When you get a PhD interview, what does it mean about you as a candidate? If you are anything like me, you probably stress about the PhD interviews that you might or might not get. Let’s discuss what PhD interviews mean for you, and go into details about interviews in all stages of the academic journey. Generally, any interview, whether at the PhD stage or when you are at the Professor stage, means that the school is quite interested in you. You have passed through several hurdles in the application process, which schools use to screen out applications. For example, you made it through screening based on sheer numbers, such as a your GMAT or GRE scores, and your GPA. It also means that people looked at your letters of recommendation, and were impressed what they had to say about you. It also means that people on the committee read your statement of interest / purpose, and thought it was OK to pretty good. All in all, a PhD interview means that you are 1/4 of the way done in getting into the school of your choice. Congrats!

What Do Potential Advisors and Colleagues Look For In The PhD interview?

At the moment when you are being interviewed, the selection committee is looking to see if you would be OK to work with for several years. I bet that sounds rather strange to you. However, the fact is that academics worry about you as a colleague. You will be working very closely with different academic colleagues for years to come, and frankly you are going to be a significant risk. Everyone in academia has been burnt by someone at one point in their career, and they are going to take the process of working with a new colleague very slowly. Or, at least they should. This means that during the PhD interview, they are not only going to be looking at your resume / CV, but they are also going to be looking at how you act and carry yourself. This makes the screening process during the PhD interview rather subjective, but this subjective stuff matters. What are the main things that people look for during PhD interviews?
  1. They are looking to see if you have thoughts on your own. Can you ask sharp questions? Do you have original ideas?
  2. They are looking to validate your resume / CV. Are you capable of doing the things you say you did on your resume?
  3. Are capable of being a good colleague? Bob Sutton’s work (you can get his now famous book on Assholes In the Workplace on Amazon) suggests that a single bad apple in an organization can wreck the organization. They just want to make sure that you are not going to make everyone’s life difficult or make them embarrassed when you go on the job market as a representative of their academic kin.
  4. Most importantly, they are looking to see that you are not going to disappear during the PhD program. You will be surprised with the number of people that just fade away during the PhD process. Maybe they decide they don’t like the PhD program. Maybe they get better options elsewhere. Whatever the reason, spending months / years training someone to have them disappear is very costly. Most potential PhD colleagues / advisors are just looking to see whether you actually are serious about doing a PhD in Business or related area.

Why Have PhD Interviews In The First Place?

Most business professors are going to admit that PhD interviews are a rather ineffective tool at screening applicants. However, it is the best tool that we have. I personally wish there was some better system as sometimes people that are highly competent are passed over. However, the combined system of screening and ranking based on resumes, GMAT / GRE scores, and online and in-person interviews over the course of a month or two, does an OK job at selecting candidates. Selection barriers, whether it being for organizations or humans, are generally very crude but when applied in aggregate work adequately for screening. One has to remember that the graduate school screening and interview process is not about selecting the ‘best’ candidate, but of vetting out the worst candidates from the selection pool. This logic is different and it is a logic of risk minimization, rather than candidate maximization. Again, professors are just trying to make sure that you do not make them look bad or cause them trouble in some way. If you take the logic of risk minimization, than it would appear that PhD interviews are necessary. PhD interviews are necessary because the applicant can often seem a little bit more different on paper than they are in person. People have a tendency to make themselves look outstanding on their resume. Professors, as would a business, just want to get to know you as a person to make sure all bodes well for them.

What Are PhD Interviews Like?

Again, I have been on both sides of the interview. When you are being interviewed for a PhD position, you will be stressed and overwhelmed. You will feel like you are not smart enough. You will also be nervous. The subjective part of the experience is more important to you. When you are doing the interviewing, you will more focused on screening. You will also be asking yourself about whether you can work with this person. Are they going to be friendly? Are they going to work hard? From the interviewer side, PhD interviews will feel a lot more objective, and you are not focusing on your feelings.

What Are The Stages Of PhD Interviews?

