Graduate School Interview Survival Guide « Psychology Majors

Graduate School Interview Survival Guide

Survival Tips for Interview Season



Applying to graduate school in psychology is both an exhilarating and exhausting process.  It may seem like the most hectic timeframe in applying to graduate school is prior to the application deadline, but in reality, attending interview and visit days take up just as much, if not more, energy and effort.  As a current undergraduate senior in psychology who is applying to doctoral programs in Clinical Psychology, I entered interview season with little understanding of the process.  On the other side of interviewing, however, I hope that the following tips will be useful to you in not only surviving interview weekends, but thriving and ultimately gaining acceptance to your preferred programs.

Graduate School Interview Survival Guide


Once you find out that you will be interviewing at a program, it is best to begin preparing as early as possible.  Purchasing a plane ticket sooner rather than later can help reduce costs in the long run, especially if you will be attending multiple interview days.  Some programs assist in paying expenses, but the majority do not help with airfare.  Programs will generally host you with a current graduate student, however.

Aside from the pragmatics associated with visiting a school, you must also prepare a little bit for the interview itself.  I suggest reading some of the recent publications (if you have not already) of the professor whom you would like to work with, as well as coming up with a few research ideas of your own.  Being able to hold an intelligible conversation about your interests and research is imperative.  It may also be helpful to be prepared for a few common interview questions.

Remember though, these visits are not intended to be stressful – you have already made it to this stage, so do not stress out too much!  The programs would not have invited you to interview if you were not a qualified applicant on paper; now is the time to let your (professional) personality shine.

Typical Events:

There are three main types of events I encountered during my interview weekend visits: grad student socials, dinner with faculty members and current students, and the formal interview day.  Each is different, but each event provides ample opportunity to learn valuable information about the program and meet the current students and faculty.

The graduate student socials are usually much less formal than the formal interview day.  Most applicants tend to dress on the more casual side of business casual.  It is essentially an opportunity to meet the current students and get your questions about the program answered without faculty members being present.

Dinner with faculty and current students usually will occur either the night before the formal interview or the evening following the interview day.  Much like the graduate student socials, they are an excellent opportunity to meet many of the current faculty and students in a more informal setting.  Business casual is appropriate for these events too.  When at these events, try your best to be outgoing, regardless of how fatigued you are from traveling, and meet as many people as you can.  It is a great way to learn more about the department culture and observe interactions between current students and faculty, as well as have some of your questions answered.

The formal interview day is what most applicants seem to dread the most.  These interviews are business formal and span most of a day, including several interviews with faculty members and graduate students, as well as tours, lunch, and other socializing opportunities.  Breaks may be sparse during these days, so take every opportunity you have to recuperate and take bathroom breaks.  While this day is at first glance incredibly intimidating, I found the interview days to be exciting.  What better to do than spend an entire day talking with others who have similar interests about what you are passionate about?  I will admit, however, that interview days are exhausting, so practice self-care both before and following the experience.

Questions to Expect:

At nearly all of my interviews, the same questions were recycled over and over.  As a whole, I did not receive any “stress questions,” nor did I have an awkward or uncomfortable interview experience.  I thought about my potential responses to these questions ahead of time, but I did not rehearse them to the point of sounding fake.  Authentic and passion-filled responses are generally the way to go!  Here are some of the questions that I encountered multiple times:

  1. Tell me about your current/past research experiences, and/or a project in which you had a significant role.
  2. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  3. What research topics do you want to pursue while in graduate school?
  4. What mentorship style do you prefer?
  5. Why this program?  Why this professor?
  6. Tell me about some of your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to pursuing graduate studies.
  7. What are your hobbies/what do you like to do in your free time?  (Yes, programs want to see that you have a life outside of academia!  They want to know whether or not they can work with you, as an individual, for the next 5+ years!)
  8. Do you have any questions for me? (Hint: The answer is always yes!)

Questions to Ask:

You are evaluating the programs you visit just as much as they are evaluating you.  Therefore, as an informed consumer, your job during the interview weekend is to gather as much information as you can to help you determine whether or not the program is a good fit for you.  You will have numerous opportunities throughout the visit to ask any questions that come to mind, so have a list of questions ready in your mind.  There are some questions that are best suited toward the professor you want to work with, some best suited for other professors in the department, and others best suited for current graduate students.  Below are some questions that should generally be asked of a Clinical Psychology PhD department:

Ask the professor you are interviewing to work with:

  1. How would you describe your mentoring style?  How often do you respond to emails and/or meet one-on-one with your graduate students?  Do you have regular lab meetings?  How are they structured?
  2. What are some of your current and planned projects? (Note: You should have a general idea of this already from their recent publications, but learning more specific information of the direction the lab is going in is crucial).
  3. What research opportunities will I have in my first year?
  4. Will we, or can we, co-write grants to support and expand my research?
  5. What are your former students doing now?

Ask other professors:

  1. What are some common placements that students in this program go to for internships?
  2. What is the structure of the clinical training here?  What externship placements are possible?
  3. What topics are covered in the psychological statistics courses? (This may not be as important to everyone, but for me, as someone who wants to learn advanced statistical methodology, having opportunities to go above and beyond was an important criterion in choosing a school).
  4. To what extent does the training in this program focus on students’ development as researchers vs. teachers vs. clinicians?
  5. What types of clinical populations do we have access to in this program?
  6. Are there opportunities for collaboration across labs in this department?

Ask current graduate students:

  1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Professor XXX (the professor you want to work with)?
  2. What is the general working atmosphere of the department – collaborative and supportive, or competitive?
  3. How easy is it to find funding opportunities?  How are conferences paid for?
  4. What was your experience like during your first year as a graduate student?  How was the adjustment period?
  5. How many publications are you on, and which author are you?
  6. What is your favorite thing about the program?  Why did you choose this program?
  7. Do you feel like the training as a researcher and as a clinician here is adequate?

After the Interview:

After you go home from an interview, it is generally good form to thank the professor for inviting you to interview.  I chose to email the professors I applied to work with following the interview, and just briefly thanking them and reiterating my interest and fit with their work and the program.  This email does not need to be lengthy, but it should be sent within a timely manner.

Some schools give a general timeline as to when decisions will be made, but others do not.  It is appropriate to ask this at the end of your visit.  On average, from my experiences, programs tend to send out their first round of acceptances between 1-2 weeks after the interview day, but this can vary.  Hopefully, you will soon have an acceptance or two on your plate and be in the fortunate position of having to choose which offer to accept.

As a whole, I hope that this guide to surviving interview weekend was informative and helpful.  Best of luck in finding the right program for you!

Tags: , ,