Grad Girl, Interrupted.

by Whitney 

Congratulations!  You have been selected to participate in a group interview at XXXX University.

The interview. All that work. All that MONEY. All that strife. And girl you got an interview! At one of your top choices! In a town you love! You did it.

Cut to a cold winter day, pinchy black heels, and the same suit I peddled coast to coast, interview after interview.

A day long 8-hour grueling group interview was scheduled with 15 candidates and only 3 spots for admitted students. We spent the majority of the morning packed into a tiny conference room with a few 1st and 2nd year students who were already in the program. We all politely ate danishes and drank coffee, careful not to spill anything on our identical navy or black blazers, and asked each other minimal questions about our research interests, previous experiences, and waved hello at familiar faces from other interviews. Everyone was courteous though the air was tense as “…only three spots…”  echoed in all of our ears. There were two people of color in the room, including myself. We were all very nice, despite knowing that we were each other’s competition.

After breakfast, we would remain on a tight schedule of no more than 15 minutes of face-to-face individual meetings with faculty members. It was daunting and I knew it would be exhausting, but I was also supremely excited because I would get to spend 15 minutes with one of my academic idols….my very last interview. Throughout the day every faculty member was so gracious and inviting and really seemed interested in my previous experiences and what I hoped to do as a researcher. I was on fire.

Cut to my final meeting. I entered the room to find an IT person tinkering with the professor’s computer and was instructed to go on business as usual. I began to answer questions about myself and my work, but was interrupted several times. Over the sound of my own voice, discussions between the IT person and the professor ensued, as the IT person attempted to fix the glitch. Fine. Computer problems are terrible. I continued talking, slightly phased, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, I was hit with a statement about a previous professor’s work as “counterintuitive”. I was obviously perplexed as the professor in question is well-renowned in their field, and is an all around rockstar/fantastic person. A bit jolted, I replied, “I guess I could see that, but…” and continued to praise my professor’s work and accomplishments in not only research, but also the integration of said research into the community as a free and useful public service. The IT person says all is well and leaves. I glanced at my watch, only 5 minutes left. I continued, “I am also interested in X and I read in a paper you wrote with-” Phone rings and is answered by faculty member. “Oh don’t worry keep talking, I can multi-task.” Because I’m polite, I soldiered on, and continued the interview with the little time left. However, this was exactly when I decided that even if I were accepted into this program, I would not be attending.

While I wholeheartedly understand that faculty lead busy, overwhelming, and sometimes frustrating lives, this experience to me was unacceptable. It provided a clear picture that while all of the other faculty I met that day were lovely and encouraging, the one person I wanted to work with did not seem interested in my academic development or research pursuits. Moreover, if this was the type of advising style I could expect once admitted, then what I heard, saw, and felt during that interview was clear: this was not the program for me. This isn’t to knock a specific professor or institution, but instead to say make sure you read the signs and social cues you get from the program during your interview. As much as you’re trying to fit with/ demonstrate yourself as an asset to the program, you’re also assessing whether or not the program is right for you.

Moreover, take note of what you don’t see and how that fits with who you are and who you want to be as a graduate student and an advisee. Pay attention to the interviewers and other faculty/staff in how they interact with each other and the current students. Read between the lines! Faculty and staff set the tone of the program experience, and act as our guides and models as future researchers, faculty, and advisor/mentors. This is essentially an assessment of program dynamics and requires some extra mental energy on the part of the already stressed interviewee, but it is undeniably worthwhile. However, attempting to assess the program also requires a little self-assessment.

Although this is an often neglected aspect of interview prep, your pre- and post-interview homework should include some deep self-reflection. As an interviewee you have made it through the first application round, and are now about to demonstrate your commitment to your research agenda, and dedication to a specific program. Can you be dedicated to the kind of program presented to you on interview day? Will you fit in with the research agendas and the community?

Maybe you read the anecdote above and thought this poster is crazy! It’s not a big deal if someone was on the phone. Faculty have busy lives and interviews are often held while semesters are in progress. Faculty members have lives outside of academia and those lives should be respected! Truthfully, I have seen time and again, doctoral students, overwhelmed with their new responsibilities and roles, projecting all of their hopes and wants and needs onto their advisors and other faculty members. In particular, as students of color we are often starved of faculty who look like us on our campuses. As such, we may flock towards the few faculty of color who we assume want to take us under their wing, mentor us, mother us, father us, befriend us, hitch us to their shooting star, etc. Some faculty are particularly wonderful at cultivating safe spaces and communities on campus for students of color, leaving their doors perpetually open, ready with a warm hug or that familiar authoritarian chide we so desperately crave. However, most faculty members just want to do their jobs. And those jobs, depending on their interpretation, may not align with students’ expectations of what faculty of color should or should not be doing for students of color. These sentiments and statements are all true. They might assuage any second thoughts you might have about a less than ideal interview experience or other program foibles.

 For me, interview self-reflection included cycling back through all my research and professional experiences in labs and clinical workspaces, and ultimately helped crystallize this interview moment. I had a good idea about my own working style and study habits, and the kinds of academic and professional situations in which I can be my best self. This interview experience was a deal-breaker for me. Don’t get me wrong. I will gladly take a firm handshake over a hug in professional and academic settings, and I can get practical and logical with the best of them. I wasn’t turned off by a perceived lack of warmth or not enough handholding. Instead, I felt that my time, energies, words, and thoughts were invalidated in that moment. As someone who speaks sparingly and listens unceasingly, I value being heard above all else. Even if I am heard only to be disagreed with later or shown a new point of view, I will know that the person across from me took in and processed what I had to say. At the end of the day, you have to decide which school fits your needs, and that includes getting the kind of support, guidance, and academic experiences that jive with your values. Stay sharp, reflect, and take in your surroundings on interview day. You want to get in, but you’ll want to get into the *right* program more.  

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