Let me first point out that every interview process is going to be different for every organization and every selection committee. There can be multiple points for PhD interviews. There might be an initial Skype screening with one person, then there will be a group Skype interview, and then eventually a campus interview with multiple people. However, the general process for PhD interviews goes like the following:
  1. The initial screen is based on your paper application. This is performed by a graduate officer, who will just check to make sure that you have all of the required application paper work. Any application that is missing information will be rejected.
  2. Initial paper selection. The selection committee will all look at the applicants, and pick the best people that they like. They will then meet and discuss their picks, and arrive upon a set of 5-15 people that are pretty good on paper.
  3. The first interview is the initial email chat or Skype / FaceTime interview. This initial interview will last about 30 minutes, and will usually be done by the senior person that is on the selection committee, or perhaps two people on the selection committee. This initial interview is just a simple screen to reduce the number of candidates from say 10-15 to 5-10.
  4. A more in-depth interview. This interview is the real interview that might include multiple people, and might involve a trip to campus. You will meet with several people, either individually or as a group. You might even meet with other doctoral students.
    1. For PhD students: At this point, the selection committee is honing in on its top picks.
    2. For Assistant Professors: If you are going for an Assistant Professor position, this is going to called the campus visit, where you will have to give a research presentation for 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours.
  5. The offers will be sent to the top 1-5 people, depending on how many positions are available. If one of the top picks rejects the offer, the committee will move down the list until either the position is filled or the pool of potential remaining candidates is unsuitable.

How Do You Prepare For Your PhD Interviews?

Preparing for your interviews is much like preparing for a first date. You want to do everything to make sure that you seem impressive during the interview. Many academics are not going to care about what you are interested in, and frankly, if you are like I was, you will only have a vague idea of what you are interested in. I would concentrate on the senior scholar’s research to prepare for the PhD interview. Read a large chunk of the research that the people who are interviewing you have written. On 1-4 articles for each person, have notes about what the article is about, what you liked about the research, and how you could build on their research. Then during the interview, you could say, “I really liked your article on X, but I was thinking of doing Y as an extension, what do you think of this idea?” The goal is to get the conversation focused on research, and in particular, their research. I am more energized by research questions, than questions about ‘what is it like at Z university?’ I would also read a few of the latest articles in the scholar’s field. It is not likely that the scholar has just read them, but it they have, you can ask them about this latest research, and what they thought about the research, or tell them about what the research is about. Lastly, I would have thoughts about what tools and assets you can bring to their lab and their institution. For example, if you are good at programming, than you should discuss how you want to applying your programming to the lab.

How Should You Dress And Act During Your PhD Interviews?

The generic advice is you should try to dress and act for the occasion. However, what the heck does that mean? Personally, I grapple with two schools of thought. I would try to act yourself as you want to be representative of who you are during the PhD program. This might turn some selection committees off as they might view the event more ritualistically, and view such actions as a sign of disrespect. The other school of thought is that you should be as polite as you possibly can be, and to over dress for the occasion. The best thing, I think, that you can do is dress formally (business causal – get a suit or a sport-coat and some slacks). You should do proper things like wait to be invited into someone’s office, say your please and thank-yous, and address everyone by Dr. / Professor So-and-So. How is the Professor going to dress? Most likely they will either be in sort-of classic IBM wear, or something less fancy. They will be wearing slacks and a polo / button up shirt, and/or jeans and a t-shirt, depending on their style. Don’t worry if you are much more well-dressed than they are. This is the norm when you go on interviews. Please ask questions about research, and please point out how much you liked the professor’s work. Of course, this has to be sincere, and you have to have read a few of their articles. In the end, you should just try and enjoy the process. If you can feel engaged to the conversation, than that is probably a good sign during the PhD interview. If you can have a conversation, and the conversation is a lot of fun, then that is likely the place for you. If you have a conversation, and the conversation is absolutely painful, consider reassessing the choice. There is one caveat here – extremely bright and talented people operate at a level that you are not going to be used too. You will likely feel lost or uncomfortable during conversations with them. Don’t worry – with time and effort, you will be able to have a conversation at their speed. Or, not…

What Are Some Good Questions To Ask During Your Grad School Interview?

