Grad School Interviews: The ONE Thing You Need To Know

You did it! You decided that you want to pursue a Ph.D., contacted potential advisors, applied to a handful of programs and now you’ve been invited by the program for a visit and interview. To begin, take a step back and celebrate for a second because you jumped over a lot of hurdles to get where you are.

First, you had to figure out if a Ph.D. is really for you. Once that was over, you went through the process of seeking out and contacting potential advisors, which, lets be honest, is downright awkward. Then, a portion of those advisors found some reason to pick you out amongst the dozens of emails they likely get from potential students every year. After that, you went through the process of filling out an application, writing a personal statement and requesting letters of recommendation from people who (you hope) know and like you well enough to tell these programs why they should offer you a spot in their department over any other applicant. Phew!

Initially, you’re excited for a lot of reasons – brilliant faculty, exciting research, new city, beautiful campus, etc. – not to mention, the university is paying for your trip! But as the visit gets closer and closer, you find yourself becoming more nervous than excited. You catch a serious case of impostor syndrome (“As soon as I start talking, they’re going to realize they made a horrible mistake inviting me out for this interview!”). On paper, the program is perfect so you are willing to do whatever it takes to impress them into thinking you’re an outstanding candidate so they will give you an offer. Pause: this is where you should rethink your reasoning….

These potential graduate student visits are kind of like going on a date. It might be cliché, but the most important thing is to be yourself. At the interviewing stage, getting into a program isn’t a matter of being a good student; no more than getting a second date is about being a good or bad person. It’s a matter of being the right fit for them and you. So if you take the approach that you must impress at all costs, you run the risk of saying things you wouldn’t normally say or that may not be 100% true and, ultimately, ending up in a graduate program that just isn’t a good fit. In the long run, this will create problems for you, your advisor/lab and maybe even the department. I’ve seen a lot of advice on the Internet about how to be successful in graduate school interviews but the only advice that I think really matters is: leave the impostor at home and just be you.

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