How to Think About Grad School Interviews

by Jason Eisner (2017)

Don't stress

Don't worry: we already realize you're awesome. That's why we invited you! You have stood out in your past environments, and you stood out in our large applicant pool. Respect.

You will definitely get accepted to some great programs, and we will definitely get some great students joining ours. The interview process is just aimed at making good matches. We want to ensure that everyone ends up happy in the long run with no regrets.

Wherever you end up, our visit weekend is a nice chance to hang out with a bunch of great people in the field and talk about ideas. You'll be spending time with the other visiting students, as well as with our current Ph.D. students and faculty. Relax or socialize during the breaks. We hope you'll have a good time—and we'll all be meeting up again at conferences for many years to come.

What's on our minds?

Each professor is trying to figure out: What it would be like to work with you for (gasp) 5 years!?

What kinds of problems would you want to work on? How would you attack them? Which aspects would be the most fun for you? What would you need to learn, and what is already second nature? How would you make this place more creative and productive? If you work with me, how would you fit into my current rough plans for research and funding over the next few years? Or might you tempt me to go off in some exciting new direction?

Obviously, it's impossible in 30–60 minutes to predict how a long-term close relationship would work out. But if you come here, you'll be having lots of conversations with your advisor(s). So we're just going to try and have some kind of technical discussion with you. We're eager to jump right into the interesting parts—where we manage to solve problems together, or make up new problems to work on. We'll also try to get a sense of your past work, since that's what you know best. And we might tell you about our own past/current work to see how that clicks.

What should you do?

Your job is to get some of us to vouch for you in the admissions meeting. Why? When our department accepts someone, we are committing to giving them an environment in which they can earn a Ph.D. That means appropriate advising and funding. If there are multiple faculty who can see a path for you in which they provide advising and/or funding, then we have more confidence that we can do right by you no matter what happens ... which makes us comfortable taking on that commitment.

Good qualities to shoot for: thoughtful, creative, precise, energetic, knowledgeable, flexible, interactive, fun. We especially like to see that you've got good intuitions and can turn them into formal approaches. Here are some of the other qualities that get us excited.

But don't worry about checking all these boxes. Just follow your curiosity and instincts, and try to have good conversations with us. As an equal. You're smart and have a flexible young brain that can learn all kinds of new things. So don't worry that we're older and have already picked some things to learn a lot about. Just ask questions. We were in your shoes once.

What might happen in an interview with a professor?

Personally, I enjoy a fast-paced and socially informal meeting, often with discussion at the whiteboard. Feel free to pace around, put your feet up, eat, or juggle the toys in my office. (I might!)

We might challenge you with some hard technical questions. That's not trying to trip you up: it's giving you a chance to show off, or to enjoy an interesting challenge. More important, it's an occasion for conversation. So it's okay to talk it out with us if something is unfamiliar or confusing or too hard: we're happy to work with you towards a solution. That's how it would go during the Ph.D. We're professors, after all—we do want that light bulb to go on and we're used to collaborating and meeting students halfway. The top score on my classroom exams is usually about 70%, so I'm not expecting 100% from you either. But I do want to see how you engage with problems that you don't yet know how to solve, because that's what research is like.

We might also ask you direct questions about your research personality or current skillset. We mean no disrespect by this. Frankly, we're nervous about these interviews too. In later discussion, we'll look silly and useless if all we can say about you is "Um, seemed nice?" So we want to have some real impressions of you: what you love and hate to do, how you work, and what special talents you bring to the table. Also, if we have any questions or concerns, we think it's only fair to give you a chance to address them directly.

Who will I interview with? Won't the interviews all be similar?

The weekend organizers will try to schedule plenty of interviews so you can meet many of the relevant faculty here. We'll be feeling you out for a better sense of where your interests and style would fit in. There's no need to prepare by reading our papers or reviewing course material. We might give you a few puzzles to see you in action, but these aren't mainly coding interviews.

Different faculty members have different styles. Some professors may assume certain roles on behalf of the group, such as asking CS questions or career-goals questions. Others may have an individualized approach to each student, following the conversation wherever it goes, or using the written application as a jumping-off point.

It's not unusual to have a bad interview, where things didn't go as well as you'd like. Maybe you couldn't figure out an answer, or gave an answer you didn't like. Or maybe you felt the conversation just didn't click. Take a deep breath, put it behind you, and move on. Each interview with a professor is a fresh chance. Don't let a single bad interview derail your confidence. It happens even to the best students, and it probably wasn't as bad as it felt. In the end, we're looking to develop a complete picture of you, so a single off-track interaction is unlikely to outweigh all your other positive qualities.

Everyone realizes that interviews are artificial situations. They try to extract a lot of important information in too short a time. That's why we pay equal attention to the rest of your application. But it's also why interview conversations are sometimes a bit random or intense. If an interviewer seems aggressive, it's probably unintentional. Under normal circumstances we're more relaxed. We're generally nice people and we are very invested in our students' success (which is why we admit carefully).

Who's interviewing whom?

You get to ask us hard questions, too. You can do some of that during these interviews—it can lead to interesting discussion. And once you get an acceptance letter, the power is all yours. That's when we phone you and really try to convince you to come. You should definitely interrogate us (and our current students) to verify that you'll get to work on great problems during your Ph.D., that you'll learn lots from the people around you here, and that you'll be treated well and fairly.

When will we hear back from you after the visit?

We do rolling admissions, to ensure that we can plausibly fund and advise all the students we accept. There's a good chance you'll get an offer, but in many cases, it might take 3+ weeks before we get an acceptance letter out. This may seem slow, but please understand that there are various complications: while you are twiddling your thumbs, we may be interviewing overseas students by Skype, waiting to hear whether our grant applications were funded, finding out whether any early offers were accepted, etc. Feel free to check in with us if you're anxious for news. We are very interested in you, so we hope that you won't get attached to some other place while waiting to hear back from us. We'll surely leave you enough time to make your decision before the April 15 deadline.

We look forward to meeting you!

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Jason Eisner - (suggestions welcome) (thanks to Mark Dredze, Zach Wood-Doughty, and Matthew Francis-Landau) Last Mod $Date: 2017/08/23 05:36:42 $