There have been several requests lately for a post on interviewing at or visiting grad schools as a prospective student, along the lines of my recent series of posts on faculty interviews.
These interviews/visits may vary from field to field, so I hope that readers will contribute additional information, specifying if possible their academic discipline.
My philosophy can be summed up quite simply. During my interaction with visiting students, I try to give a clear picture of the research opportunities and dynamics so that, if admitted, they have information to use when making a decision. Those who express an interest in my research field also meet my grad students.
When I meet with grad candidates, I don't grill them with aggressive questions. I want to see some degree of focus, but the student doesn't have to know exactly what they want to do for their thesis research. I want to be able to have a conversation about the research possibilities in my research group/department/university, and it's nice if the student asks a question now and then so the conversation isn't a monologue.
Many (all?) of the visiting students have or will end up with multiple appealing offers, as they should. For these students, the visit is a mutual checking-out of/by applicant and department.
I think that I have quite flexible parameters when it comes to evaluating a visiting grad student -- i.e., in terms of their personality and level of sophistication -- but I do have some limits. For example, I am not perturbed by shyness, although I am not as accepting of someone who considers "What are your interests?" to be an aggressive question. I am not disappointed by an inability to ask brilliant questions, but I do want to see some evidence of an interest in research. I am happy to talk about something other than science and find out about the outside interests of a student, but I think it unwise for a student to skip out on part of the organized group activities to check out the rec center (for example); I recommend finding another time to gaze at the elliptical machines and trail along on the boring lab or campus tour as scheduled.
Just as with interviews for a faculty position, I advise grad applicants to BE REAL. Give clear and sincere answers to any questions you are asked, ask any questions you want to ask, and take a careful look around and see if you are visiting a place you would really want to be.
There was also a request for information on timing of interviews, offers etc. This is going to vary a lot with institution/discipline. Anyone care to comment? I can say that it's likely that, at my institution, the process is going to be more protracted than usual as we deal with economic uncertainties.
6 months ago