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Informal Interviews with Potential Advisors


okokokok

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So, about a month ago I started emailing potential advisors at some of the schools I plan on applying to. If the schools are close by, I mentioned that I would love to visit. If the schools were far away, I left that out. One PA from one far away school wrote back (a really nice email) about how they are excited about my project and would like to talk on the phone - so... that is what we are doing... pretty soon. I am TERRIFIED. I am pretty comfortable with in-person interviews and meetings, but I feel like the phone is so much more fast-paced. I am probably going to blow it and I haven't even applied yet, crap. Here are my questions:

1. Has anyone done this informal phone meeting thing? How did it work?

2. Will the PA ask me questions (like a more formal interview?) or just expect me to do the talking?

2a. If "Yes," what kinds of questions?

3. The PA said I could ask any questions I had about the program, but I really cannot think of anything that's not answered on the website? What are questions people typically ask at these things?

4. Any ideas how long this "talk" will be?

Really, any information at all would be really helpful. Aside from the phone aspect, I am interested in anything related to pre-application interviews / meetings.

EEK!

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I had the exact same thing happen when I was applying, and my advisor (I ended up going to that school) called me for a 45 minute conversation. He mostly sung the praises of their program and told me how great his other students are. There were some questions about my specific research interests, but these we asked in order to tell me about their campus resources. Don't expect this to be anything like a job interview. They just want to get to know you and exchange some information -- you ask a couple of questions, they answer and ask their own questions.

Relax, it'll be much more laid back than you think.

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I had the exact same thing happen when I was applying, and my advisor (I ended up going to that school) called me for a 45 minute conversation. He mostly sung the praises of their program and told me how great his other students are. There were some questions about my specific research interests, but these we asked in order to tell me about their campus resources. Don't expect this to be anything like a job interview. They just want to get to know you and exchange some information -- you ask a couple of questions, they answer and ask their own questions.

Relax, it'll be much more laid back than you think.

Agreed, I have done the phone interview thing, but in visiting campuses before applying all of my interviews would be characterized as meetings. The importance of these things is academic (and too an extant social) chemistry between you and the professor. Questions that might be worth asking, are about the culture of the cohort and graduate students, department support, etc. In other words the types of things that define the professional culture of the program. These are the questions that cannot be answered from the webpage. Good luck, and I am sure you will do fine. If they asked to have a phone interview, they are obviously interested in you already, so congratulations!

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Somehow, some of the potential advisers at one of my schools all got my phone number, so I got to do a string of interviews completely cold and unprepared for it... One called from Princeton (he was moving) one Saturday morning at like 9am, another one called at 10pm one night.

Just be yourself, act interested, and don't sweat it too much. There will be chances to throw in some of your knowledge to impress them, but you can also usually get most faculty talking about their research pretty intensively. Remember, if you choose to go there and work with this person, you will be forming a very close relationship- try to be as natural and as at ease as possible from the start.

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I did a lot of those last fall. It's a hit or miss in terms of getting in- largely it's just politics at the end. But the more professors you can talk to in the same program, perhaps the better. But it can go in a very long way in terms of network contacts.

1. Has anyone done this informal phone meeting thing? How did it work?

Professors will usually indicate how they want to continue the conversation- via e-mail or phone. They usually prefer phone first just to get all the details as to avoid writing a long e-mail. Definitely visit any school if you can because everyone's just better in person. :)

2. Will the PA ask me questions (like a more formal interview?) or just expect me to do the talking?

They'll expect some talking from you because you're the ONE who asked to talk. Keep your answers brief. The conversation will flow once the two of you hit a good spot to start from. As someone said, you're going to try to establish chemistry. If you can laugh at one point, preferably sooner than later, that's good! You'll want your adviser to share similar sense of humor if possible... makes the whole PhD process easier.

2a. If "Yes," what kinds of questions?

Typical ones are:

Tell me about your research interests (Scary! But keep your answers concise if you can!)

Tell me about your project.

What languages do you have? (Don't worry, they won't switch languages here just to test you :))

What can I tell you about our program?

What questions do you have about the program?

How can I help?

A lot of the questions will be quite open-ended. The last ones will especially make any applicant felt uncomfortable because the tone can come off as pretentious as if you're wasting their time. Academics don't always realize this so don't take the tone too personally. If they thought you were wasting their time, they won't even bother to pick up the phone, right?

3. The PA said I could ask any questions I had about the program, but I really cannot think of anything that's not answered on the website? What are questions people typically ask at these things?

You ARE interviewing so ask interview-type of questions. You will get a feel for the professor's expectations, not necessarily the department's.

1) Ask about other graduate students they're advising. This serves two purposes: the attention s/he can give you once in the program and the chances of the PA getting a new student the following fall. Where are they in the program?

2) Ask about languages- do you have sufficient preparation?

3) Summer funding opportunities- what do first and second year students do over the summer?

Definitely ask them about their CURRENT projects- professors change interests too! This also will give you an idea of how busy they are.

4) Try to express your thinking about your fit with the department and other professors and see how the professor responses. Some are quite easy enough to divulge details on the admissions process and whom you should also work with- this signals a very cooperative and helpful professor who wants to work in a team. Others are pretty tight-lipped about other professors, possibly signaling that the professor may prefer to be in strong control of your academic studies and probably doesn't offer a lot of flexibility. But if s/he does talk about the department in general, it's a good sign that you'll get a responsible and reasonable advisor who will manage you well but is willing to let you explore the whole department. In sum, this question will give you a basic sense of the professor's expectations of his or her graduate students. Then you can think afterward if this is the right person at this department to be your #1 professor or is there a better alternative in the same department? I actually switched professors in two separate programs for PA because of their responses to questions such as these and I'm/was actually happier this way. And actually, I think the professors are happier too.

4. Any ideas how long this "talk" will be?

Anywhere from 30-45 minutes, like a regular job interview.

Good luck! Don't forget to stand up and smile while talking!

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