Part 6: The logistics of interviewing for graduate school

Ok, so the logistics of interviews were a nightmare for me. I know this year has looked very different due to Covid-19 so many programs are offering interviews virtually. This change has come with a lot of pros and cons.

Pros: Cheaper, easier, safety of being behind a screen, access to notes or other resources, down time

Cons: Unable to see campus, unable to spend time much with students, can’t get a sense of the grad school’s location, limited opportunities to see your potential mentor and other students interact

Thinking back to a time when I have three interviews within four days, I can’t say I’m not a tiny bit jealous of applicants interviewing in 2021. I remember almost missing a flight from Oklahoma and landing in Knoxville before preparing myself to fly to Boston a few days later–talk about exhaustion! To be frank, I would estimate that I spent upwards of $1,500 on travel for interview (planes, ubers, hotels, etc.) not including food. I also traveled from San Francisco to the East Coast and some remote locations (Stillwater, OK; Knoxville, TN). While it was really expensive and took a lot of time, I prefer interviewing in person. It’s also important that I acknowledge that I have many privileges that allowed me to afford to travel to so many places. I had a well-paid job with unlimited time off, which made it possible for me to visit so many schools.

While this year has been different, I still want to share some of the ways I made the interview process more affordable. First, I would recommend starting or using a travel friendly credit card (I use Chase Sapphire Preferred) in order to maximize points for airfare and hotel stays. Second, book your flights as soon as your full itinerary starts coming together. I found this part to be very stressful! You hear back from different schools at different times–and sometimes you don’t have that long to plan. If you can choose flexible, no change fee flights, you should do that! Third, stay with students when you can. Most programs have graduate students who let prospective students stay with them. I know my program goes to great lengths to make comfortable matches by asking about pet allergies, gender preferences, etc. I stayed with current students twice during the interview process, although I wish I did it more. It was a great opportunity to get to know a student well and get the inside scoop on a program! I did not stay with students more often because I was afraid it would feel draining and I wouldn’t have time to decompress; this is a completely valid reason to stay at a hotel or airbnb! I stayed at hotels using credit card points and I found an airbnb for $40/night in Oklahoma (I have some regrets about this choice…sometimes you get what you pay for!). Take care of yourself, but it is also a good opportunity to push out of your comfort zone and get some extra time with students. I also know that the feedback of the student you stay with carries a lot of weight; they don’t care if you go to bed at 8pm or wake up right before it’s time to leave, but they will take note of whether you’re interested in them, are polite, or write them a nice thank you note. Those little things go a long way!

Logistically, interview are stressful. Think about your priorities and what you are able to do time-wise, energy-wise, and financially.

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Photo by Samson Katt on Pexels.com

Part 5: A look inside the interview process

I had no idea what to expect when starting graduate school interviews! First, I had not thought too hard about interviews because I didn’t want to get my hopes up that I would even get any interviews. I took a non-traditional path and worked at health-focused start-ups in the Bay Area rather than working as a research assistant in a lab or something that more clearly led to a PhD in psychology; I was not sure whether this difference would help me or hurt me in the application process. Luckily, I think it helped me! I ended up getting a number of interviews, which I felt completely unprepared for.

The first thing I did was lots and lots of research. I heavily researched each faculty member who I was interviewing with; I read all of their papers, listened to podcasts they had been interviewed on, and looked for snippets of their lectures on YouTube. I went all out and I 100% believe it was worth it. This kind of research helps you learn about their research focus, but also about how they engage with the community.

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The other thing that was really helpful was talking to another trusted friend who was interviewing at the same time. My friend was interviewing for clinical programs so we were on different tracks, but he had so much insight into good questions to ask and seemed to understand the unspoken rules of interviewing for graduate school more than I did. We chatted about the process, discussed our anxieties, and answered practice questions with each other–all of which made me feel a little more at ease.

I think anxiety is one of the hardest parts of this process; making it to the interviews means that you are qualified and would do well in a PhD program, but the interviews are all about fit. I kept reminding myself that if the program or faculty member did not see my interests or goals as a good fit for their program, then I probably would thrive there any way. It has to be a match on both sides. I also remember interviewing at a few places where I felt uncomfortable with faculty or the students gave me bad vibes (I wish there was a better way to describe this!) and, in hindsight, realize those were all great reasons to be comfortable with being rejected, waitlisted, or turning down an offer. For example, I remember one program where students from one lab were talking about favoritism and clearly not including some applicants. Take note of these observations and feelings because they tell us more than what students might say about their experience in a program. If students look and act miserable and say the program is perfect and they wouldn’t change a thing, don’t believe them.

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Lastly, when you get your interview schedule I recommend reading a little bit about everyone who you will interview with. If you are interviewing with every faculty member at a program it might take some time, but coming in prepared with at least one thoughtful comment for each professor indicates preparation and respect.

For the next post I will talk about the financial side of the interview process–how to cut costs, make the most of your visits, and manage anxiety.

Catching Up: Big Changes, Kittens, & Growth

I’ve missed blogging so much over the past few months! I had not realized how much joy, reflection, and connection it brought my until I stopped writing. These past few months have flown by. I moved away from the Bay Area to Louisville, KY to begin a PhD program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Louisville. I transitioned from being with my partner all the time to making it work long-distance (plus a three hour time difference). I’ve started building a new community virtually from scratch (again). I also spent a few weeks fostering some ADORABLE kittens to help me feel a little less lonely…

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The kittens were certainly a handful, but they brought me so much joy! 🙂

All of these changes have been challenging, but I’m surprised by how well I’m doing. I’m an anxious, change-averse person by nature, so I was expecting the first few months in Louisville to be an emotional rollercoaster of stressors. Shockingly enough, I’ve taken most challenges in stride and feel unexpectedly calm and well-balanced. During my four years in college, I was overcommitted, overworked, and overstressed. I chose that lifestyle and it took me all four years to understand the powerful toll it took on my mental and physical health. I was so burnt out by the time I graduated.

I learned a lot about letting go and cutting myself slack during my time in the business world. I worked interdependently and oftentimes I had to let go of issues of problems that arose because they were simply out of my control. Working at startups, I also learned that there is always more that can be done, but that should not mean it should be done. The most helpful piece of advice I received from my first boss (a female CEO and mother to a newborn at the time) was, “why do today what you can do tomorrow.” I remember how strange this sounded to me at the time, but I quickly started to see the wisdom. There is always so much to do, but we also have to decide when to let ourselves take a break and enjoy life a little bit. Even if you absolutely love everything about what you do, we all need time to unwind or do something a little different.

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While my PhD program will certainly be more demanding than undergrad or my past jobs, I can also be more demanding of myself to set boundaries, know my limits, and learn when to say no. Sadly, I’ve said no to writing on this blog for the past few months. I’ve devoted more of my time to reading journal articles, meeting new friends, and FaceTiming with my boyfriend.

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That’s what I’ve needed these past few months and it is more than ok. I am excited to get back into writing here! I have a few new recipes to share, some Ted Talks to post about, and many more ideas to explore with you.

Thanks for sticking around!