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Questions to Ask During Grad School Interviews

Grad school interview season is upon many of you, so in this post we are passing down what we learned in our experiences to address some of your concerns! This year will be unusual due to the pandemic. Our program is doing a virtual visit via GatherTown, a MMO-like platform that makes the event more fun and interactive, rather than just logging onto a bunch of zoom calls. Despite the virtual aspect, a lot of our experiences can translate.

Choosing a grad school is a lot about fit.

We want to emphasize that interviews are largely about fit--whether you ‘fit’ in the program/potential lab and vice versa. The admissions committee has indicated they believe you are the right fit for their program, now you get to determine if the program is the right fit for you. It’s not meant to test how well you can recite the Central Dogma of Biology or derive equations (or is shouldn't be!). Interviews are for you to know whether you want to commit the next 5+ years to an institution that will help foster your growth. It’s your time to interact with your potential cohorts, program administrators, current students, and faculty members. We know it can be very stressful, but understand that a grad school ‘interview’ is not like a traditional industry interview. At many programs, interviews are not meant to weed out applicants. Do your research on faculty you will interview with, but also remember that interviews are a two-way street and that it’s also a time for you to interview them.

That being said, a lot of our most important experiences relied on asking the right questions. Below are some questions that you may want to ask the faculty, current grad students, and staff to get a feel for the university. These are questions that were important to us, so take the questions that feel important to you!

Questions to ask faculty/ potential PIs:

  1. What would funding look like for the next three years? Five?

  2. What are your expectations for project development?

  3. Will I need to start off making my own project or will you assign one to me?

  4. Is your mentorship style involved or hands off?

  5. How often would I be able to see you and get feedback on my project?

  6. How long does it take your students (on average) to graduate?

  7. What institutions have you collaborated with in recent years?

  8. Where have your students gone off after graduation? National Labs? Professorships?

  9. What is the lab dynamic like?

  10. What will be required of me for success in this lab?

  11. How many grad students and post-docs are in the lab?

  12. Have any grad students left before completing the PhD?

  13. What is funding like and how long is funding provided?

  14. Have you had grad students before?

  15. 1st students can take longer to graduate.

  16. What does the mentorship structure look like in your lab?

  17. Do you expect students to TA, take specific classes, or mentor undergrads?

Questions to ask current grad students in the program/potential lab:

  1. How long have you been here, how many years do you anticipate it will take you to finish?

  2. How happy are you? Do you have resources for managing mental health on campus?

  3. Are you stressed? Angry?

  4. What is the lab culture like?

  5. What do you appreciate about the PI, what do you dislike?

  6. Have you gotten the opportunity to take on your own project yet?

  7. Have you gotten the opportunity to publish as a coauthor? As a primary author?

  8. Have you ever felt taken advantage of or have not gotten credit for your work?

  9. Have you ever had to worry about funding your project?

  10. What is it like to live in the area?

  11. What is public transportation like?

  12. How did you find your current living situation?

Blurry photo of Phuong after a grad school interview!

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are there faculty who are PoC on the visitor’s day panel or in the department?

  2. Are there women on the panel visitor’s day or in the department?

  3. The above two questions were important to us because it can indicate the overall environment/departmental culture. If there are few PoC and/or women in the department, you can ask staff directly about this and their responses can additionally provide insight into the culture.

  4. Is your potential PI established or young and ambitious? Do you have a preference for one or the other?

  5. Established PIs often have steady funding, so you are less likely to worry about funds. However, early career scientists are often more open to listening to your ideas and trying new techniques.

  6. Do the grad students you meet seem to be happy?

  7. Folks can spout all sorts of glowing reviews about their program, but do they truly seem happy where they are? This can be a good indicator of how you’ll feel.

  8. Where do grad students live?

  9. Some schools offer grad student housing or have deals with local apartments to have (slightly) reduced rent or other amenities for students.

  10. Are the places pet friendly?

  11. Ayumi is not sure how she would have survived her first year and the pandemic without her cat, Midori. If this is something important to you, make sure you are thinking about it!

Pet Tax! Midori, a couple months after being adopted

Questions to ask program staff:

  1. How long does it take (on average) to graduate?

  2. How many grad students have dropped out due to the stressful culture?

  3. How long is funding guaranteed by the program?

  4. Ask about grad student support systems for assistance, mental health, etc

  5. Does the salary go up with inflation or are you locked in to the same annual amount?

  6. What are the health benefits like?

  7. What fees can I expect?

COVID-Specific Questions:

  1. What safety precautions are in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

  2. Are there any accommodations being made for incoming students during the pandemic?

  3. Will I be able to be in the lab or will this first year be largely remote?

  4. Is there student testing available?

  5. What is this state’s vaccine plan?

  6. When might I be eligible for the vaccine in this state?

Questions you might be asked:

  1. Tell me a little bit about yourself

  2. Explain one thing in science you know really well

  3. What kind of research experience do you have?

  4. Why do you want to come to this school?

  5. Why do you want to join my lab? Why are you a good fit for my lab?

  6. What do you want to accomplish in graduate school?

  7. Why did you choose [your major]?

  8. What do you think are the most important qualities of a lab environment?

  9. What are your strengths and weaknesses?

  10. Why should we accept you?

  11. What are your career goals?

  12. What have you read recently?

  13. Any discrepancies in your academic history that you would like to explain?

  14. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

  15. How do you handle uncertainty? Any examples?

But what if I have multiple interviews?

Some of you might have multiple interviews, so by the end of it all you will be a pro at this! Apparently, students apply anywhere from 4-6 graduate programs on average. That means that you may receive multiple interviews, and they all happen around the same time (mid January-early March). You might find that you end up interviewing at different schools for consecutive weekends! Or, if you are like Phuong, you might find that two of your interviews landed on the same day. This happens. Don’t worry, while schools do try to space out their interviews there is always the possibility that two wind up being on the same day. If this happens to be the case, go to the one you are more interested in and ask the program director of the other school if they can reschedule your interview to another day. Program directors are prepared with alternate interview dates. Your chances of admission won’t change, though you may have less access to events (usually grad schools plan interview weekends with fun events such as touring the city!).

Good luck, we believe in you! Once you’re done with interviewing and start hearing back from some schools, check out our previous blog post about tips on choosing the best program for you!

Do you have more questions? Email them to us!

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