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I applied for several masters programs this season (taking into account the advice given on this site) and have received a request for a telephone/Skype interview with one of the German universities I applied for. The response came much more quickly than I expected and I still have no replies from other universities.

The mail contained suggested date and time (ten or so days from the date the mail was sent) and asked me to confirm it. Unfortunately, at the specified time, I'll be on a highway, in a different country, traveling between two cities. In my response, I explained that I'll be on a trip and that I'm coming back two days after the suggested date and that I'll be available pretty much at any time after I return from my trip. The reply I got is that the time suggested is the only available time for the interview.

Question: My unfortunate situation aside, I wanted to ask is it normal for universities to be this inflexible when scheduling admissions interviews? Did I go out if line by attempting to negotiate the interview date? This is the first time I'm having any sort of interview, so I really have no idea what are the cultural norms in such case.

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Good thing you applied to several programs. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 14 '14 at 14:00
One possibility to consider is that they're not totally inflexible but your suggested time of interview, not less than two days after they do the rest, doesn't suit them. So they just told you "this or nothing". –  Steve Jessop Apr 14 '14 at 15:23
@Steve Jessop Perhaps I was unclear in the question. My suggestion was two days or more after their suggested date, so I didn't fix the date to just two days after their suggested date. –  AndrejaKo Apr 14 '14 at 15:27
@AndrejaKo: yes, but imagine there are few enough borderline candidates that they're interviewing for 2 days. Ideally they want to make all decisions while interviews are fresh in their minds, not decide some places, wait another 2 days, do more interviews, and then decide the rest. Offering to let them wait even longer doesn't help if 2 days is already too long. I guess I'm saying that maybe they'd reschedule you within their defined interview period, but that your response happens to have already ruled out the whole time they've set aside. –  Steve Jessop Apr 14 '14 at 15:36
@Steve Jessop That could very well be the case. –  AndrejaKo Apr 14 '14 at 15:40

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think it was perfectly reasonable of you to ask to reschedule. Of course, it's unfortunate that they weren't able or willing to accommodate you, but that's up to them.

You'll now have to decide what you want to do: interview while traveling, or alter your travel plans, or skip the interview altogether. It might be worth considering whether an institution that seems so unwilling to accommodate prospective students is an institution that you'd want to attend at all!

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Regarding your last sentence: an institution which is inflexible with interview scheduling can still be a fantastic place to work (as I know from personal experience). –  Tara B Apr 14 '14 at 17:24
@Tara: That's true, but all else being equal I would certainly tend to gravitate towards an institution that treated me well than one which treated me less well. It may be that they become a lot "nicer" when their students actually arrive, but I confess that I have always found behavior to people that one can get away with treating poorly to be very telling. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 14 '14 at 18:17
At an outside-of-the-US University where I was once briefly employed, I watched a student arrive at the secretarial part of the math office and try to get information about how to apply for a graduate program. He was treated so rudely by the secretaries that I (a postdoc) was motivated to spontaneously intervene on his behalf. I watched a secretary glance evilly at me and calculate whether she could afford to treat me in the same way. She couldn't quite bring herself to do it, so she became nicer to the poor guy, who was very grateful to me. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 14 '14 at 18:19
This left a very strong impression on me. When the following year the department treated me shabbily (not for the first time), I made arrangements to do my teaching at a different university and was required to write a letter of resignation. I am almost (but not quite) embarrassed to tell you how good it felt to write that letter. That university had some truly first rate people, but as an institution it was not an honorable place. I would never advise anyone to go there. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 14 '14 at 18:20
@PeteL.Clark Well said. The poisonous meme that "Excellence justifies Arrogance" needs to be fought at every opportunity. –  RBarryYoung Apr 14 '14 at 19:19

It's fairly normal if course admission is competitive, and if one's application really hasn't stood out so far as exceptionally good. The interviewers might have many dozens of interviews to wade through, and the only way to do that is on a very tightly planned schedule.

Given it's a Skype interview, and given the prevalence of laptops, wifi and high-speed mobile data, I don't think it's that extraordinary to expect that for such a significant interview, an applicant would schedule a stop during a trip, at a place with a decent data connection to do the interview.

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Two questions: (i) Are there really any European master's programs that conduct "many dozens of interviews" for their candidates? (In the US, we conduct precisely zero dozen interviews, so the system is evidently different, but that number nevertheless sounds unreasonably high.) (ii) If they are conducting even one dozen interviews, why can't they switch the OP with someone else? I don't know what the cultural norms are in this situation, but I would describe the German university in question as being unaccommodating bordering on obnoxious. I guess the question is how typical this is... –  Pete L. Clark Apr 14 '14 at 13:58
@PeteL.Clark (i) yes. Two of Masters courses have a class size of ~50, and one has ~20. That's ~120 places to allocate each year. (ii) Why should they? When the course has enough good applicants, it's up to the student to work to the university's arrangements, not the other way around. Demand and supply, innit. –  EnergyNumbers Apr 14 '14 at 14:19
(that last comment was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but we are supposed to be so market-aware these days, so ...) –  EnergyNumbers Apr 14 '14 at 14:24
"an applicant would schedule a stop during a trip, at a place with a decent data connection to do the interview". Wow. Assuming you actually want the place, that's a big chunk of your future to gamble on getting the wifi to work at some roadside cafe somewhere. Of course the same can be said wherever you plan to be for the interview. There's non-zero chance of your internet connection going down and ruining your life. –  Steve Jessop Apr 14 '14 at 15:17
@EnergyNumbers: "Why should they?" -- for the same reason you don't cut down a large number of applicants just by randomly throwing half the applications in the bin? Because you want to select for the best candidates, not for the least busy? Of course if your program is that good you might not care about losing a few applicants who might be great but probably aren't. But clearly Pete finds it slightly surprising they don't care. –  Steve Jessop Apr 14 '14 at 15:21

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