5 Grad School Interview Questions You Should Be Asking

As we enter grad school interview season, it’s time to think about some questions that you should be asking on your (virtual) visits. 

These questions are primarily ones BIPOC prospective students should have in mind. I know that in light of the recent discourse sparked by a NYT op-ed featuring Prof. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, they might be uncertain about continuing their academic journey. 

These are also questions I wish I’d asked years ago during my own grad school interviews. But I believe these are generally important questions to ask for anyone who has a serious, invested interest in reforming the field.

There are many things I wish I had asked on my grad school interview

A Change in Perspective

The recent #ClassicsTwitter discourse shows that our problems can’t (and won’t) be solved overnight. Those of us who offer critiques are painted as fatalists. We want to “burn it all down” with (they assume) no regard for the future of the field or the people within it. 

When my eyes were opened to the extent of the toxicity of Classics months ago, I swore I’d never advocate for another BIPOC student to join the field. Some have considered such a stance to be ‘exclusionary’, but I just didn’t want anyone to go through what I went through.

In the intervening months I have become a little more optimistic about the future of Classics. Despite the near-constant debates about how exactly the field should be reformed – and, no, I don’t want to talk about potential name changes – I continue to love what I study. I made this blog for other BIPOC in Classics, ancient history, and archaeology who also love what they study, even if they hate the racist, elitist underpinnings of the discipline.

I don’t want to discourage BIPOC students from continuing their studies in grad school. But I don’t want them to blindly join a program (or field) that will be detrimental to their well-being, either.

I believe now that everyone should be able to make their own, informed choice about entering or leaving the field. In that vein, here are just a few questions relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion that you should be asking during a grad school interview.

1. What is the relationship between students like?

This is both a question you can ask current grad students and something that can be observed.

In my experience, the reality of the environment of a grad program doesn’t come out until you’re already in. While most grad students aim to put their best foot forward during recruitment, this isn’t always an accurate reflection of what it’s really like to be in the program.

Don’t be afraid to ask different grad students – especially grad students of color – what their experiences have been. Some will be more candid than others. 

2. What is the funding situation and is it enough to live on in that particular city?

Some might think that this question is taboo, but it’s one of the most important questions you can ask during grad school interview season.

Moving is a huge undertaking no matter the distance, and grad school can be a huge financial burden no matter how well you’re getting paid. Ask current students what the funding package looks like and how well they’ve been able to get by on it.

You should also ask about summer funding, since in some cases you may have to find ways of funding yourself.

Inquiries about summer funding are particularly important if you are applying to archaeology programs, foresee yourself taking part in archaeological fieldwork, and/or want or need to take additional courses (such as the Summer Session at the American School of Classical Studies or intensive ancient or modern language courses).

3. How often does the department collaborate with other departments on campus? In what ways?

This is particularly important in departments that claim to be interdisciplinary. This question is also relevant given the recent discussions about ‘rebranding’ Classics in an attempt to make it more open and inclusive.

A Classics department that doesn’t collaborate with other departments – at either the individual or departmental level – is problematic. Remember that the grad school interview goes both ways. Things you should be asking include:

  • Do students take courses in other departments?
  • Are there student groups designed to facilitate interdepartmental collaboration?
  • Are there courses that are cross-listed? Do students in your department get to teach them?

This might seem like a trivial thing to ask. But it’s important when gauging whether Classics is perpetuating its exclusionary history or progressing beyond it. It’s not enough for other departments to simply exist on campus. Formal relationships should be cultivated between them and Classics departments.

4. What is the department’s approach to diversity, equity and inclusion? What specific steps have been taken to create an anti-racist environment? 

This is a question that you can ask current grad students, but also one that should be asked of faculty members. It should be unsurprising that faculty and students can have radically different ideas about what constitutes meaningful DE&I work. 

Pay attention to whether the department has actionable plans for creating a more inclusive environment, or if they’re merely self-congratulatory. Again, you should get a range of perspectives to ensure that you’re getting the full picture.

5. What are the support systems available to me as a BIPOC student at this institution?

In a discipline whose foundations are steeped in racism and whose departments are predominantly white, it’s important to know what resources are available outside of your department.

Getting involved in University organizations dedicated to BIPOC students can be highly beneficial. It can give you a sense of purpose, belonging, and even fulfillment when your voice is usually stifled.

Other important grad school interview questions to consider asking:

Is teaching required for grad students? When are you expected to start teaching and what training are you given prior to starting?

How does the department support it’s grad students in their professional development? 

What sorts of events does the department put on? Community events, invited lectures, etc. 

As we enter grad school interview season, consider how well you’d thrive in a program both as a scholar and as a human being. Is a nominally ‘good’ program worth the potential toll on your emotional, mental, physical, or financial well-being?

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