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I just finished my first Ph.D. interview, but the one who interviewed me is a fellow student. Next week, another fellow student will also interview me. I am just really confused. Is this a sign that I get a rejection, because normally the professor will be the one to do the interview, not the PhD students? I can't shake the feeling that they use these interviews as practice on their sides. The professor did not even reply to me. He only replied one time and after that, his students contacted me, not him. Is this bad?

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    We cannot predict if you will be selected. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 9 at 9:46
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    1.) Ask why you are being interviewed by PhD students. 2.) Take this as an opportunity to interview the PhD students. Remember, each interview is a two-way street. 3.) Ask if you will also be interviewed by the professor. 4.) All this information should be useful to you when you decide if you want to join this group. E.g., an advisor with an extremely hands-off style might not be right for you or exactly what you need to shine. – Roland Jun 9 at 9:58
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    Is the interview for an experimental PhD, with a lot of work in the lab or in the field? Then this interviews style may mean exactly the contrary: your CV makes you a good fit, so the professor wants you as a person being evaluated by the people he/she trusts and the people you will spend n-thousands of hours with. Additionally, it would be a quite convoluted way to reject you. The PhDs are not working for free, each hour not spent on science/paper/collecting data is a wasted hour. – EarlGrey Jun 9 at 11:12
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    Regarding slides: in some environment it is even common to deliver them in advance, so the in-person meeting is more proficient, and they provide a basis for the report of the meeting (not that I agree with this, but it is done). You can always send a revised version of the slides, holding back some material/figures and leaving empty boxes (for example for figures you are not sure you have the rights, figures that proved wrong, etcetc) – EarlGrey Jun 9 at 11:16
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    @Lauren: "Do they take me seriously or just for practicing other students' skills?" Hmm, I'm under the impression that the main source of confusion here is that you perceive a contradiction where there actually is none: It is absolutely possible for a professor to take you completely seriously, to let the PhD student do the first interview for very good reasons and, at the same time, to also see it as a opportunity to practice the other student's skills. (It also seems unlikely that if the professor weren't taking you seriously, they would spent their own time on the second interview.) – Jochen Glueck Jun 9 at 12:56

10 Answers 10

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Is this a sign that I get a rejection, because normally the professor will be the one to do the interview, not the PhD students?

No. It is not logically possible for the professor to think you should be invited for an interview and yet decide to reject you at the same time, ahead of conducting an interview. A decision to reject someone can be made after the interview, or before deciding whether to interview the person, but not between those two events.

If he had you interviewed by his PhD students, that means this is the process he thinks will work best for his schedule and decision making needs.

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    OP states "I can't shake the feeling that they use these interviews as practice on their sides.". This would be a possible (unlikely?) explanation for being invited to an interview despite the decision to reject already having been made. – Martin - Reinstate Monica Jun 9 at 18:12
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    @Martin-ReinstateMonica I've at least had interviews (PhD, Postdoc level) where I spent only a presentation I gave with the prof and then had 1-1 talks only with their PhDs and sometimes Postdocs. Some profs trust the recommendation of their colleagues regarding factual knowledge/technical qualification (and perhaps what they can get from papers and presentations) and then mainly want you to be a good collaborator for their other PhD students. – Frank Hopkins Jun 9 at 20:12
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    That's not necessarily true. They could've interviewed someone else before OP and decided to hire the first person, hence putting less effort into interviewing OP. – Elodin Jun 10 at 14:37
  • @Elodin I suppose so, but in that case they should have (and most probably would have) cancelled the interview. This explanation, while theoretically possible, does not sound likely enough for OP to spend any time worrying about. – Dan Romik Jun 10 at 15:14
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    @Elodin's point could still be true if the rival candidate was interviewed a few minutes before the OP - perhaps the prof was so impressed that conversation overran. But I don't actually believe that. Whenever I've been involved in postgrad (and postdoc) recruitment, from both sides, interviews or similar but less formal meeting conducted by the prospective peers have been an important part of the process. The only thing I see as a little odd is two separate interviews by existing students before anything with the prof. – Chris H Jun 11 at 15:02
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I also think it is odd, but not necessarily a negative. Indeed, the professor might be giving their students some workplace experience in this. But they might also be wanting to introduce you to them and conversely.

