildly inappropriate that you say in front of the students will be passed along to the faculty. 
  • Graduate school is different than undergraduate. Emphasizing your good study skills or success in a class will not necessarily lead to success in a graduate program. You must emphasize that you are interested in more than just continuing your education, and that you hope to contribute to the general knowledge of the field.
  • This is a fantastic networking opportunity so do not burn bridges. Make sure they're remembering you for the right reasons. This is a fantastic opportunity for one-on-one time with the folks you admire. You've won a backstage ticket to some of your favorite psych talents!

Be yourself

  • It's a cliché, but be YOU. This is not a "fake it ‘til you make it" situation.  Put your best foot forward, but if your potential advisor is saying things that you know you can't get behind, believe them and leave them, politely.  The one thing that many people who have dropped out of programs have in common is that they didn't mesh well with their advisors.
  • Experienced interviewers will see beyond the superficial self that you present.

Final notes

  • If nothing comes of the interview season, try not to be discouraged. The faculty know what they're doing; trust them if they don't think it’s a good fit.
  • It may not be a bad idea to turn down a visit. The interview process can be grueling and if you feel like you are wearing down, and you're almost certain you will not attend a particular school, consider turning down the interview. It might give someone else the chance to go!
  • People will look you up on social media. Even if your accounts are squeaky clean, consider making them private.

Interested in graduate school? Check out SPSP’s resources for more information: http://spsp.org/resources/student/applying-to-grad-school

35