I’ve been asked a few times to give advice to people who have been invited for in-person graduate school interviews, so I’m going to jot down that advice in case other people find it useful. I’ve been invited to three graduate school interviews: for a masters in biostatistics at the Ohio State University, for a PhD in Information at the University of Michigan, and for a PhD in Cognitive Science at the University of California San Diego. I was admitted to all of these programs and accepted the offer from UC San Diego. Obviously my experiences are biased towards more technical/scientific/mathematical programs so take this advice at your own risk! Also this advice is heavily slanted towards PhD programs although masters interviews can certainly be similar.

If you’ve received an invitation to a graduate school interview then congratulations! You’ve already made it past the hardest part of the process: just getting your foot in the door! If you haven’t even applied to graduate school yet and you’re looking for advice I recommend these links from Philip Guo (my advisor) or Matt Might.

The in-person interview is meant to serve as a confirmation that you have the potential to be a good researcher. Admitting a student to a PhD program is a sort of academic marriage proposal! By admitting you, your advisor is committing to spending four, five, or six years working with you, plus the hundreds of thousands of dollars they will spend on training you. Therefore, they want to make sure that you can both work well together over long periods of time. Considering the investment they want to make in you, of course it’s reasonable that they want to meet you in person.

First and foremost: understand that a graduate school interview is a job interview, and all of the standard job interview advice applies. Be polite, punctual, gracious, and wear nice clothes that you’ll be comfortable in all day.

Many graduate interviews are events that last two or three days, which in addition to the interviews themselves include meals, tours, and other social activities with professors, current graduate students, and your fellow interviewees. The people that you meet at these events will likely ask you about your research interests, since it’s a good basis for getting to know you and why you’re interested in graduate school. It can be a good idea to polish the usual internal scripts you have about your interests. Some people might call this internal script your elevator pitch, but for me it’s more like what I tell my family or friends when they ask me about my work. Having something to say about your research interests can help the professors that you meet either understand that you might be interested in working with them, or it can help them direct you to professors who would be interested in working with you.

The professors you’re going to be interviewing with are certainly interested in you (since they want to hire you), so it’s good to explicitly indicate that you’re interested in working with some of them. In all of my graduate school visits I was extremely sure who I wanted to work with before I applied, so I was already familiar with the work of my top-choice advisor. This isn’t the case for all applicants and that’s perfectly okay and widely expected. If you know which professors you’re going to be interviewing with ahead of time, take a look at their most recent publications (you can usually find these on their personal website) and at a few of their top-cited publications (you can usually find these by searching for the professor’s name of Google Scholar). If you don’t know who you’re going to be interviewing with, then you should do the same but for two or three professors that you think you may want to work with. You don’t need to have these publications memorized, but it’s good to read the abstracts and a select handful of the papers that are most exciting and interesting to you. It’s very possible that their past research won’t come up at all during the interview, but it’s good for you to have a few talking points to fall back on to keep your conversation with them moving along.

Most importantly these interviews and the events surrounding them are designed to be fun! If you’ve specialized your education to the point where you’re attending one of these interviews, then the professors you meet and the other applicants are likely to be in their same field as you for a long time. That means it’s great opportunity to make friends! You were invited because the admissions committee was interested in meeting the real you, so relax and be yourself.

Good luck with the rest of the admissions process! If you have any questions or you feel like I’ve left anything out, please get in touch on Twitter or send me an email.