With many deadlines to apply for PhD programs now past, those individuals who applied for admission this cycle may be curious about the interview process or may be thinking through back up plans if they are not accepted into a program. In the final part of a three-part series on applying to graduate school, Fernanda Andrade, a fourth-year PhD student at Duke University, and Katie White Austin, a fifth-year PhD student at the University of Texas at Dallas, discussed what happens after applications are submitted as well as tips for preparing for and completing interviews during the Free Form Friday Session on Dec. 3, 2021. SPSP student members who attended this session also heard from Sarah Kwiatek, a lab manager and lab technician at Duke University, who discussed other options students may have if they are not accepted to PhD programs during this application cycle. For those students who were not able to attend the session, the SPSP co-editors have recapped key insights below.
What happens after the application is submitted?
- Many programs begin reviewing applications during their winter break or immediately after. Often, prospective students who are being considered for admission will hear back in January or early February with an invitation to interview. This may vary by schools and programs. Other prospective research advisors may reach out just a couple weeks after applications are submitted in order to schedule a brief preliminary phone interview.
- When a prospective student is invited to partake in a formal interview day, the program will reach out with more details including whether the interview day(s) are taking place online or in person, the dates and times, and how travel can be arranged. Typically, prospective students will not receive a detailed schedule for a program’s interview day(s) until a couple days before the interview.
How can prospective students prepare for an interview?
- Interviews may vary depending on the type of program and by the school. However, prospective students should expect to answer questions about who they are, their research experiences thus far, what their latest work is about, and hobbies/personal interests. As such, students should practice talking aloud about these topics. Further, Katie and Fernanda noted that students should feel prepared to talk about anything that they have listed on their CV or application materials as faculty members (including those who are not directly interviewing students for their own lab) will likely have access to one’s CV and may want to hear about specific projects listed.
- As part of preparing for interviews, prospective students should check their schedules ahead of time and read up on the individuals they will be interviewing with (i.e., look at their lab websites and/or Twitter profiles as well as read recently published papers).
One of the key components of interviewing for a PhD program will be the opportunity prospective students have to ask questions. Applicants will be expected to ask questions to faculty members and current graduate students. If a prospective student doesn’t ask any questions during their interview days, this can come across as disinterest, lack of preparedness, or naivety. The SPSP Student Committee recently developed a list of sample questions to ask graduate students and potential advisors, which is available here.
What should prospective students consider during and after the interview?
- Because the admissions committee and a prospective advisor will have already reviewed prospective students’ skills and research experiences, the interview day is used heavily to gauge whether a prospective student would be a nice, polite, and pleasant person to work with and have in the department for years to come. As such, it is imperative that prospective students are cordial to everyone they will meet. This includes any staff members, graduate and undergraduate students, and faculty members. Often times, these individuals are asked to evaluate prospective students (formally or informally), so prospective students should expect that they are being evaluated at all times.
- Following the interview, prospective students should send a short thank you email to each person they met (all faculty members, graduate students, lab managers, etc.).
- Prospective students may be extended an offer a couple weeks after an interview. Other times, if a student is waitlisted or if a department has multiple interview weekends, it may take longer.
What happens if a prospective student doesn’t hear back from a program?
- If a prospective student doesn’t hear back after applying or after an interview, it does not mean that they are no longer being considered. It could be that they have been placed on a waitlist. If that is the case, waitlisted applicants may not hear back about a decision until March or April. The deadline to accept an offer across the United States is April 15. Therefore, some students may not hear back from schools until this time.
- This can also be an opportunity to consider alternative paths. It is worth noting that having a non-linear trajectory is common. In other words, many scholars did not go straight from their undergraduate degree to their PhD to having an academic job (for examples, see Vuletich and Tissera, 2020 and Austin, 2020). There are many other paths available that can be used to gain important skills and experiences before applying again. During the session, Sarah Kwiatek shared that she was not ready to start graduate school right after her undergraduate education and wanted time and experience working a typical 9-5 job. So, she focused on finding a location and began applying for lab manager positions in that area. Sarah’s experience as a lab manager and lab technician have helped her determine her own research interests, gain important statistical, interpersonal, and writing skills, and obtain insight into what a full-time research job entails.
After applications are submitted, many prospective students can find themselves in a time of uncertainty which can be stressful. Interviewing for programs and deciding on potential back up plans can be challenging, but the SPSP Student Committee hopes that these tips and suggestions are helpful in preparing for next steps in the application process. The slides and a recording of this session are now available here.