It’s the beginning of the new year, and with it comes graduate admissions time. If you are currently applying for graduate programs in the sciences, you hopefully have received or will soon receive one or more invitations to interviews or recruitment events. If you’re wondering what such an invitation means, how these events work, and how to best prepare yourself, read on.
First off, if you got invited, congratulations! You are well on your way to graduate school. For most programs, if you get invited to an interview, you have at least a 50% chance of getting admitted. Programs rarely invite more than twice the number of candidates they want to offer admission to, and frequently they plan to offer admission to nearly everybody they invite. Thus, a 50% chance of admission is actually a fairly conservative lower bound. Your chances may very well be substantially higher .
In fact, it’s important for you to realize that most programs are probably more worried about you not accepting their offer than you should be worried about them not making you an offer. Most graduate programs lose approximately half their candidates at the acceptance stage, i.e., the programs offer admission to twice as many students as actually end up joining the program. Therefore, you may be surprised to what an extent an interview weekend can turn into an advertising event for the school rather than an evaluation of your abilities to join the program.
However, since the recruitment event may nevertheless contain a genuine evaluation component, you’d do well to prepare yourself properly for that aspect of the event. Below follow a few suggestions.
Relax. The stakes really aren’t that high, and if you just present yourself as a normal and reasonable person chances are good you’ll get admitted. In particular, if you try to sell yourself too hard or appear overly eager you may make a worse impression than if you present yourself simply as an average prospective student. Remember, at an acceptance rate above 50%, many of the average prospective students get accepted.
Prepare for one-on-one interviews with faculty. If your program is selective, then the key action happens in one-on-one meetings with faculty members. You will probably be scheduled to meet with 3-5 different faculty members. Prepare yourself for these meetings. Figure out what the faculty members are working on and read some of their recent papers as well as some of the classic papers that made them famous . Keep in mind that stuff they have published three years ago may not be something they are working on today.
Make the faculty talk. Don’t assume you know what faculty members are interested in just because you have read some of their papers. Most active scientists are particularly excited about the work they are doing right now, or are planning to be doing next month. So, ask the faculty members what they are currently working on, what the main directions are for the lab, and for what projects they are currently recruiting students .
Have broad interests. You will be asked what kinds of topics you are interested in. I would recommend a broad answer to this question, such as “I’m interested in host-pathogen interactions” or “I’m interested in microbial ecology” or “I’m interested in computational systems biology.” Most faculty members who recruit graduate students will have a specific project for which they are looking for a suitable candidate, and you are unlikely to guess what exactly they have in mind. If your answer is too specific (“I want to test this particular hypothesis, using methods A, B, and C in this particular experimental framework”) you risk giving the impression that you have little flexibility to adapt to the needs and interests of the lab. Of course, if you are asked explicitly to describe a particular study you might want to carry out, then describe one in detail.
Have a clear vision. It’s important to strike a balance between having broad interests and having no focus. In general, students who know what they want and know what their strengths and weaknesses are appear more competitive. If you see yourself primarily as a computational person, say so. If you want or don’t want to work with particular model systems, say so. (E.g., saying something like “I really want to work with bacteria” or “I am not particularly interested in microbes” is perfectly fine.) If you have one or two labs you are most excited about, say so.
Express a clear interest in one or a few labs. The best strategy here depends on the type of graduate program you’re interviewing with. If the program has a rotation system, then you need to be able to list a few labs that you could rotate in, otherwise you won’t look like a good fit for the program. If the program doesn’t have a rotation system and instead admits students directly into particular labs, then it’s Ok to be focused on one particular lab, or maybe two labs. For the latter types of programs, realize however that if you want to join lab A but they don’t have a slot for you then you may not get admitted, even if lab B would have been a perfectly reasonable choice for you and you for them.
And finally, if there’s a social event with alcohol involved, don’t get mindlessly drunk and start behaving inappropriately. Even though I’ve known students to do so and get admitted nevertheless.
Update (01/15/2014): Several additional recommendations have been mentioned to me since I posted this. I'll keep adding relevant information below.
For your one-on-one interviews, have answers for the following two questions: 1. Why do you want to get a PhD in ...? 2. Why do you want to join this program/attend this university? Also, be prepared to give a 2-5 minute summary of your past research and be able to expand this to 20-40 minutes if prompted by an interviewing faculty member.
 Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure, unless you have heard the inside scoop from a member of this year’s admissions committee. Just because a program admitted 80% of their candidates last year doesn’t mean they won’t reduce their admissions pool to 50% this year and vice versa.
 You find these papers by searching for the faculty member’s publications on Google Scholar or Web of Science, sorting by number of citations (Google Scholar does this automatically), and looking at the most highly cited papers on which the faculty member was either first or last author.
 The last question may not be applicable if it’s unlikely you would join that person’s lab. Some of your one-on-one interviews will likely be with members of the admissions committee or simply other faculty members that were willing to do a few interviews. When you interview with those faculty, don’t pretend you’d want to join their lab if you know you never would. Do, however, ask the questions about current work and main directions of the lab. Those questions are always appropriate.