How to Ace Your PhD Interview

Advice from successfully passing one myself

Illustration Courtesy of Author

Last month in May, I had my PhD interview, and I’m happy to report that I passed! It was quite nerve-wracking, even when one of the interviewers was my Master’s dissertation supervisor. Thus, of course, it does help if you know at least one of the people interviewing you, I would be a fool to say otherwise. However, the advice I outline will be applicable even if you don’t know your interviewer(s).

As with most other kinds of opportunity-based interviews, there are three stages; preparation, the interview itself and then follow-ups. I’ll go into detail with each of these stages and what I did in them but also how you could approach it in different circumstances.

If you’ve not researched much into interview’s in general, this would be a great article to get started.

Though since you’re here, I imagine you’re interested in PhD specific information. So, without further ado.

Preparation

It’ll be no surprise that this first section is the longest. As a scout growing up, I had the mantra “always be prepared!” ingrained into my being. Just so, preparation is vital in most aspects of life, and this time is no exception.

In my case, I had been writing and rewriting my research proposal for a few months trying to figure out what angle I wanted to take; what methodology would be most useful and how best to present the data I wanted to collect. In this way, I became very familiar with the research surrounding the subject — which is a must before the interview.

It is also crucial to pre-empt the kinds of questions you’re going to be asked and have an answer for them. I was asked these questions:

  • Why do you want to do a PhD?
  • Why do you want to research your chosen subject?
  • What are your research goals, i.e. what is your contribution to knowledge?
  • What are the research experiences that have led you to this point?
  • What problems, either practical or ethical might you encounter?
  • What is your five-year plan? Or what do you plan on doing once you complete?

A great resource I used to help formulate answers to these questions was the website findaphd.com, in particular this webpage.

Preparing answers to these questions will get you halfway there, these are the basics. You’ll likely get questions that are industry/research area related, such as your knowledge of key texts or research tools you’ve proposed on using.

If you’re applying to a university where you don’t know the staff, then you should also prepare a little introduction about yourself (keep it relatively brief and try to keep your specific research experience out of this part — because they’ll ask about that separately).

It also wouldn’t hurt to search for your interviewers on LinkedIn or ResearchGate if you know their names, and get to know their work a little — if you have a specific Director of Studies in mind, even better.

You’ll more than likely be asked something you didn’t prepare for, but that always happens in interviews, the feeling of being prepared can help you with that. For example, I was asked if I could provide an almost one-liner summary of my research if a stranger had asked me about it. It was fun but quite anxiety-inducing to think on my feet.

I had my interview over Skype thanks to the current pandemic — however in the future, if in-person meetings are back on the table, you should also make sure that you plan your route to arrive on time. And now we are entering the ‘during’ stage.

During the Interview

I didn’t necessarily feel the need to wear formal clothing, with the interview being on Skype and all. I wore a plain, white, well-fitting tee shirt. Though if it makes you feel better about it all, formal clothing wouldn’t score against you, and for some universities, it could be a requirement.

During the interview, if you had done as much prep as you should have, this part would mostly be about keeping your cool, being yourself and going with the flow. For example, at the start of the interview, my interviewer’s were joking about eating during Skype meetings — I happened to have some snacks within reach, so I joined in on the joke, which they seemed to appreciate.

I did mention in the previous section that the interviewers are pretty likely to ask questions you didn’t prepare for — so during the interview it’s important to truly listen to the questions you’re being asked and stay on topic with your answers.

I almost fell on this point when I realised I began to ramble on one of my answers and cut myself short. Thankfully, all was well.

A good tip too, if you managed to find any of your interviewers’ previous research would be to mention it — whether you found it thought-provoking or if it relates to your work etc. I can imagine a professor would be very interested in proposed research that countered their own.

When finishing the interview — as with all others — thank them for their time and consideration. If prompted, give them feedback on how you felt the meeting went. Also, if you didn’t ask any questions during the interview, the end is your last chance to get a quick answer versus having to ask them over email.

After the Interview

You may or may not have your interviewers’ contact details — if you do, it would be nice to reiterate your thanks over email and for any lingering questions you might have, but don’t spam them.

If you don’t have their details, it’s worth looking at the university website for them — since you should have made at least a mental note of their names by now. As I said though, don’t send them multiple emails unless it’s absolutely required.

Now would also be a good time as any to check out the university facilities (either online or in-person right after the interview) if you hadn’t already done so. I’m quite partial to a university library or two, that’s the first place I go whenever I’m on campus.

They also told me that the interview is also the best time for me to reflect on whether the university, facilities and staff are a good fit for me too — since the experience is a two-way street. So think about that before you accept any offers of study, PhD’s can take a pretty long time to complete.

In my case, since I knew one interviewer, she contacted me to tell me that I passed my interview — in other cases, it’ll just be that familiar waiting game on the admissions team.

If beyond having a worthy proposal, you took steps to prepare well, kept your cool during the interview and provided a polite follow-up, then you should be golden!

Aspiring Polymath | Freelance Writer | Business PhD Candidate | He/Him | alexanderbboswell.com

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