Interview tip: questions to ask

Recently, a student asked me how to best prepare for graduate school interviews.

Triggered. Instantly, I remembered what it was like to be in the hot seat, hoping to impress professors and stave off dead air during meetings.

Being the neurotic person that I am, I looked into my grad school application archives to see if I had any words of wisdom. Lo and behold, Past Me had culled together a list of questions to ask during interviews, organized by person (faculty or graduate student) and topic. I’ve included them after the jump, in the hopes that it may help others out there.

(As an aside, the aforementioned student did wonderfully during the interview, gaining an acceptance to a prestigious business school PhD program. I’m confident, however, that these interviews always turn out exactly as they should, whether or not you come armed with a thousand questions. I’ve left interviews knowing that no amount of preparation could’ve prevented the disconnect — but that the awkwardness had helped me dodge a bullet. I simply was not comfortable in that department. These meetings help determine your fit with an organizational culture, so walk in with an open mind and a discerning eye.)

Please remember that these questions are a result of brainstorming, consulting other resources, and intense anxiety — basically my stream-of-consciousness before going to visits. “Read the room” and use your best judgment in determining which questions to ask, and when.

Questions to Ask

What is the greatest strength and weakness of the program?

What is most unique about the program? What surprised you the most?

What do you wish you’d known about this program before entering?

What makes a student successful in the program?

What future changes do you wish to see in this profession?

What’s the general climate of the division and department?

What are faculty/student relations like?

How competitive vs. cooperative are grad students in this program?

To what extent does the training in this program focus on students’ development as researchers vs. applied scientists vs. teachers?


Why did you choose to be faculty at this particular school?


What is your mentoring style?

What opportunities are there to get involved in research collaborations with other labs?

What type of collaboration (if any) occurs among the faculty (or between other faculty if a student has a strong interest in another area)?

Is it possible and/or typical for students to work with more than one faculty member? How does this work?

Do you anticipate any leaves of absence? If so, what mechanisms are in place? (Note: this can be a sensitive question to ask, but it can also be hugely important if you are geographically tied to a place. I would recommend really feeling out the organization, possibly checking in with students, before actually asking this question.)

If tenure-track, what challenges do you anticipate that are unique to your position?


How does one earn authorship in this lab?

Do you have existing datasets?


Are there opportunities for summer funding?

What supports exist in the department for students wishing to write their own grants?

Are there fellowships available?


What role do you see me having in this lab if I come here?

Is there a grant on which I could work?

How do students select research topics for their own thesis/dissertation, and what role do you play in this process?

To what extent can my interests as a student be incorporated into the broader interests of your lab, vs. how much would I be expected to carry out an existing line of research?

What are the current projects in this lab, and in what directions do you expect the lab research to go over the next five years?

Do you have an idea of what organizations you would want to work with? (Existing vs. new relationships; government vs. business vs. non-profit; industries)


How many classes are typically offered to graduate students in (statistics, methods, therapeutic techniques, etc.) each semester/year?

What type of statistical training do you offer to graduate students?

What types of statistical consultation are available on campus?


What practicum opportunities are offered?

Do most students finish their dissertation before internship or during the internship year?

How are internships selected?

How much time can be devoted to applied work? What is the expectation for time commitment?

What role do faculty play in securing internships for their students?

What type of internship placements do students get?


What type of jobs have graduating students from the program received in the past few years?

Graduate Students


Is it possible to live comfortably on the stipend salary in this town?

What areas are best for grad students to live?

What is life like here for single students? Partnered students?

Is this an easy place to meet other people our age? How supportive is the community?

What is the diversity like in the area?


What are the expectations and norms for completion of various program milestones – e.g., Master’s, comps, dissertation, etc?


What is it like to work with the advisor that you are applying to work with (e.g., how often does your advisor meet with you? Do you feel like your advisor is either unavailable, or a micromanager?).


What kinds of resources/supports are available to minority students at this university/program?

What sorts of teaching opportunities exist here for graduate students? Is there training for new teachers as part of the program?


Is funding guaranteed for the time I am here? For how long is it guaranteed?