One of my former research assistants wrote to me this week to ask for advice preparing for informational conversations with grad students in advance of her graduate school interviews. In the interest of sharing institutional knowledge broadly, here's what I told her:
Talking to current graduate students is a really important part of the process - if you've already been invited to interview, I suggest reaching out to current grad students and asking them to chat before interviews. (If you haven't been invited to interview, I'd suggest waiting)
Talking to current grad students will be especially important for getting a sense of the program if interviews are virtual this year. Here are some questions you might consider asking:
Interview weekend:
What is the interview structure like?

This is also related to how acceptances are made: Are acceptances by area or department, or by lab? Some schools will have you just interview with your lab PI, others have you interview with the whole area
You can also ask “what was the hardest/craziest/most surprising interview question you got asked” to get a sense of what it will be like.

Is the interview your only opportunity to chat, or will there be other chances to talk to faculty members? (May differ this year b/c COVID)
Research stuff:
What is the lab working on now that’s most exciting? What’s missing? Where is the lab trying to go in the future? What gaps need to be filled?

Where does research funding come from? Are you expected to get some of your own funding? Is the lab well funded?
Program stuff:
What’s the structure of the program, and how does clinical vs. research stuff get balanced?

What are the teaching requirements? Is there any support for teaching?

What’s the funding structure? How many years are you guaranteed funding?
Does your funding come from the department or your advisor?

What are the course requirements or department milestones? Do they have quals (qualifying exams)? If so, do most students pass? How intense are they?
Is the vibe in the department competitive or collaborative? (this is a big one!!!)

If applying for clinical psych programs, there might also be questions about internships etc.
PI stuff:
What’s the best thing about working with that PI?

What's the most challenging thing?

How much does the PI take an interest in students’ outside lives, or is it all business? Does the PI care about creating a lab culture/community?

Are there lab celebrations?
Life stuff - don’t underestimate this! This might be the most important area to ask grad students, because it’s what they really know and stuff you probably can’t learn from the website or faculty members. Remember, a PhD is 5+ years of your life, so it matters!
What is most people’s housing situation?

Can grad students afford to live comfortably on the stipend?

What’s it like to live in that specific location?
Who do the grad students hang out with? Is there a strong community in the lab/department? Do they like the people they work with?

What do they do for fun/on the weekends?

How much time do they take off? Is it normal to take vacations?
Do students of color & first-gen students feel safe, respected, and like they belong?

Is there support for parents? What is the attitude towards students getting pregnant or having kids during graduate school? How many students in the department have children?
Obviously this is way too much for one conversation, but these are ideas of the kinds of things I’d consider thinking about. Especially if you’re talking to grad students before the official weekend, it’s a good opportunity to get some intel on the DL about the program!
Another tip that really helped me through interviews is to practice what you want to say before the interviews. Literally practice it out loud, and go into each interview with one thing you want to share (I did this in the shower).
The questions are usually open ended enough that you can work anything in, so it can help you feel like you have some control to be like, okay I’m gonna work this in no matter what they ask me.

Good luck!! My DMs are open if you have questions!

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