• This has become our largest and most active forum because the physics GRE is just one aspect of getting accepted into a graduate physics program.
  • There are applications, personal statements, letters of recommendation, visiting schools, anxiety of waiting for acceptances, deciding between schools, finding out where others are going, etc.

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Postby clandarkfire » Thu Jan 07, 2016 8:55 pm

I thought most physics/astro Ph.D programs didn't do interviews, but I was recently contacted by one of the programs I applied to about scheduling a Skype interview. What sorts of questions should I expect for this sort of interview? Should I be prepared to talk about the professor's work and/or that of other people in the department? I expect I'll be asked about past research experiences, but I want to avoid being redundant with what I've already discussed in my SoP.

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Re: Interviews

Postby Dishsoap » Thu Jan 07, 2016 10:26 pm

I just had an interview on Tuesday. This one was in person, but I've also had one via Skype before.

It will be difficult to say things that aren't in your SOP. They will probably ask you what research you've done, what responsibilities you've had, and why you're interested in your particular program (and a particular professor, if you mentioned one in your SOP). You should definitely know a bit about the professor's work (enough to show you did your research) and why you'd be a good fit for the program. I'll give you the same advice one of my professors gave to me before my Skype interview: they've seen all that you've had to offer on your application, they just want to see the person behind the numbers because they're hiring people, not statistics.

Although, my recent interview was me sitting with a professor while he drilled me on every aspect of my most recent research project. Down to individual programming details. I was not prepared for that. So it really could go either way! Best of luck! 8)

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Re: Interviews

Postby tpatt » Fri Jan 08, 2016 11:19 am

Congratulations, that's an excellent sign.

I think Dishsoap is right, treat it like a job interview. Be prepared with knowledge about their program and specific professors research. But they want you to show interest in them as well, prepare some questions for the interviewers to show that you are curious about aspects of their program and, yes, be absolutely prepared with information about any research you've done.

What program invited you for the interview?

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Re: Interviews

Postby TakeruK » Fri Jan 08, 2016 12:11 pm

My only real interview (i.e. one that happened before learning about the admission decision) was a Skype interview with U Washington Astro. I don't know if you ever interviewed for research positions (e.g. for undergraduate research positions) in the past, but my experience was like the many other undergrad research interviews.

There were 2 profs on the interview. We spent the first 10-15 minutes just talking about their own research and the U Washington Astro program. They spoke almost exclusively for the first 10-15 minutes, with only me saying things that acknowledged understanding (like "yes" or "cool" etc.) and asking a few small clarification questions.

The second half was more like a regular interview except the questions were not particularly probing. They asked me why I was interested in astronomy, what research topics excited me, and why U Washington specifically. I basically just repeated everything in my SOP and CV, but with more details. Of course, I didn't recite my SOP (this interview took place 12 weeks after the school deadline so I didn't remember it anyways). But my point is that you should not worry about repeating yourself. In fact, it is very unlikely they will even remember the details of your SOP (they might have glanced at it quickly before calling you though). So, when you answer the questions, don't assume they have the SOP well read---answer it as if they are asking you for the first time. (Also, if there are lots of applicants and a large committee, the faculty interviewing you may not all have been assigned your application package in the first stage).

Of course, with that said, you should really be prepared to answer deep questions too. They might be scanning your CV to find topics for questions. So, you should practice 30-second elevator pitches for each of the research project you've done. You might know your own work well enough but I find that interviews are a little scary and having that 30 seconds memorized is a good confidence booster. You should also be able to answer basic questions about your work:

1. What methods did you use? Why did you choose those methods? What other methods are possible and why didn't you choose them?

2. What is the main research question you want to answer? Why is this important?

3. What is the big picture question? Where does your project fit into the field's understanding of this topic?

4. What is your main result? What does it mean? What implications does it have, if any, for the answers to the questions in 2 and 3?
--- If you don't have any results yet, be prepared for questions like "If you did/didn't find X, what does that mean?"

5. What is the next step? What caveats come with your current result and how would you address them?

Overall though, I think the main purpose of the interviews in astro (and maybe also physics, but can't speak for that) is NOT to test/probe your scientific or research ability. Instead, it's a test of your ability to interact as a professional in the field. Yes, it's important that you know the science behind your work (see the sample questions above) but really, I think the most important part is HOW you answer the questions, not what you are saying. They are looking for someone who can think critically and communicate well.

