Hello from the other side: 5 reflections on the PhD interview process from a junior faculty perspective

March 01, 2020

A few weeks ago, I participated in my first PhD interview weekend as a new faculty member! I just wanted to share a few reflections on the whole PhD interview experience from a junior faculty perspective.

1. If you were invited for an interview, someone wants you there.

When I was an interviewing PhD student, I compared myself a lot to other interviewing PhD students and thought surely the PhD admissions committee must have made a mistake – every other student seemed to have better grades, come from an Ivy league institution, and had more publications. Now as a faculty member sitting on the PhD admissions committee, I help decide which students get invited for interviews. Like many others in the committee, we look well past just grades, schools, and publications and try to identify students who may one day become leaders in their fields of study (we all have our own criteria as to how to best assess this, but that’s a different story). So, if you find yourself feeling like all the other students interviewing with you are somehow “better”, just keep in mind that you were invited because at least one faculty member who looked at your application thought, “Wow, this student is someone who I think could flourish here so I would love to talk to them more and potentially even recruit them for my own lab.” You were invited for a reason. Be confident and be proud!

2. PhD admissions are more stochastic than you may think.

When I was an interviewing PhD student, I thought students who didn’t get invited for interviews were not invited because they did something “wrong”. Now as a faculty member sitting on the PhD admissions committee, I realize how stochastic this whole process is. Every PhD admissions committee may operate a little differently, but ultimately whether you get invited for an interview or accepted will hinge largely on whether one or more faculty members are willing to stand up for your application. So, if you don’t get an interview at a particular school, it’s most likely not because you did anything “wrong”. Maybe the right faculty who best understood your research was away on sabbatical and just didn’t see your application, so you were unluckily passed over. You can try to mitigate this risk by reaching out to faculty who you may be interested in working with and giving them a heads up to look out for your application.

3. Faculty are nervous (and excited) too.

When I was an interviewing PhD student, I was really nervous (but also excited) about the potential of picking a lab. “What if my advisor and I don’t work well together? What if I don’t like my project?” Now, as a faculty member interviewing students, I’m still pretty nervous (but also excited)…and about basically the same things! “What if this student and I don’t work well together? What if this student doesn’t like the project I want them to work on?” As a PhD student, you are potentially committing 5 or more years of your life to working with this new person who you’ve either just met or will have known for a relatively short period of time (e.g. a rotation). But likewise, as faculty members, we are potentially committing 5 or more years of our lives (and financial resources) to mentoring and training this new person who we’ve either just met or will have known for a relatively short period of time! We may be just as nervous (and excited) as you are!

4. Faculty are technically interviewing you for admission into the PhD program, but really, we’re interviewing you for our labs.

Yes, we want students who will do well in their PhD courses. Yes, we want students who will pass their qualifying exams. But courses and exams are a very small component of a PhD. Most of your time will be spent in your chosen lab. So, how do we as faculty members judge whether you will do well in a lab? We think about our own labs!

5. At the end of the day, we’re assessing for fit.

Even the most talented students, when placed in a suboptimal environment, will struggle to reach their full potential. Alternatively, a student who may not have had the privilege or access to resources, when placed in the right environment, can really flourish. We, as faculty, want to accept students who we believe are going to be happy and excel in our lab, PhD program, and university.

But the final choice will be yours. We can give you an offer, but ultimately you have to choose (hopefully between many good options). We want to help you make the right choice for you! So please ask questions, be it about research or just life. Contrary to popular belief, faculty have lives too. And we’ve been through the whole PhD process and have generally done quite well. The faculty who you talk to are a great resource. Take advantage of it.

So, if you are still out on the interview trail, best of luck and fun have!