Graduate School and Academic Interviews

Why do Graduate Schools Include an Interview Component?

Some graduate programs include an interview, either virtual or in-person, as part of the application process. Graduate school interviews are usually opportunities for students to connect and meet with faculty and current students. While you would have already made a great impression through your application materials, the interviews provide a platform for the graduate program to learn more about your background, goals, accomplishments and research interests—as well as a chance for you to learn about them. 

What to Expect

Interviews are most commonly used as the last stage in the admissions process for Ph.D. programs, but may occasionally be used by master’s degree programs. For Ph.D. programs, often the interview takes place over 2-3 days on the campus of the graduate program. You may have the option of choosing between a few options for the interview dates. The graduate program will usually cover your travel expenses, lodging and food during the course of the interview. The actual “interview” will often be part of a series of activities including social mixers, presentations and tours meant to give you information about whether the program and the location is a good fit for you. Remember to be on your best behavior regardless of who you’re talking to as the entire weekend is part of the interview process. 

Formats for Graduate Interviews

The formats will differ based on your subject area and the graduate program. It might happen with a recruitment panel, a series of chats with faculty or in an informal setting with current students. It might be all three! Regardless of the format, the interview addresses three core aspects of your study: academic interests, accomplishments and aims.

Some conventional formats include:

  • Question and answer session: Usually happens in front of a graduate admissions recruitment panel. A panel usually consist of the following — your supervisor(s), a member of the admissions staff, a lead investigator (could be a different person from your supervisor in large labs/programs) and/or a funding representative (if in a research-oriented program being funded by an external body).
  • Presentation: You will be asked to present your research proposal or your field of expertise. When asking you to present, they will most likely specify the length, content and any requirements pertaining to your presentation. Presentations are often followed by a small question and answer session.
  • One-on-one discussion: Usually happens with your prospective advisor or faculty in your research area of interest.
  • Informal lunch and icebreakers: Often happens with your prospective supervisor or current graduate students. This could include informal activities such as a tour of the research spaces, social mixers or fun events around campus.

While these different formats aim to help the panel or advisor understand you better as an academic, it is important to keep in mind that these are opportunities for you to make a better decision as well. Getting to know your prospective advisor or the program through a personal interaction will set grounds for an effective analysis of your expectations and what you would like your graduate school experience to be.

Preparing for the Interview

Broadly, the aim of the interview is to analyze your capability of being a strong graduate student and researcher that will complete the degree program. To help demonstrate that capability, you need to communicate your previous research experience and motivation to attend graduate school. To help you do so, the majority of the interview will revolve around your academic background, research interests and goals, as well as expanding on parts of your application. It’s important to thoroughly prepare for an interview and have a strong understanding of the expectations and program prior to meeting.

Do Your Homework 

Before you think about what the interviewer might ask, ground yourself in your research and your supervisor’s research. Even though you would have already done much thinking and research when completing your application materials, you should:

  • Review the details of your past experience: Review the details of your past research projects or other experiences. Be prepared to talk in more detail about the design of your research, failures or obstacles, results and overall impact. 
  • Review past academic work: Be prepared to tell a story for each of your past experiences that you included in your application. You will not be tested on any of your work, but they will be used as grounds to understand the growth of your interests and see your enthusiasm for the program. If there are already projects in place, they can also be used by the committee to analyze how well you fit with available projects.
  • Know the faculty members’ latest research: If you know who you’re meeting with during the interview, spend time reviewing the faculty member’s research interests, their website or reading abstracts from their latest papers. Try to have a few questions ready for them to demonstrate your seriousness for collaborating with them and your ability to understand their work.
  • Stay updated with the research in your field: Since a Ph.D. is an original piece of research, it’s important to keep yourself aware of the recent publications and develop your unique perspective. While you will not be tested on this, having the general knowledge reflects well on your dedication and exemplifies your depth of interest to the interviewers.
  • Check your project or program details: A Ph.D. program is a significant commitment as it often requires 5-7 years of dedication. Make sure you know what you are committing to and that the program, advisor and location is the right fit for you.

Prepare and Practice

To make the most of this opportunity, make sure to prepare in advance and practice for a confident delivery. Read through some of the common questions asked and guidelines for drafting your responses. 

Why did you choose to apply to this program?

Not only should you highlight the unique qualities integral to the program, you should also demonstrate that you have carefully thought about your decision to pursue a Ph.D. You should also make sure to communicate that you are intellectually and emotionally mature for all the responsibilities that will come with the program.

What are your career goals, and how will this program help you achieve them?

There are no right or wrong answers to questions of such types, and there is no expectation to have a perfect career path. However, you should prepare to compliment your application materials and address your future career options, why you are committed to the field and how this program is vital in facilitating your goal. 

What do you believe you’ll be contributing to our program?

Just like you choose the best graduate school for yourself, graduate programs ensure their choices add value to their university and culture. They are generally aiming for admitting people who show a strong commitment to making significant contributions, are proactive and take initiative. When answering this question, make sure to communicate your enthusiasm for the program, and how the above qualities make you a promising student.

Can you describe a research project you’d like to pursue in graduate school?

Questions about research interests and projects help prospective supervisors and the recruiting body see your ability to conduct in-depth conversations and to think independently. Rather than drafting a specific answer, you should be prepared to engage in thoughtful and sound conversations around research topics as research conversations can easily convert into new and creative ideas.

This is a small sample of questions. Talk to current graduate students, post-docs and professors for advice. Do research about interviews for similar programs at other universities. Be prepared for some ‘behavioral interview’ questions as part of your academic interview as well.

Utilize the STAR methodology from below to create polished versions of your answers to the questions above! Learn more about the method and behavioral interviews from our page:

Ask Questions

As with every type of interview, remember that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. Be prepared with a few relevant questions. Not only will answers to these help you better decide between graduate schools, but will also leave a good impression on the interviewers in terms of interest and analytical abilities. Look through this extensive list of graduate school interview questions to curate a personal list of questions to ask from the interviewer and graduate students within the program (if you get the opportunity to meet them).

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