Interviewing with potential Ph.D. advisors

By Daziyah Sullivan: So, you're interviewing with advisors? Why not try to be yourself? Daziyah shares her advice to students looking to leave a lasting impression.

Row of lightbulbs, all the same - except one is lit!

So, you’re in the advisor interview stage? Here’s the best advice I received:

Be yourself.

Now how far did I take this advice? Let me set the scene:

  • I was literally in my bed, luckily not just "Zoom professional" but fully professional. No judgment, please - my bed was the one place in the house I could have back support and be sure my roommate would not randomly intrude.
  • My hair was professionally styled, as in - my curls cascaded down my face in a bang, with the rest tied up into a neat bun. 
  • And it was blue. Whole head: blue.

So, yes, maybe I took the advice of “Be Yourself” a bit far. To be fair, though, I required an advisor that would accept such a presentation of myself. Thanks for taking my shenanigans like a champ, Dr. O’Malley

For those of you who are not as extreme, we can take a step back to understand some general good advice for your interview process.

Note, this interview process may take place before you are admitted or it could take place after a rotational program.

Remember, an interview goes both ways. You are interviewing your potential advisor as much as they are interviewing you. The whole process has three general stages:

  • The Prep
  • The Interview
  • The Aftermath


The Prep

A stage defined by preparation. This involves all things pre-interview, so it actually has stages within itself!


Reaching out/Responding - You are looking to have an interview with an advisor. Potentially you are doing a campus visit and you have multiple slots but haven’t thought about who to speak to in those slots.

  1. Find an advisor with research that interests you. If you are in person, ask the graduate students and faculty helping with the programming! This is how I found out about Dr. Tahira Reid Smith when my website searches were lacking in identifying everyone whose research overlapped with my interests. You may also reach out to graduate admissions to ask for recommendations in email format, though this is a bit bolder and they may direct you to the website. This leads me to the OG way to find an advisor with research that interests you - the internet. If more broadly searching with no university in mind, then figure out keywords associated with your field of interest. Speak to professors at your current university to assist in this endeavor or look into publications of interest and figure out their keywords. 
  2. Reach out for an interview. Did you previously meet through a mutual colleague or at a convention? Mention that, especially if through an introduction. Suggest a few times to meet. Say what you are specifically interested in about their research, and show how excited you are to be interviewing with them.
  3. Schedule a time. Attach your resume. Make them remember you, boo. Also, allow them to do their research on you too. 

Defining Your Terms - This is internal work done to understand what is important to you in an advisor. 

  1. Take the time to self-reflect. Why are you going to graduate school? Is there anything you need within a lab and university environment? It is good to recognize your "why" and your needs before going into an interview. 
  2. Reach out to your network. Your friends, family, and colleagues know you well. See who they believe you may be interested in working with or how they interpret your research interest. You never know; the new perspective could lead you down a road you had not considered before.

Psychological Preparation - Interviews are stressful; don’t let the stress knock you off your game.

  1. Deep dive into their research. Know what is happening in their lab - at least in general. Look them up. See if they have any talks online. Get used to their mannerisms and what areas of interest spark them. Being able to see them will also take away that initial fear of first impressions with a stranger. You may also be able to find a random thing to connect with. For example, I technically visited the university my advisor got her bachelor’s from! 
  2. Confidence boost. Breathe. Get into a superwoman, superman, super-nonbinary position and soak in the confidence.


The Interview

It's time for the interview.

  1. Dress to impress. Dress in a way that shows who you are but is also customary of the interview process. Remember, my hair was blue. Though, I stuck with a typical updo that is more accepted in the business world as a style for natural hair (my feelings are that all of my styles are professional, but I digress). During my in-person interviews, I was dressed in a full business suit with a very distinct broach. Find a way to stick out - as in, to leave a lasting impression and/or to throw personality into your physical presentation.
  2. Be prepared. This requires having things gathered that your potential advisor may need/want (like your resume or personal statement) and things that you would want (like notes on the advisor and a way to take notes during the interview). It also helps to check and double-check the exact details of your meeting.
    1. Virtual Meeting Checklist
      • Has the link been sent, and have you downloaded the application needed? 
      • Is the time given in their time zone or your time zone?
      • Do you know where you will be taking the interview? Do the people who may access that environment know that you’ll be taking an interview and when?
    2. In-Person Meeting Checklist
      • Do you know how to get to the exact room?
      • How early are you expected to arrive?
      • Are your meetings scheduled in a manner that may lead to you running behind schedule? (Let the advisor know if this is the case!)
  3. Have a list of questions. I recommend having at least one question that is specific to the research you’ve done on the advisor. Do they have social media initiatives to highlight their lab? Ask how that got started! Is their research lab direction different from their doctoral direction? Ask about the switch! Did they attend the same university as you at one point? Ask when’s the last time they went back! Make it conversational while also saying: “Yes, I have done my research beforehand.” Here is a good starter for the generic questions that you can ask each of your potential advisors:
    1. What are your expectations of {insert degree type} students?
    2. What is required to graduate from your lab? (ex: paper requirement?)
    3. How do you prepare students to be a part of your lab?
    4. What are qualifying exams like? (Ph.D. specific)
    5. Where do people in your lab go after completing their degree?
    6. What is your advising style?
    7. What are some ongoing projects within your lab? Note: you should know some of the projects within the lab, but this is a fair question to ask since ongoing projects may not have papers to be present on the lab website yet.
    8. Do I get to choose my own research? and/or Here is my interest, is there space for me to do this research within your lab? (Remember, you could start a direction of research not yet introduced to their lab!)
    9. Why did you choose to work at {insert name of university}?


The Aftermath

The interview is over! Breathe! Then get back on the grind, the work is not done yet.

  1. Send a follow-up email. Use the same email address used for setting up the meeting if applicable. Be gracious, thank the advisor for their time and the interview process. Make sure to mention things specifically mentioned in the interview - what research areas stuck out to you? Mention your potential funding (if you have applied for fellowships), so they can keep that in memory.
  2. Actually do what you said you would. I am guilty of not doing this. Do not burn bridges even if you do not choose to cross them.
  3. Keep in touch. Though the advisor may not turn out to be yours, they could be a potential mentor or future collaborator (I mean, you’ve been looking at so many with overlapping research interests - it is very possible!)

Your advisor will likely be the most influential person in your journey through graduate school, in all aspects: academic, professional, personal, mental, etc. Hopefully, this guidance can assist you in your journey to find an advisor match that helps your graduate experience be the best it could be. Be true to yourself and find an advisor who will embrace and elevate you. 


Read more:

Knowing your wellbeing resources

Making the switch from MSI to PWI

What it means to be a GEM fellow

About the author: Daziyah Sullivan is a second-year Ph.D. student in Mechanical Engineering. Originally from Florida, Daziyah earned her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering in 2020. Read more.