How to interview prospective graduate students

Wash U grad students hard at work.

Wash U grad students hard at work.

Graduate school is a very special place. In graduate school you should discover research areas so fascinating that probing them will sustain you for your life. What works for you will be a complex mix of intellectual area, techniques of study, and intellectual community. I suppose there is a lot written on this, but what is important is that you probe and explore until you find that magic feeling and know this is it! Universities with a robust rotation system make discovery easy.

Graduate programs are unlike undergraduate programs in an extremely important way. The best program for one sub-discipline may be very poor in another sub-discipline. So it is essential that you find a graduate university that has a good representation of things you are interested in. Look hard at the faculty and don’t forget all the outstanding opportunities between the three coasts.

I haven’t mentioned the joys of teaching, mentoring, and outreach, not because they are not important, but because they are perhaps more uniform across universities, therefore playing a smaller role in your choice of an institution.

When we interview prospective graduate students, we also look for these two main things: whether you are likely to be a great student and whether we are likely to have what you say you are interested in. Both are essential. It is also important to interview in a way that is unbiased and fair. Professors don’t want to get off on a fruitful tangent with one student by chance and then rate them higher than another student where they didn’t happen to discover ties with as effectively. The best way to give everyone a chance is to have a list of questions and ask them of all students in the same order, saving tangents to the end of the interview.

Discovering what a student is interested in can be much more straightforward than discovering whether or not we feel this student has the curiosity, the drive, and the ability to make an outstanding student, so I usually ask the area questions first. What follows is a possible list of questions. You should make your own list, perhaps using this as a base, along with others you think up or discover on internet searches. I try to keep the list short and don’t include conversational follow-up questions. I also try to read the file right before the interview so I don’t have to ask things like where they went to college or what they majored in. I obviously do not ask illegal or personal questions.

Also, I am straightforward with them that I have a list of questions, that some may seem repetitive depending on how they answer previous ones, and we can just move ahead if that is the case, but I want to ask all the questions. Sometimes repetition with rephrasing gets them to answer more in depth.

Questions to discover if we offer what you are interested in:
1. Can you tell me about any research or independent study that you did as an undergraduate?
2. Tell me about your favorite undergraduate classes.
3. What are you interested in exploring in graduate school?

Questions to discover if you have the passion and ability for research and teaching:
4. Why do you want to go to graduate school in ecology or evolutionary biology?
5. What kinds of things excite you the most about research?
6. Can you tell me about a time when you were able to be really creative?
7. What kinds of techniques have you learned; which ones do you like; which ones do you find challenging?
8. Can you tell me about a time when you were a teacher or a mentor?
9. What would be your second choice path if you did not go to graduate school?
10. What research ideas interest you the most?
11. Think of two distinct research areas and tell me about research that might bring them together, or enhance them.
12. Tell me about an article you read recently that seemed really interesting?
13. What do you think the greatest challenges to a research career are?
14. Tell me about a failed or frustrating experience in research or classes and what you learned from it.
15. How might you thrive in this department?

OK, so those are my questions. I am sure you have some better ones, so please share! We interview tomorrow if the storm doesn’t keep everyone away.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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6 Responses to How to interview prospective graduate students

  1. Hey Joan,

    This is great, I think you covered all the questions I would ask prospective students, with the possible exception of:

    1. Can you give me a single example of an interesting experiment you could do in my lab? This doesn’t have to be a ground-breaking experiment, just something you could feasibly do.
    2. Name one significant research finding from the last year outside your direct field.

    The interview works both ways. Here are some questions the students should be asking the professors:

    -How will I be supported? Will I get paid off a grant, mainly from TAing, or might I be competitive for incoming student fellowships? If I’m TAing, how much time should this take (hours per week)?
    -How much interaction can I expect with you?
    -Can you give me the email addresses of a few current or former students that I can talk to about what it’s like to be in your lab?
    -How many grad students are in the lab? Postdocs?
    -How many students are in the department? Is there a good dept. culture? Do people hang out outside of work? Happy hour, etc…
    -How large is each cohort of students?
    -What is your mentoring philosophy?
    -Where do your former students end up?



  2. Those area excellent questions for them to ask and great additional questions, though I think the first one is too hard. Now interviewing is over, I’m happy that the questions let the interviewees reveal different sides of themselves. I mostly got through the questions with everyone, with time for them to intersperse their questions too. We have a great crop of prospective students!

  3. Nancy Solomon says:

    I think that I will try these next year – they look like a better way to find excellent and compatible students than what I have been asking. Thanks Joan!

  4. Pingback: How to interview prospective graduate students | iAMSTEM HUB . UC DAVIS

  5. Pingback: Don’t lose focus on grad student interviews! | Sociobiology

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