I think that graduate departments aren't necessarily looking for someone to come in with lots of graduate level physics knowledge---that's something they can teach you in grad school. They want students who can show initiative, think for themselves, communicate effectively, take leadership over their projects, etc. That's why the above questions are important: how you answer them can help them determine what kind of role you played in the projects. And these skills are things that physics/astro departments aren't really as good as teaching (after all, they are a research department, not a professional development center), so I think these aspects are more important to grad school than advanced physics knowledge.

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Re: Interviews

Postby astroprof » Fri Jan 08, 2016 4:02 pm

First, Congratulations! Getting an interview request means that you are amongst the top applicants! Many schools now use an interview as a final "check" in the process to make certain that the real person matches the description on paper. A handful of schools use an interview as an additional component of the selection process and therefore may interview many more individuals than they will accept. In either case, though, you have risen to the top of the pile.

You should treat this as a job interview and be prepared both to highlight your desirable attributes and to describe why you are a good fit for their program. You should not assume that they remember anything from your application. Even if you can see the folder in front of them if you are doing a video Skype interview. Seriously. (This is true for all job interviews - you'd be amazed at the stories from faculty interviews where there were only 3 candidates but even then people were confused as to who was on campus and in their office at that specific moment….). Part of being a good "fit" is having an interest in the department. You express that interest by asking relevant and appropriate questions. Usually these do not have to be particularly ingenious. If you know who you are talking with (and you should), look at their web page, and formulate a question along the lines of "I see you were working on X a few years ago, do you still have graduate students working on that project, and if so, what are some of the recent results or new directions?" Faculty generally like to talk about their research. This type of question should get them going for a while. And, one secret of a successful interview can be that people feel more positive about an interviewee if the interviewee steered the conversation such that the interviewer was allowed to talk (at length) about their favorite topic (themselves). This does not work in the extreme, of course (you want to sell them on your attributes too!), but subtle reflection of their (the interviewer) positive attributes can cast a positive light everywhere.

OK. The above was a little cynical. In practical terms, make certain that you have a space where you can talk uninterrupted and hear the conversation without feedback. An interview is an exchange of information, so be prepared to talk about your interests and ask them about specific aspects of their program. In general, the more "professional" you are (reflected in tone of voice, projection of confidence, knowledge of topics, and timeliness of response) the better. Speaking of timeliness of response: make certain you know the date/time of the interview in the correct timezone! Overall, be pleased that you have made it this far in the application process, and the next step is likely a letter of acceptance, if not from this school, then from another.

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Re: Interviews

Postby clandarkfire » Tue Jan 12, 2016 5:02 pm

Thanks for all the helpful replies! I had my interview yesterday and will post a quick summary for posterity's sake.

The interview was for a top 10 astro program, and I spoke on Skype with one of the professors I mentioned interest in working with in my SoP. We talked for about an hour altogether, but it was pretty informal. She asked me questions for the first ~45 minutes, and I asked about her research and the department for the last 10-15 minutes.

She asked me to:
  • Describe a research project I had worked on and discuss what I liked most as well as what I found most difficult.
  • Describe an activity, academic or not, in which I took a leadership position.
  • Discuss a class or research project in which I worked with other students and how I dealt with difficulties I encountered.
  • Discuss my programming experience and how comfortable I was with various languages.
  • Talk about which of my skills/qualities will make me successful in grad school and what I think I still need to work on.
  • List professors at the school whom I was interested in working with and, more generally, ideas for projects and directions I find interesting.
  • Talk about my interests/hobbies that are not related to research or academics.

Then she offered to answer any of my questions. At the end, she said the committee would meet in a week and that I could expect to hear back within two weeks or so. She also said something to the effect of "I'm sure I'll talk to you again soon," but this may well have just been a pleasantry.

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Re: Interviews

Postby damdum » Tue Jan 12, 2016 5:24 pm

clandarkfire wrote:Thanks for all the helpful replies! I had my interview yesterday and will post a quick summary for posterity's sake.

Thanks for doing this! I have an interview tomorrow (potentially with the same school) and this really helped calm my nerves.

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Re: Interviews

Postby neuroanatomy » Sat Jan 23, 2016 12:10 am

I had an interview today, so this post was quite useful for me too!

Interestingly enough, my interviewer (PI of interest) told me that he was part of the "recruiting committee", not the admissions committee, and that his job was to convince candidates to join the school. However, he added, there was no guarantee that I'd actually be admitted to the school.

Weird. Anyone have any insights to all this?

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