Grad school interviews are always challenging, and it is expected that you will feel uncomfortable. We all felt uncomfortable during that process. Again, it is akin to dating, and you never quite know how their other person is viewing you. That being said, there are some questions that are pretty universal when you are talking to other academics. These questions often help when you are in these awkward situations. Here are several questions that you are free to ask during your grad school interview: 1. What do you research? This is a key question, and any of its variants. For example, you could ask why did you choose to research that? What have you learnt from your research? Where is your research going in the future? What are your research projects? This is akin to asking somebody about the profession, and generally if you ask academics about their projects, they will talk about these points for a long time. 2. What kind of research support will I get as a graduate student? You have to be careful how and when you ask this question as it might come across as self-centered. You probably should just ask the Chair of the Department or someone like that to have the best understanding. Moreover, if you ask junior colleagues, you are likely not going to get the correct answer. 3. How would you handle if I decided to switch supervisors? Again, this is a rather sensitive topic, and you ought to only ask the Department Chair, or someone along those lines. The reason is that you do not want to give a bad impression at the get go. Another good reason you could ask are junior or senior PhD students in the PhD program. They will likely give you a more candid answer. 4. Where have your PhD students gone in the past? Who is your most famous student? You should be able to answer this before you go into the interview, but sometimes you just don’t know what the answer is to this question. The goal is to get to know where they are placing students, and to see if they have any outliers. Sometimes outliers could be a good predictor of your potential success, because it means that if you work hard, they can place you in good positions (ie. what school are they currently at). 5. What would happen if my PhD advisor moved to a different institution? Again, this is one of those sensitive questions that you ought to talk about with the Department Chair, or someone like that. Why is this an issue? Academics move all of the time between schools, and I have seen more than one student end up in an awkward position where their supervisor left to a different school. Rather than asking, you might want to get a sense of how supportive everyone at the school might be if that person left. Would they work with that doctoral student? Who would be a potential supervisor that has somewhat similar interests? It is important to find a place that would be willing to work with you, and has the resources to work with you if things get a bit wonky with your PhD. 6. What is the average salary of those who graduated in this program? What is your pass rate? You need, no must, ask this of the graduate admissions officers at the school. Don’t ask the Professors, but ask the people who have this data (the admissions office). You need to understand what you will make after you put in this investment towards a PhD. You also need to know your chances of making that amount. If the average salary of PhD graduates is $50000, that is not a good investment. If the average salary is $100,000 but only 1/2 make it through with a good job, well your expected salary is $100000*1/2=$50000, and you are no better off than the seemingly worst alternative. Take the time to get these numbers – they will save you from making a big mistake. With the size of this investment in your career, you need to be hyper rational about your choice. 7. Where do PhD students usually publish in this program? This is a subtle question, and you can ask the Professors about this. It is a subtle question to get at the quality of the potential candidates. If the PhD program produces candidates that are routinely publishing in obscure journals that are not on mainstream lists of quality journals, you should look into why that is the case. I am not saying for you to not go to those schools, but these quality publication outlets matter for your career success in the long-run. And, you can predict that whatever those previous PhD students are doing, you will be doing the same.

Conclusion

The goal is to find a program that is both research intensive but also fits your lifestyle. You want to end up a school that allows you to research in your given area, and that the research you do, you can be proud of. That is why that the PhD interview is quite important for you to determine about and make sense of the program. A couple things you should remember during the PhD interview:
  1. You should always weight research heavier than teaching when you first start your PhD. Focus your conversations on research. You will go a lot further with the interview.
  2. The PhD interview is not just an assessment of you. You should assess the program. If your gut-feeling is sending you a signal in one way or another, you should listen to that gut feeling.
  3. Talk to people that might be in the know about the PhD program. Try to get honest and open feedback on the PhD program.
  4. If your PhD interview does not go as well as you would like, get back up, and keep marching forward. Science is a relentless battle of self-determination.

The R3ciprocity Project

Before you go, I wanted to tell you about the r3ciprocity.com project. The project started out as an idea to create a sharing economy proofreading software because, as an academic, I almost never knew how my writing stood, and I was anxious asking for peer feedback. Anyway, I am continuing to build out this software, and make changes to make it better. This project is a work in progress, and it continues to evolve with each passing month. Nothing is perfect on the platform (or this blog). However, this is precisely the point with the r3ciprocity project. Nothing is perfect, and two (or more) eyes are better than one. A little while after I created the website, I realized I needed a way to get the word out, so I started doing YouTube videos and blogging to help out people that were going through graduate school, particularly if you are getting your doctorate. Getting your doctorate is hard, and I just find that there are few resources available that are helpful, open, and real about the experience. Most resources are either just marketing speak from various universities, too pessimistic, or just not real. My mission with this project is to keep helping other people do better research, keep it real, and also try to incentivize other people to be nice. You ought to check out these other blog posts that will help you with your PhD decision:
  1. Are you thinking of getting multiple PhDs and unsure if this is OK? This in-depth blog post on getting multiple PhDs will help you with that decision. 
  2. If you are writing your statement of purpose, you need to read with post on writing statements that actually work.
  3. You might want to read this post about meeting with your (potential) supervisors, and what you should expect in each meeting.
  4. You should read those posts on how to get a PhD (in Strategy) and how to become a Business School Professor. You will find them very handy!
Good luck with the PhD interviews! I know that you will not need it. 🙂

You may also like

How Are PhD Students Evaluated? (A Guide On Assessing The Performance Of Grad Students)
How Do You Get Feedback On Your Writing (During A PhD / In Grad School)?
How Many Hours Do Professors Work In A Week?

David Maslach

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