Some thoughts on PhD interviews

This post follows on from the one on tips for making PhD applications.

I once gave a talk to a bunch of careers advisors as part of an AGCAS event about academic careers, and it made me think about how to articulate what I am actually looking for in a PhD student. I found a good quote here, which sums up what I think: I am looking for someone, basically, who can:

  • Do the work
  • Write about the work
  • Talk about the work

If you have written a good application, and got through shortlisting to the interview stage, that is where you have to convince the interview panel that you can do these things, bearing in mind that there will likely be other people who have also been convincing enough on paper to be shortlisted. There are several ways that PhD interviews are carried out, but it seems to me that things have moved on from when I had my PhD interview (two separate chats with the two supervisors) and have become more formal, more like a ‘real’ job interview. In recent years in Hull we have used two approaches:

  1. A panel interview with the supervisors, plus a couple of more ‘important’ people (in our recent interviews, we had the Research Director for the School and the Associate Dean for Research for the Faculty). This seems more common when the funding for the project has been secured through internal or external competition.
  2. A panel interview with some important people not associated with the project, plus a less formal interview/chat with the supervisors. This tends to occur when the project is ‘competition funded’, meaning that there is funding for a number of studentships, but more projects have been advertised, and the University are looking to recruit the best students across all projects. The supervisor does get some input, mind.

You should try to find out the format the interview will take, if that isn’t clear in your invitation to interview. But regardless of the format, the panel are really looking to establish the same thing: will you be a great PhD student who is motivated and excited by the work, and who will complete in a reasonable time and, hopefully, produce some good outputs?

When you are preparing for an interview, perhaps “do the work, write about the work, talk about the work” isn’t the clearest guidance. There are various lists available online as to what skills/qualities a PhD student needs, but when I was putting together my talk for the AGCAS lot, I found this one from the University of Reading helpful in articulating my thoughts (it’s on page 3):

  • Ability to grasp concepts and reason analytically
  • Motivation and perseverance in achieving objectives
  • Capacity for independent thought
  • Organisational skills
  • Independence as a learner
  • Self-confidence
  • Enthusiasm/passion for topic
  • Nature and extent of any relevant previous experience

Think about how you can demonstrate these in preparation for the interview. You probably won’t get asked them specifically as questions but you can probably detect them in the questions that you do get asked. Remember a PhD interview is exactly like any other job interview – you are competing with other candidates you know nothing about, yet have to convince the panel that you are better than they are.

Interview questions

These are some of the questions that we asked in the latest round of interviews, but I think they are probably quite common:

Why do you want to do a PhD?
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but sometimes it does seem to. Here we are looking to establish whether a PhD just seems like the next step, because you are quite good academically and not sure what else to do, or whether you have a true passion for, and understanding of, what PhD research involves (hint: it should be the latter).

Why do you want to do this PhD?
This is where you can demonstrate your enthusiam/passion for the topic. It’s where having done a little bit of reading can help you demonstrate a bit of knowledge about what it is about. I would not expect you to have done a full literature review, but a little bit of knowledge of why the question is interesting, both generally and to you, is good here.

How does your previous experience/academic background/etc prepare you for PhD study?
Here is your opportunity to highlight your skills and experiences that will make you a great PhD student. You might want to touch on your taught modules, you research project, your wider life. Think here about the types of skills we are looking to see highlighted and how you can evidence them. We actually sent this question to the candidates to prepare in advance, instead of asking them to do a presentation, although you may be asked to prepare a short presentation (stick to the time limit and practice practice practice if you are), or given nothing specific to prepare.

Could you tell us about a research project you have done?
You might have already touched on this in a question about skills (it depends on the questions) but this is where you talk about your UG or MSc research project. Pick one to start with and pick the one that is either most relevant to the project or the one that is easiest to give a concise and insightful summary of. Focus your answer on hypotheses and answers, rather than methods (see the relevant bit in my writing applications post). You should be able to give your ‘elevator pitch‘ here. Sound excited. Don’t assume knowledge of the topic on the part of the panel (especially the Important Person who is actually a Geographer/Engineer/Biomedical Scientist).

Something about what you enjoy about research
Be sensible here – saying you love everything is probably a lie. I am not that keen on doing experiments (it’s why I do models and get PhD students to do experiments). I like analysing data and I like writing papers. I don’t like getting reviewers’ comments or rejections, and I do like getting acceptance emails. Try to avoid saying you most enjoy something that isn’t part of the PhD you are interviewing for – we want you to enjoy what you are doing, not forever wishing you were doing something different.

Something about what you find most challenging about research
Again, be sensible. Research is challenging and there must be parts that you don’t like so much. If you are asked what you don’t like, use the word challenging in your answer. Challenges can be overcome. Dislikes might stay.

Something about overcoming problems (in research)
Something probably went wrong at some point in your project, so think about what it was and more importantly, what you did about it. Here is your opportunity to show that you can nicely balance (for example) solving a problem yourself and running to your supervisor for help.

Something about what skills you expect a PhD student to have (and whether you have them)
Here, we are trying to get to the bottom of whether you are prepared for PhD study generally, and that you have some idea of what doing a PhD actually involves. This can be an opportunity for you to highlight how great you are at science communication, or motivation, or that you have what the deputy head of my secondary school used to call “stickability”. Be a bit of a swot and have a look at the Vitae Researcher Development Framework. Think about whether there are skills that you would hope to develop during your PhD.

What would you do after a PhD?
Basically, do you know where a PhD goes and what you might do with one.

Do you have any questions for us?
You absolutely must have questions for the panel, it shows that you are engaged with the process. It is not just an opportunity for you to find out things you want to know although if there are things you want to know, you should definitely ask. Good questions might include things like opportunities for wider development, opportunities to attend conferences, what you can expect in terms of supervision, opportunities for career development things like teaching or being involved in outreach, how the project fits into the wider structure of the department. If the supervisor is there, you can ask more technical questions about the project, such as how they see it developing, what opportunities there are for following you own ideas, whether they see publication as a priority. Don’t ask questions about working hours or holidays. Save those until after the offer has been made.

Important things

Turn up on time. If you are worried about what to wear, my advice is smart-ish, but not like you work in a bank. Equally, not your fieldwork hoodie and jeans. Don’t go out and buy a suit and don’t feel you need to wear the one your Gran bought you for your Uncle’s wedding.

Focus your answers towards the project that you are interviewing for. You may (if you are lucky or write outstanding applications) have interviews for more than one project, so think about the project you are interviewing for at that time and make sure you focus on that particular one, highlighting relevant skills and experiences.

Keep your answers concise, yet give them depth. Take a moment to think about what you want to say and how you might structure the answer. Give clear and concrete examples to evidence what you are saying.

Be enthusiastic. Nerd out a little bit about the project or science in general.

After the interview

You would normally, I think, be offered the opportunity for a tour of the place with a current PhD student, which can be helpful in asking the important questions you couldn’t ask in the interview, like how much the beer costs and where the nearest coffee is to the lab. For me, this isn’t part of the formal interview, and I do make this clear to candidates, but be aware that the supervisor might seek feedback from their student, although they should tell you if they will.

Remember, the interview is also your opportunity to find out whether this PhD/place is really for you. Hate the place? Think the supervisor is creepy? Get really bad vibes from the current PhD students? Think carefully about whether you can manage to spend 3+ years there. Hard, I know.

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