Grad School Series: Picking a Program
At this point, you’ve decided to go to graduate school and you have applied. This post focuses on the next steps in the process: interviewing and choosing the right program. One thing that you will hear when you are going through the process is that choosing the right graduate school is all about “fit.” This is a difficult term to define, but basically you want the program to feel right. You not only want to have research interests that heavily overlap with your prospective mentor, but you also want to have positive interactions with the mentor and other students/faculty in the program interpersonally. Graduate school is a big commitment and you are going to spend a lot of time with these people – you want to make sure they are people you enjoy being around (or at least can tolerate).
There are many websites with tips about interviewing and questions you can use to prepare. The focus of this blog will therefore not be on that. Instead, it will focus on a couple of tips that I think are useful going into graduate school interviews. I also want to note that interviews are not just about the program determining if you are a good fit for them – you should also be using this opportunity to determine if the program is a good fit for you.
You have been invited to interview. The first thing you have to do is figure out whether you will be traveling to see the school. Many programs have either on-campus interviews or admitted student days. If possible, I encourage you to go to any program you are heavily considering (which should be all of the ones you applied to) in order to make sure it is a good fit. You can get a better feeling for the program in person. Some programs will pay for your travel and/or provide you with accommodations (usually with a current graduate student). If you are on a tight budget, make sure you ask the program about the potential of (some of) your expenses being covered. You might decide not to go in person, but if you can make it work with your personal circumstances (schedule, finances, family, health, etc.), it is worth doing. If you cannot make it work, many schools will permit online interviews, especially as we have gotten more used to video calls during COVID.
During the interview, remember every interaction you have is part of the process. This can be especially exhausting if you do decide to travel and are staying with a graduate student because it means about 2 days of being “on” all the time. That being said, it does not mean you should not be yourself. In fact, you want to be yourself, albeit a professional version of yourself. Because this process is about finding the right fit, you want a program who accepts you as a person (not a made-up version of yourself). That doesn’t mean treat this as a relaxed weekend with friends, but it does mean you should stay true to yourself and your overall personality. Some tips I have within that are:
Be excited about your research! The whole time. Once, a graduate student asked an applicant about their research. The applicant responded that they no longer wanted to discuss it because they were no longer with faculty. This was a huge red flag! I know it is an exhausting process, but you are about to enter a long-term commitment with research, you should be able to talk about it with passion for a weekend.
Try not to interrupt other people. As I will discuss below, this is a good time to listen. Engage in the conversation, but if someone just likes talking, you can let them. If it is another applicant, make sure that you politely make sure you are heard as well.
Check to make sure your social media is set to private (this is actually good early on in the process), especially if you have any inappropriate pictures. Social media can be a way that students or faculty get to know applicants, and you want to make sure the persona you have on social media is appropriate.
If alcohol is available, watch how much you drink. If you are of-age, you can be social and drink with the other students if you feel like it. But do not drink too much – do not try to outdrink them. It might get you in with some people, but you want to be on-top of your game and you do not want to turn people off.
Do not get too “friendly” with the other applicants or current students. Stories about this spread through the department pretty quickly, and you do not want that reputation during interviews.
Try to overcome Imposter Syndrome. It is normal to doubt your abilities or question whether you deserve to be there. You are not alone in this feeling. In fact, even after over a decade of training, I still question my abilities and whether I am just fooling people! It can be a difficult thing to deal with. But remember, confidence is key. And there are usually tons of applicants to the program – if something did not stand out about you, you would not have been asked to interview. Recognize that most people in the room might be dealing with the same thing and it is OK to be nervous. But try not to let it get the best of your self-confidence.
While you’re interviewing, you should also be observing the program. As I said, you are also making a determination about them (this is a two-way street). Watch how the current students interact with one another. Does it seem like they’re friends? Or does it seem like this is the only time they see one another? Do they all seem to enjoy themselves or is it a miserable pit of despair? This is probably going to be your social group, especially if you are moving to a new place, so you want to make sure it is an environment that you would be comfortable in.
Another key thing for you to do during interview weekend is to make sure you are asking questions. In most interviews, there is usually time for you to ask questions at the end. Especially towards the end of the day, you might feel exhausted or feel like all of your questions have been answered. However, not having any questions prepared can be seen as a red flag. It can seem like you are not seriously considering the program. The trick is asking the same question to multiple people. It might seem silly to ask the same question, but getting information from different people can give you a broader picture of the program. If people’s answers are consistent, then it is probably a good answer – if there are inconsistencies, you’ll have to figure out what is going on. Of course you need to make sure the question is appropriate to the person with whom you are talking, but some questions you can think about asking during the weekend include:
Are students assigned a mentor here? How many faculty members do students typically work with?
