Graduate recruitment in my department is this coming weekend. I’ve interviewed by phone, gone to recruitment weekends, visited after being accepted, and seen dozens of perspective students interview, so I thought I’d share a few tips about the grad school interview.
If you got an interview, then you passed the paper test; congrats! This means that the combination of transcripts, GRE scores, personal statement, and letters of recommendation have gotten you in the door; now it’s your time to shine. Being qualified for graduate study on paper does not always equal being actually qualified and that will show during the interview. The main goal of the interview is to allow perspective mentors, committee members, and/or labmates to assess your scientific interests and creativity, personality and fit within existing group dynamics, and where you actually see your career heading (versus what you wrote in that personal statement). I can’t tell you how to shine, but smiling helps as does eye contact and active listening during conversations. If you are shy or introverted, make the effort to engage in conversation; not doing so can hurt your interview by making you seem disinterested in engaging with potential colleagues. If you are gregarious or extroverted, recognize when you might be dominating a conversation and help pull others in; you don’t want to risk being seen as someone who won’t let others speak in conversations.
Ask questions! Lots of questions; to everyone you meet. Why? This is your opportunity to assess the lab, the department, the university, and the community where you may spend the next five or more years of your life in a high stress work environment. Use the interview to gain information so you may make the best decision for you. If a lab or department wants you, they will make an offer. But only you get to decide if that lab or department is the best place for you.
I have two critical questions that I ask future labmates: 1) what is a good day in lab? 2) What is a bad day in lab? What I really mean is: how does the PI acknowledge success and failure. You may have to push for an honest answer, but once you have one you can compare how the lab functions to what you know you need for yourself to be successful. (The first section of this article has a good treatment of this point.) A colleague of mine has a similar question for future labmates: if you could make the choice [to join the lab] over again, would you? My colleague used this question to assess if the people (s)he would interact with on a day-to-day basis were happy. It’s easy to get caught up in the fame or personality of the PI, but you will spend more time with other students and technicians; if your labmates are happy and successful, that bodes well you.
After the interview, if you are offered a graduate position, the most important thing is to make the best decision for your life. If that is accepting an offer, great; if that is turning down an offer, great. And if you are not made an offer, that’s great too. I’ve been through all three outcomes (multiple times); whatever comes, set new goals and keep moving forward. If you are not accepted, you really will be okay; not going to grad school allows you to gain new skills through work while enjoying your free time. Time away from the academy may help refine your interests and hopefully make you more competitive should you apply to graduate or professional programs in the future. Make the best decision for yourself (not the decision your undergrad mentors want you to make nor the decision in the best interest of a potential advisor), then own it and look forward.