This post is part of my series on getting into CS PhD programs from the perspective of a current (AY: 2020-2021) college senior. You can find the master post here.

Advice on the CS PhD Grad School Interview

Recall that this stage in the process is for the Professor to get a feeling of you as a person and to asses if the application version of you is an accurate representation of the real thing. Moreover, they are trying to get a handle on why you’re going to grad school to figure out if (1) you’re a good fit for their lab and (2) how likely you are to washout.

With that in mind, here is some advice about the interview process that I received1:

  • Be familiar with their work
    • Ensure that you are familiar with their publicly available ongoing projects.
    • Ensure that you have a working understanding of 1-2 papers that they were first or final author on recently.
  • Be prepared to give a good answer as to why you want to go to graduate school in general and $SCHOOL specifically
    • This should be in line with what they read in your application package, but with more depth.
    • This should indicate that you have given serious thought to getting a PhD.
    • This should communicate that you do genuinely want to attend $SCHOOL.
  • Be ready to talk about your previous research (if applicable)
    • It is likely that they will ask you about how you overcame a challenge in your research.
    • If you haven’t worked on a project in a while – perhaps it was a summer research gig a few years back – it is a good idea to refamiliarize yourself with what you did.
  • Be prepared to discuss how you envision yourself building on their recent work by incorporating your skills/background
    • The Professor is looking to hire someone for a 4-6 year position. You want to give them every reason to pick you.
  • Be prepared to ask questions at the end of the interview
    • You should standardize your questions and record your answers. This will help with the decision process later.

Interview Prep

To prepare for my interviews I created a template that incorporates most of the advice above. I had a set of canned talking points to most things related to my research; this was committed to memory so I didn’t bother to add them to my template. Note that I have a standard set of questions so that I can gather uniform data from each interview–though I rarely had time for every question. You should tailor these to your own interests.

Prep

Basic Facts

  • Write down important basic facts of the professor.
    • e.g how long have they been at $SCHOOL (this matters for the questions you can ask), what do they say on their website is the main focus of their research, etc.

Relevant SOP & Correspondence Content

  • Enumerate the information that the professor already has about you. This will help ground you in the process and craft a cohesive narrative.

Ongoing Projects

  • List the current projects that the professor is working on (if applicable).

Recent Paper Summaries

  • Paper 1 [CONF, YEAR]
    • Summary
      • High level overview of paper
    • Methods
      • A basic understanding of the methodology of the study
    • Results
      • What did the study find/what was significant
    • Questions
      • List any “smart” questions that you have about the study. You may be able to pull this out during the interview.
  • Paper 2 [CONF, YEAR]
    • Summary
      • High level overview of paper
    • Methods
      • A basic understanding of the methodology of the study
    • Results
      • What did the study find/what was significant
    • Questions
      • List any “smart” questions that you have about the study. You may be able to pull this out during the interview.

My Relevant Background

  • What skills and relevant experiences make you a good fit for this professor.

Questions

What are the next steps in the process?

  • Record answer here

How do your offer letters work? Is funding guaranteed for 1 year? 5 years?

  • Record answer here

Are the 1st year students immediately assigned to a professor or do they float around for a year or two?

  • Record answer here

I was wondering if you could tell me about what your grad students do outside of research. Do they participate in clubs? Do they lead events in the department?

  • Record answer here

Do your students typically pursue internships during their Ph.D.?

  • Record answer here

Can you tell me about how your TA course assignments work?

  • Record answer here

I’m interested in the intersection of X and Y. Do you happen to do collaborations with other faculty?

  • Record answer here
  1. Special thanks to Drs. Apthrope, Duncan, and Webb