6 Ph.D. Program Interview Tips

So you got the interview—congratulations! This is your chance to stand out among increasingly competitive Ph.D. applicant pools. But, how do you seal the deal? As you’re scrambling to practice your responses and decide on an outfit, take these tips into consideration.

1) Be Conscious of Your Posture

This may not be the first thing you consider when prepping, but it’s the first thing your interviewer notices. When the interviewer comes to greet you, stand up and firmly shake his or her hand. While interviewing, smile, sit up straight, speak clearly, slow down (talking fast indicates nervousness), and sustain eye contact. Mirroring the posture of your interviewer discreetly (such as by crossing your leg over your knee when the interviewer does) can also help build rapport on an unconscious, psychological level.

2) Prove That You Fit

Interviewers need to know you’ve done your research and see their program as a strong fit for your research agenda. Indeed, one of the questions you’ll almost certainly be asked is Why us? Be prepared to draw connections between the work of faculty at the institution and research you have done in the past and are interested in pursuing. Though interviewers are trying to determine your fit with the program, they are also trying to see whether their program is a strong fit for you. Cite faculty members (at least two, since someone could be retiring or transferring schools) you’d like to work with. Mention resources, labs, coursework, special equipment, or other offerings specific to the program to prove that you’ve put a lot of thought into your choice.

3) Know Your Stuff

This one can’t be overstated. Come prepared to discuss relevant research in your field, your own research, and the research of those you might be working with. Be aware of the most pressing issues or latest developments, and be ready to discuss recent work on these issues. In discussing your own research agenda, show its unique and potential value to the field so you can stand out from other applicants proposing similar ideas. Finally, read some work of faculty you have expressed interest in working with and be prepared to intelligently discuss it. Even if you intend to challenge their research in grad school, do not attack it in the interview. If your research project is based entirely on challenging the research, gracefully discuss your concerns with it and where you see room for improvements while still reinforcing the quality of the research and the value it has brought to your own work.

4) Ask Questions

Nothing says I’m uninterested like having no questions during an interview. A Ph.D. program is intensive, takes a good chunk of time (typically 5+ years), and not everyone finishes. You want to know as much as possible about each program as you make your final decision, and programs want to know you are considering them seriously enough to brainstorm the sorts of questions someone who intends to commit to the program would ask. Ask about potential new hires, department culture, travel opportunities, language programs, lab access, etc. If it’s not already explained on the website, you can ask about funding and the obligations associated with it (ex. teaching assistantships) as well as scholarship, fellowship, and grant opportunities. In fact, some funding opportunities may require applying before being admitted, so inquiring now can be to your benefit.

5) Be Yourself

Cliché, yes. Outdated, no. Students often feel the need to portray themselves a certain way to get into grad school. However, stretching the truth during the interview—or worse, lying—can make the next 5+ years messy. Interviewers are less concerned with how sophisticated and well-read you are than how motivated, prepared, and enthusiastic you are to pursue research. If you haven’t read a publication your interviewer cites, don’t pretend you have—but do express that you would be interested in reading it. Jot down titles and names referred to you during the interview to demonstrate your interest, and actually go and investigate them later. Following up about your thoughts on these when you write your thank-you note can convey your eagerness to learn.

6) Say Thank You

Send a thank-you email to your interviewer(s) within 24 hours of the interview. Keep it short, but do tailor it to the specific conversation (i.e., don’t recycle the same note across programs). Reiterate your interest in the program, and explain how your interest has been strengthened by the things you found out while asking questions during the interview.

The interview is a significant milestone during the Ph.D. program application process. Rather than see it as another hurdle to overcome, see it as an opportunity to let your qualifications shine. Good luck!