What is X like as a mentor? Do students publish in X’s lab? How is authorship determined? This is usually best asked to students and the mentor themselves, not other faculty.
What is it like to live here? What do you like best? What is the biggest challenge?
What is the cost of living like here? What is the stipend and/or tuition coverage? If there is one – How well does the stipend cover student expenses? Make sure to ask the students about how well the stipend covers their expenses or if many of the students have to take out loans.
Are there other kinds of financial aid and scholarships that exist here?
Are students usually given a Teaching Assistantship (TAship) or Research Assistantship (RAship)? How soon could I start working as a TA or RA?
Will I be able to teach my own courses?
Do students attend conferences? Which conferences do students in my area usually go to? Is there funding available?
What are the requirements for graduation (e.g., Thesis, Dissertation, number of courses, etc.)?
Do you have any concentrations available (e.g., statistics)?
Is there anything that tends to surprise new students?
What types of jobs do students get after graduating from this program?
What degree would I graduate with? This can be important because the more specialized the degree, the harder it might be to get a job. A PhD in Psychology is probably more marketable than a PhD in Social Psychology, which is more marketable than a PhD in Legal Psychology.
What types of students tend to be most successful here?
And when you run out of questions about the program, feel free to ask the person about their research. Listen to their response and be excited about it! Bonus points if you can ask follow-up questions or have ideas for related studies.
After interviews, it is appropriate to send an email thanking people. Some good people to thank are the interview weekend organizer, your prospective mentor(s), your host, and anyone else who went out of their way to make you comfortable. If you have questions after the interview, you might want to follow-up with people on those as well.
How To Pick The Right Program
Hopefully, you have applied to several programs and were accepted to all of them (this is probably not realistic). But assuming you have to make a decision, how do you make it? There are a lot of factors that go into the decision. Some of the considerations are:
Fit of your research interests and mentorship style with your prospective mentor(s).
The number of mentors you could see working with in the program.
The social fit between you and the students and faculty.
The cost of the program, including tuition coverage, scholarships, etc.
Career options upon graduating.
The fit of the location with your personal situation.
Duration of the program.
I cannot tell you how to weigh these factors – for some students, research and mentorship is key. For others, the financial burden is going to be the biggest factor. And others, especially those with families, might see location as most important. I encourage you to talk through your decision with those closest to you, including an academic mentor if you have one. But ultimately, the decision is yours and you have to decide what is best given your priorities.
Some students might end up in a situation where they have to decide between one or more programs that did not feel like a good fit. If this is the case for you, please keep in mind that not going to graduate school is an option – either this round or at all. If you are not happy with the options you have, I encourage you to think about your goals and also read the next section.
What To Do If You Do Not Get Accepted
It can be a major disappointment if you did not get accepted to a program that you were really interested in, especially after putting so much time and effort into the application process. You are not alone – there are only so many programs and so many openings. In fact, especially PhD programs can be all about timing. You might have been an excellent candidate, but applied during a year with a lot of competition, limited funding, or when the mentor was not interested in taking a student. So, it is possible that the next year could be very successful.
However, you should also realize that graduate school is very competitive, and statistically most students are rejected. That is also OK. As I said in the first post, many successful people never go to graduate school!
If you do not get accepted to a program you want to go to, I encourage you to go back to the first post and consider your answers to my questions again. Is graduate school the best fit for your goals? If it is not, take some time to figure out what you want to do. Graduate school will always be an option in the future if you want it later.
If you still want to go to graduate school, there are a few things you can do. You should talk to your previous academic mentors to highlight some areas that need improvement. Then you can decide how to improve upon them. For example:
If you lack research experience, try to volunteer in a lab or find a paid position as a lab tech or research assistant. If that is not an option and you were applying to a PhD program, you might consider getting a MA first (but realize that might be expensive). Usually MA deadlines are after PhD ones, so you might still be able to find a MA program after a PhD rejection.
If your GRE or standardized testing scores are low, try to retake it. Study hard. Sign up for a class if possible. Try to do whatever you can to improve the scores.
If you are missing a background in the topic overall, you might be able to take some leveling courses at a local school.
If you personal statement or interviewing skills were weak, do whatever you can to improve those. Have people give you feedback on your personal statement or practice interviewing you.
Do something during the year off to improve your transferable skills. It does not necessarily have to be directly related to the area you want to enter, but the closer it is the closer match between the skills. Also, the better you’ll be able to decide if this is something you really want to do long-term.
Taking the time before you apply again to make sure your application is as strong as possible and that this is the path you really want to follow can make a huge difference. Plus, hopefully timing will be on your side the following year. Good luck!