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Meeting with a Potential Advisor - Is this an interview?

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Hello, all:

*I'm new to this forum -- please forgive me, if I'm asking a tired old question. Of course, I would appreciate any links to similar discussion threads.*

I was a first-generation college student and now that I'm applying to Ph.D. programs (Sociology, Criminal Justice, & Demography), I'm feeling a bit lost regarding protocol.

Here's my concern: I contacted potential advisors connected to each program on my list, and received invitations to meet to discuss my graduate school plans. Now, I'm just not certain how to prepare, what to expect, or what to say. Of course, this is a wonderful problem to have and any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Thank you in advance!

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It's not a formal interview, but I'd still treat it as such. How this interaction goes could influence your chances at these schools.

That said, congratulations! :D It sounds like you're doing really well in the process so far, already.

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They are informal conversations, not formal interviews, but they will color the way these PIs will view you and how likely they will be to fight for your acceptance when the adcoms make their decisions. You should take this opportunity very seriously and treat it like a serious interview. Congrats and good luck, this is a great opportunity!

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When I did this, my potential adviser mainly talked about his research and what he thought good thesis topics for me would be. It wasn't a big deal, but I think it did cement the fact that he wanted me as his student.

You should go in with a good idea of your potential adviser's research so that you can ask intelligent questions, but don't stress too much. The fact that they want to meet with you is a good sign. Don't forget to be yourself!

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I recently met one of my potential advisers - he asked me to come and see him. It was an informal meeting, but he asked me questions to gather as much information about my academic background as possible. He asked about what I had done before, why I wanted to apply for this PhD, how it was going to help me, what major questions I would explore in my research, what preparations I had in this area, about my writings, language skills and about other authors I had read in my discipline.

He also advised me about some points I should discuss in my Statement of Purpose, which might make my application stronger.

I don't know what prospects I have of getting selected, but I feel this discussion helped me a lot in understanding the admission process to some extent.

Edited by Seeking

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Some academics are so selfless and dedicated. They genuinely want to help you define your research question. I have had a couple of these informal conversations with potential advisors. I found those informal conversations very helpful and I managed to narrow down my research question. Make sure that you thank him or her. They are taking their time to have an informal discussion with you.

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I recently had just such an interview, and I actually had a lot of fun! Here's my advice:

1) Prepare for a real-live interview, but don't expect to be grilled in the same way you would at a job interview. Relax and be yourself. Take this as an opportunity to ask questions that are not answered on the department website. I would also advise against overdressing, but that's a matter of personal discretion.

2) Definitely read the lab website, read some papers, but don't memorize them. I was introduced to lab members, and a lot of their current research was either new or a variation on what was posted online. You're not going to be an expert even if you pore over all their lit., so just inform yourself as best you can and try to ask relevant questions as they come up.

3) The PI I met with was very down-to-earth and honest about the strengths and some of the limitations of the program. I think he and his lab members were trying to get a sense of my personality and general outlook, more than they were out to interrogate my scholarly accomplishments. Don't be afraid to inject some of your real personality into the visit - there were a few philosophical issues (related to the practice of science) that we discussed and I found out we clicked on many of them.

4) If you're given the chance to speak with grad students alone, take advantage of it! I left with a much clearer feel for the program, it's "flavor", than I would have otherwise. These are the intangibles that can go a long way in helping you make your ultimate decision.

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I have had a couple of these informal conversations with potential advisors. I found those informal conversations very helpful and I managed to narrow down my research question. Make sure that you thank him or her. They are taking their time to have an informal discussion with you.

An enthusiastic +1! I e-mailed a prospective supervisor in late november and she enthusiastically squeezed me in for a meeting by mid-December. It was a very productive conversation that generated a lot of great leads and application edits! Regarding the "thank-you": I sent an e-mail 3 days after the meeting and got very positive results from this! These things can be tricky to write, so I'll copy the gist of it below, feel free to appropriate!

Professor________,

I just wanted to write a quick e-mail to thank you for taking the time to meet with me last Friday. As I mentioned, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss my potential academic prospects and research in ___(field of interest)___. As well, I'm always happy to speak to my positive undergraduate experience at __(undergrad institution)___.

At your suggestion, I have e-mailed Professer __(referral #1)____ and __(referral #2)__ in order to explore potential research interest alignment and the prospect of working together at __(prospective graduate university)__. While I don't expect an immediate response (as we've entered the holiday season), I do hope that this correspondence will be fruitful and I appreciate that you lent your name to these referrals!

I hope that you have a pleasent holiday season. I'd be more than happy to keep you abreast of developments, as your time and interest dictates. At the very least, I will let you know the outcome of my applications.

Thank you again for your insight and encouragement!

Warm regards,

___(Surefire)___

___(contact info)___

A few points: I was sure to mention the meeting date and to re-iterate my research interests, to re-acquaint her with our meeting (I assumed that she had met with a variety of prospective and current students, it WAS the pre-holiday crunch!). As well, I alluded to a bit of conversation that we had regarding my undergraduate institution and some specific professors. This part of our conversation was light-hearted and likely unique (my undergrad uni department was small, but we were both connected to it), so I figured that that might be a good mental cue for which I could be remembered. I was sure to follow-up promptly on her suggested leads (profs in similar fields who might serve on my dissertation committee or vouch for me on adcomms) and made note of this in the e-mail. This has the dual benefit of showing her my initiative and letting her know that her advice was being utilized (so she can be prepared to confirm with the recommended profs that she had in fact referred me). I thanked her specifically for "lending her name" as she encouraged me to let these other professors know that SHE had referred me (for me, this is above and beyond the realm of friendly suggestion). I ended with a suggestion for future contact and left options on the table, so she could chose to contact me again or, at minimum, she would hear from me again with an application outcome. This part was particularly important for me; as someone who has instructed university students and written reference letters and/or offered referrals and guidance, I always like to know what the outcome is. This allows me to tailor my approach accordingly and substantiates the advice I put forth. Even if this prof doesn't particularly NEED this feedback, as she is established, I want to volunteer the closure.

What happened next was interesting. I was off briefly for the holiday season and checked my e-mail infrequently, as I had managed expectations regarding any feedback at all, let alone prompt responses. I got three e-mails last week. One from the Prof that I'd met with that said, and I quote, "You are a rare student under 30 who can write a great thank-you note"; she also invited me to attend the next departmental seminar series, to get a feel for the current faculty/cohort/resources. The other two e-mails were from the profs that I had been referred to. Each had their own advice, but they had this in common: they were both positive and they both iterated some variation of, I kid you not, "oh, you're the polite __(research field)__ student that __(referring prof)__ mentioned".

So, yeah, thank-you notes! Go forth and DO them! These exchanges have some other substance to them (the actual interview went well, I was prepared, there is some great departmental fit that is apparent), but I also have no problem being known as that "polite one". I am known in a positive capacity, and this is a good start!

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Good points, Surefire.

At my recent meeting, the PI told me he almost never answers emails from prospective grads, so mine "must have been very well-written". He made it very clear that he considers good writing skills to be essential to being a good scientist.

Take home message: if you're not getting good responses when you email POIs, try revising your message. Be sure to spell-check.

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