My best guess is that the professor is very busy and wants all available inputs before interviewing you. It may also be that their small group is very collegial and take one another's ideas very seriously.

There is never a guarantee about how such things turn out, of course, but if you are accepted by this professor I'd guess that it would be a good place to be - but also that you'll be asked to interview others in the future.

Odd? Yes. A clear negative? No.

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    Also believe this is likely due to the Professor being busy / won't be bothered with doing interviews. – einpoklum Jun 10 at 9:03
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    @einpoklum perhaps only interviewing a very short shortlist at the last stage, so they have to conduct 1-2 interviews despite several worthy applicants. – Chris H Jun 11 at 15:04
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I don't work in academia - I work in the real world (in software development). I have been a grad student twice in my life though (once, not that long ago)

Interviewing with peers is pretty common in industry (at least in the software business). Your potential peers know and understand what you are expected to know and understand. They also have a feel for what kind of person may succeed in the environment they work in.

By off-loading first (and perhaps subsequent) interviews to "peers", the professor gets to reduce the time he/she needs to spend interviewing folks. It's not that uncommon (in my experience) to bring someone in and find out that the sterling CV upon which you based the interview invitation is riddled with overstatements (and, if you dig a bit, it's often with someone with a family member or a good friend in the field).

As @TaliesinMerlin points out, one of your goals when talking to potential peers is to find out as much as you can about the department, your potential PI, etc. - even campus social life and housing. They see things from a student's perspective and are less likely to oversell the potential of the position. You'll likely get more from them than you will from the PI.

Plan to be a little more humble when you are talking with potential peers than you will be with professors. Selling yourself too hard can turn some folks off.

Consider this an opportunity.

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I attended a graduate school where a PhD student conducted at least one formal interview, in addition to other interviews from faculty and opportunities to meet people more informally (lunches, dinners). The PhD student interview was a part of the overall decision of acceptance, because the PhD student could gauge several qualities about the applicant:

  • interest in service
  • collegiality with relative equals
  • fit between personal goals and program strengths
  • how interests align with the current cohorts
  • overall curiosity and interest in the program

Giving PhD students practice in interviewing was a secondary benefit; the interview was earnest, and applicants who didn't take it seriously risked rejection. They probably have their reasons for asking you to interview with PhD students. This is also true if you are ever a job candidate and they ask you to meet with students in the program. At the very least, they want to know how you interact with students.

Graduate schools are rarely transparent about their exact admissions process, but it's possible to find references to meeting with graduate students in materials online:

Grad school interviews—in which aspiring graduate students meet with prospective advisers, colleagues, and other students—are opportunities to connect, engage in scientific conversations, and get a hands-on feel for the graduate programs and broader communities. (June Gruber and Jay J. Van Bavel, "To ace your Ph.D. program interviews, prepare to answer--and ask-- these key questions." ScienceMag.org.)

A more in-depth interview. This interview is the real interview that might include multiple people, and might involve a trip to campus. You will meet with several people, either individually or as a group. You might even meet with other doctoral students. ("PhD Interviews: What Does an Interview Mean for a PhD Doctorate in Business?" r3ciprocity.)

PRO TIP #6: Talk to grad students! Grad students are going to be the most honest with you about what a program is really like. Faculty members will try to make it seem like their program is the best one in the world, but grad students will tell you the real deal. LISTEN TO THEM! ("PhD Admissions: Interviews!" A First-Gen's Guide to Grad School).

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  • Thanks for your sharing. A very 'academic' style! – Lauren Jun 9 at 21:37
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I would not think that this immediately implies a rejection. It is normal that a professors want that new PhD students get along with other PhD students. Hence, they might have some weight in the professor's decision. If it was already clear that you will be rejected, they wouldn't bother for a second interview.

I agree that it is a bit odd that the professor apparently does not do any interview on their own. But regarding the decision, I do not think that it has to be bad.

