Angelic Grad School Interview

By cjohnson | April 18, 2006 12:33 pm

Heh…. brought to you by the power of blog search engines, a report on one of our more unusual graduate school interviews for USC physics, by an interviewee……

Two things of note:

(1) I was listening very carefully. I was impressed by his work experience. I prefer to listen in such interviews rather than talk. The interview is about the interviewee, not me.

(2) It was Santa Monica Farmer’s market…two blocks in from the beach on which he had breakfast.

(3) (Ok, three. Three things of note.) He seems to have forgotten what must have been the weirdest thing of all (in retrospect). As we were walking along wheeling my bike (the ever-wonderful Brompton) two British visitors cycled by and one of them was riding a Brompton. Of course, they shouted out, pulled over and we chatted for a while, and together shook our heads in lamentation of the lack of other such bikes in the region, etc. They were on a conference visit, and had popped their folders into a suitcase and flown over, just as I described in an earlier post. They were appreciating LA properly by cycling around between conference sessions. Excellent. Needless to say, I was over the moon about this, and enthused about it for a while before the interview/chat resumed.

(3.5) “Clifford is a string theorist. That means he’s really smart.” Um…. apply several helpings of pinches of salt here.


  • NL

    Physics grad school…interviews? How odd…

  • Sam Gralla

    that was interesting, to see two perspectives on the meeting. But hey, you guys interview? I thought physics grad schools didn’t interview. What percentage of schools would you say interview? Does the strength or reputation of the school correlate?

  • Clifford

    Oh, we don’t just let any old rabble in here, you know. We want quality rabble.

    But seriously, there is more to getting good graduate students than just making them an offer based on paperwork. You’re offering jobs to a real person, not a sheaf of papers…. So, you want to make sure that it is a good fit. That the student is going to enjoy being at your place, and that you are going to enjoy having that student at your place. Why not just fly them out to make sure? Small price to pay to make sure…..for local (USA) students at least.


  • citrine

    Ummm…. not to sound like a grim spoilsport but I hope that this kind of “superposition of the tour of the city with interview” events don’t inadvertantly bias the committee against ppl they feel uncomfortable with on an individual level. It’s great that both Clifford and the potential grad student he was paired up with had such a great time together. However, I don’t think I need to spell out specific scenarios in which this could spell potential disaster due to individual mismatches/ discomfort levels.

  • Clifford

    citrine…..we don’t do our interviews like that routinely. The student (for some reason or other) could not come to LA during the week, for a regular visit. We explained that there would be nobody around to talk to them, so the visit should be arranged for a different time…..or cancelled altogether. The student chose to come anyway, and a number of professors took time out of their weekend private time to see him anyway. It was explained to him what the parameters of the meetings would be, given the constraints of the professors involved (breakfast with Stephan, the director of graduate studies, on the beach, meeting me in the nearby Farmer’s market, tour of the lab of Vitaly with his two young daughters there…..) and he agreed that he’d like to do that. Especially since he wanted to go to see parts of the city anyway. Frankly, if there was a potential student who had high discomfort levels doing something so ordinary with people they would be potentially spending five years working closely with -especially after agreeing to do so- I would happily reject their application in a femtosecond. Pity that there is not enough time in the day to interview every applicant in a variety of such “normal” situations…Like I said….we’re offering places to real people, not a list of grades and GRE scores on a CV. Further, I would not want to be the advisor of a student who would be made so easily uncomfortable by simple social situations. I’m afraid I can’t be too touchy-feely about this issue….one must do what one can to put the student at ease and let them express themselves. Why is breakfast not as good a place to do so as in a lab or an office? An interview in a professor’s office can be just as potentially fraught with the “individual mismatches/ discomfort levels” that you have in mind, so what is the difference?



  • citrine


    Thanks for clarifying the situation. The reason I brought up the personality mismatch issue is based on some of my own experiences plus those of my friends in grad school. I have many socially well-adjusted, friendly grad school colleagues who also happen to be academically competent and committed to their work, but simply don’t see eye-to-eye with certain faculty. The distrust or discomfort in many cases started at the outset of the program and kept monotonically escalating. I was envisioning scenarios where the student was visiting the school for the first time and unfortunately being assigned to the wrong faculty member to be shown around and interviewed. Now, this student may have done perfectly fine with another faculty member.

    This is why I’m in favor of visiting grad/ undergrad students and faculty candidates meeting and socializing with a group from the host campus so that there’d (hpefully) be a more balanced evaluation of the visitor.

  • Clifford

    Well, the candidate met with a number of people, sometimes in groups. As described. So all was fine.



  • ngg

    Wow! The candidate is famous! The candidate would like to add one or two things:

    I wasn’t really expecting anyone besides a few friends from undergrad to actually read the post, so it was written (but not proof-read) with them in mind. That has several implications: Some things are exaggerated (Clifford wasn’t really talking to three people–two, if you count the produce vendor) and some things were left out (Dallas has a really long airport, and I’m from Chicago). Most of the intended audience had already heard bits and pieces of the visit, but not the whole thing; The report was really meant to fill them in. So, as Clifford says, just add salt! Having written all of the above, it would make me very happy if my report helped other people their quest for graduate school or graduate candidates (or both, but I don’t envision many people in that situation).

    Clifford’s femtosecond rejections (see, he can think on femtosecond time-scales!) make sense to me. Actually, I would go a step further–I thought that the entire point of grad interviews was to make sure that the interviewee is socially compatible with the faculty and students.

    Clifford and citrine: Do graduate schools not usually invite students to eat on the beach? It is a very pleasant and relaxing setting—I had assumed that it was just part of the interview “script”. The farmer’s market was surreal in a good way—it was like being in one of those movies you watch in high school physics class. The ones where the white-haired professor says something like, “Well, Johnny, elastic collisions conserve kinetic energy.” Except that ours featured someone from Caltech, were shot in a bar, and tried to make too many analogies to billiards.

  • Helge

    Imagine: 2 people with the multiconversation skill talking to each other. They could have 2 conversations at the same time.

    Who pays for these trips? Are these what the admission fews to grad school are used for?

  • Clifford


    We do. No.



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