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Interviewing and Talking with Prospective Faculty

The graduate application process varies broadly and depends on your specific academic program.

The variations might include:

  • Admission decision based only on an online application
  • Admission decision based on online application and interviewing with faculty
    • In the cases where you are admitted to work with a specific faculty member, you should contact faculty directly
  • Admission decision based on online application and interview trip
    • A short list of applicants are invited for an on-campus interview trip
  • Admission decision based on online application and recruiting trip
    • Applicants are admitted first, and then invited for an on-campus recruiting trip

Because of the range of possible application processes, it’s critical to learn about each program's requirements. For some graduate programs, you will need to directly contact faculty because a specific professor will decide whether to admit you as their own graduate student. In these circumstances, make sure to contact the faculty directly. (When contacting faculty for the first time, see the side box below for suggestions.)

It will be important in your decision-making process to determine if you envision working closely with that faculty member and if you have complementary working and communication styles. The faculty member will also want to assess your experiences and how you work by communicating with you. Thus you will want to sharpen your interview skills as you communicate with faculty.

Some graduate programs will invite you to conduct a phone interview or invite you to the university for a campus visit (common in the biosciences). The interview is your opportunity to more thoroughly demonstrate that you have what it takes to be in the graduate program. You will want to show your understanding and enthusiasm for the research that you have done. Some suggestions to prepare for the interview are provided below.

1. Before the interview

  • For campus visits, it’s OK to ask what is expected of you and how to prepare (e.g., if your travel expenses will be covered, how to dress, if you should bring your CV, etc.).
  • Learn about the faculty and people you will be meeting or communicating with. Read about the research interests of the faculty, including abstracts or papers. Prepare at least 1-2 specific research questions for each interview.
  • Review the research that you conducted. If it was published or presented at a conference, reread the paper, abstract, or poster. Prepare a brief (1-2 minutes) oral summary of your past work. What was the research question? How did you address it? What did you specifically complete and achieve? What are some possible questions that faculty might ask?
  • Prepare detailed questions you have of the program you are considering. Generic questions (e.g., tell me about your program) indicate that you didn’t read the basics on their website, and so won’t leave a positive impression. Determine what’s important for you (specific research facilities, professional development activities, student groups, opportunities for collaborations, etc.) and research them online.
  • Determine and list the questions you have about the program, university, and location of where you are visiting. What are you hoping to see and learn?
  • Conduct a mock interview with a friend or an advisor at your career center.
    • Ask a peer or friend (e.g. a current grad student or postdoc who is familiar with grad school interviews) to help you sharpen your interview skills.
    • Come prepared to the mock interview in professional attire and with your materials (CV, papers, etc.).
    • If possible, video record your mock interview. Although many cringe at watching themselves, the video can be incredibly helpful in revealing blind spots.
    • If your interview will be conducted via Skype or another video platform, some helpful tips are provided in this YouTube video.
    • After the mock interview, ask your peer for honest and critical feedback. Listen actively without being defensive and allow your peer to speak openly, which will help you improve.

2. During the interview

  • For campus visits, dress appropriately (usually business casual, but be comfortable); be on time; organize your papers (e.g., résumés/CVs, slides or images, questions).
  • Even for phone/Skype interviews, dressing professionally will help you to mentally prepare for the interview.
  • Speak enthusiastically about your work. Highlight your research accomplishments and/or professional growth. If asked to speak about a weakness, phrase your answer in a forward-looking manner to demonstrate learning and growth, and awareness of your weaknesses.
  • You’ll want to sound positive and enthusiastic. But avoid excessive enthusiasm, which could be interpreted as naiveté or desperation. This is a tough balance to achieve, so practice with others.
  • Listen actively to your faculty interviewers as they talk about their research.
  • Ask questions, using your prepared lists. Take notes to remember comments and suggestions.

3. After the interview

  • Summarize your perceptions of the program, university, and environment. Make a table listing the pros and cons. List the people whom you met on your visit, and write a brief comment for each person to help you remember your interactions. Is it a good fit for you?
  • Email your interviewers and thank them for their time. Follow up if you promised to provide any materials. Even if you determine that you don’t wish to work with that faculty member, this isn’t the time to burn bridges, and you might bump into them in the future.
  • Reflect on your interview performance and make adjustments to strengthen your next interview.

contacting faculty for the first time

Your first contact with faculty is absolutely critical, because you don’t get second chances to make a first impression. You’ll need to craft an initial email message that will clearly communicate who you are, and why you’re reaching out to them specifically.

This can be very challenging because you’ll need to be clear and concise in a brief email message. Provided below is a sample email message with additional suggestions.

Don’t simply copy this message, but this example provides a template that can be used to customize your own initial email message.

Subject: Ecology PhD Program at Stanford

Dear Professor Peter Beak,

I am currently a senior and McNair Scholar at UC Davis, and would greatly appreciate an opportunity to briefly speak with you about your research and the Ecology and Evolution PhD program at Stanford.

I am seeking to pursue a PhD in Ecology, and my research advisor (Professor Emilio Laca) spoke highly about Stanford’s graduate program. I am particularly fascinated by studies on the influence of infectious diseases on population dynamics and community interactions. I have conducted similar research here at UC Davis, and also at Northwestern University using freshwater plankton, and won an oral presentation award at ABRMCS. These are further described in my attached CV.

I carefully reviewed your website, and would greatly appreciate speaking with you on the phone (~15 min) to learn more about future directions of your research, particularly on developing mathematical models. I am available during these time slots. Please let me know if any of these work for you, and I’d be happy to offer more time slots if needed.

Sept 1, Wed 12-5 pm
Sept 3, Fri 12-7 pm
Sept 6, Mon 12-7 pm
Sept 7, Tue 9-12 pm

Steve Lee
McNair Scholar
splee "at" ucdavis.edu
(cell) 650-555-1234

  1. Use a brief subject line. Avoid vague subjects (e.g., “question” or “request”).
  2. Address them by their full name and professional title. Don’t use “Hi” or “Hey” or other informal greetings.
  3. In the very first sentence, quickly summarize who you are and why you’re contacting them. If a person known to the professor suggested that you reach out to them, include that info also.
  4. Explain why you’re contacting them specifically. Describe your highlights briefly. Attach CV and/or link to LinkedIn profile. Include other links as needed.
  5. State your request; be specific. Make it easy for them to say yes to your request; provide ample times when you’re available.
  6. Include your full name. If you’re in a graduate prep program, include info. Include your email and phone.
Bryen E Irving's portrait

"My advice to the next generation of scholars is to never be afraid to ask for help. At times it may seem like brilliance is a singular, herculean effort, but a lot of great ideas have been shaped and molded from the minds of many. Whether it’s your advisors or peers, we’re all here to help. Never be afraid to acknowledge that you don’t fully understand something—collaboration is encouraged and celebrated."

— Bryen Irving, PhD candidate in Physics