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  • All I can think of is that only they want to practice interview skills for their fellow students and do not take me seriously.... – Lauren Jun 9 at 10:07
  • She told me that the interview with the professor will be next week, but I am so worried that why they did this. Do they take me seriously or just for practicing other students' skills? – Lauren Jun 9 at 10:43
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    @Lauren If this is the case, it is a good sign that you get to meet the other PhD students in the group. In fact, that is often part of the interview process. It's common that you get to meet other group members and see the lab facilities. It would be more of a concern if you didn't get that opportunity. – Roland Jun 9 at 14:28
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    I've done a lot of hiring in industry and your resume and technical credentials get you the interview. In general, the interview process is more focused on cultural fit, are we a fit for you and are you a fit for us. This could be this office's way to measure the fit by having individual staff interviews with you. I would expect PhD students to be mature enough to inform staffing decisions. – Rob Mueller Jun 10 at 0:13
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As a former academic it was my experience academics are often:

  • lazy
  • overthinkers
  • extremely busy
  • none of the above

If they are lazy they will get students to do the work for them. If they are overthinkers they might have read research that suggests PhD student interviews are better performed by PhD students. If they are extremely busy sometimes they remember to delegate.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to your question.

Additionally, while your interview is very important to you, chances are it is not to the academic.

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It is certainly possible that the professor is not interviewing you because of his lack of interest in hiring you. It's also possible that this is his standard for interviewing potential students. Interviews are a time investment for the interviewer, and they are unlikely to interview candidates without a good reason to do so (usually that they might accept the candidate).

However, and I did not see this answer given, why would the format of the interview affect your preparation or effort for it? There's a good chance that this is a real interview, and if not, how would you know for sure?

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In one of my interviews, I was interviewed simultaneously by the professor and one of his students. I think this was both to give the student some experience (perhaps they will be interviewing others by themselves later on- perhaps for more low-key positions like student interns), and also to allow me to ask questions about what it is like to be a PhD student there. Of course, I didn't really have freedom in what to ask here because the professor was present, but I could ask very generic things about the atmosphere in the department etc.

The PhD student was also a pretty cool guy, and I felt like he was trying to convince me to come. Ngl he was pretty good at selling the school- much better than the professor.

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  • Can you please share that do you get accepted or not? – Lauren Jun 22 at 0:00
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This is an opportunity, not a problem.

I'm admittedly not quite as familiar with the standard practice in academia, but I would like to point out that this appears to mirror a common practice in industry. In industry, initial interviews will typically be conducted by a recruiter or other human resources professional, not the hiring manager. They will then pass along candidates that they think might be suitable to the hiring manager.

Also, it's completely normal for potential coworkers (not just the hiring manager) to interview people. A good Manager will want to make sure that existing employees can work effectively with the candidate. This also allows you to see if you can work with the existing team - interviews are, after all, a two-way street.

I strongly suggest that you use this as an opportunity to learn more about what it's like to work for the professor, what the projects are like, and how well you could work with the other students. If you find the other students in the lab hard to work with, you'll find it hard to work in that lab regardless of how much you like the professor or the work.

Finally, it's good practice for interviews once you finish school and try to get a job in academia or industry.

Also:

I can't shake the feeling that they use these interviews as practice on their sides.

What's wrong with that? It's good experience for them, and it has a lot of other advantages too.

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I can think of several possibilities that shouldn't necessarily discourage you to consider.

There could have been (or still could be) a problem with another student's interaction with the two students you'll interview with, and to put their minds at ease and help ensure there isn't a repeat the professor decided to get impressions from them directly.

Or one of these students is valuable but hard to get along with, and this is a check to see if you are comfortable with them or not.

Another possibility is that the professor knows or has acknowledged that they aren't particularly skilled or intuitive at identifying who will make a good or bad student, or who will or won't work out well in the research group, and so has decided (perhaps wisely) to get input from others.

Don't worry about it, as other answers point out it's an advantage for you to have the opportunity to interview current students. It's pretty normal for students to rely to some extent on each other both for research and in understanding/managing their professor :-) So your impression of them may factor in to your decision if you want to continue or not with the interview process or accept a potential offer.

One step at a time. "Never turn down a job that hasn't been offered to you yet!"

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