Writing your project or dissertation introduction

It’s that time of year when project students are drafting the introduction section to their final year project. They haven’t collected the data yet (although they should be getting on with it), but there’s a draft assignment to make sure they are engaging with the literature and know why they are doing what they are doing. It also means they can’t possibly leave all the writing to the last minute, which can only be a good thing.

I’ve have already written my advice for results and discussions, and I expect much of my advice for introductions is similar. Having just typed out my first “here’s some advice on writing your intro” email to a student, I felt it was time to immortalise that assistance here too. Project students should also check out this page of links to useful resources, some of which are about writing.

Our students are given some great general advice about how to research and write an introduction to their project, thinking about 4 questions:

Why should we care?
What do we know?
What don’t we know?
What does your study do?

But sometimes, actually turning this into an introduction to your specific project can be tricky, particularly when summarising what we already know. Where do you start? For students (and I think we as academics sometimes forget this), this might be entirely new and so while it is obvious to me how their project fits with the wider literature, it’s not obvious to the students. So I think pointers are in order.

My advice to students (for both undergraduates writing project/dissertation introductions and postgraduates writing paper/chapter introductions) is to start broad, and then narrow down to the particular question that their project is investigating. If I am talking to the student in person, this usually involves me waving my hands around and drawing triangles in the air, balanced on their points.

I usually suggest that they think of 5 – 8 sections to their introduction (fewer for a paper, more for a project as the expectation is for more), and think of each of those as a paragraph or perhaps two. The first should be the broad context of what they are working on. For projects with me, that’s usually something general about group living. As an example, I have a project student at the moment working on the effects of grouping on hermit crab behaviour. The structure I suggested to that student was:

1. Grouping in animals – common, but a balance between costs and benefits
2. What are some of the costs?
3. What are some of the benefits?
4. How to animals balance the costs and benefits?
5. How does this balance change with group size?
6. What do we know about hermit crabs in relation to these things?
7. What don’t we know?
8. Aims/objectives/predictions for the project

Not every project introduction, even within the group-living projects I offer, will need as much consideration of what the costs and benefits are. A project on familiarity in fish (a preference to shoal with ‘known’ individuals) will briefly mention costs and benefits of grouping, then go on to talk about within-group structures, what factors affect grouping decisions, and narrow down to what we know about familiarity. If you are a student working with me you can ask for specific advice related to your project.

Within each paragraph, I encourage students to use the Point-Evidence-Explain framework (I talk about this in the discussion post) – start with the key point you want the paragraph to make, then flesh out with the evidence and an explanation of how the evidence supports the point. It doesn’t always read best that way but often the key point of a paragraph is something that students ‘build up to’ rather than straight out saying what they mean. While they are doing this, they are covering the “what do we know?” but need to also think about and articulate the “what don’t we know?” and “why should we care?” part. A well-written introduction will point these things out as it goes along, and by the time the reader gets to the aims/objectives/predictions (in paragraph 8), they should follow clearly from what they have already said and what they have already pointed out that we don’t know, consolidated into paragraph 7.

It’s also important to include some critical analysis in there, bringing ideas in from several sources, focusing on the key messages from example papers. I try to encourage students to state ‘facts’: “Hermit crabs often cluster in order to ‘swap shells’ (Reference 1, Reference 2, Reference 3)”, rather than use phrasing like “Hermits crabs were found by Reference 1 to form clusters, this is supported by reference 2. And in reference 3, the same thing happened”. This concise approach allows for a more readable introduction, and as someone who is marking introductions, readability is key!

 

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PhD studentships: Molecular stress in changing aquatic environments

The University of Hull has awarded funding to a new research cluster that I am involved in: “Molecular stress in changing aquatic environments”. The cluster will investigate the cause-and-effect network between aquatic environmental change (both climate and pollution) and organismal stress responses, with the aim of using the information to generate tools to mitigate the ecosystem effects of global change.

We are looking for PhD students for three projects:

Project 1: Universal components of the molecular stress response to changing aquatic environments. This project will use zebrafish and sea bass to investigate regulatory, epigenetic and proteomic responses to short term environmental and biotic stressors. The project is most suited to candidates with a biological science background

Project 2: Universal biotic stress compounds and their function under ocean acidification. This project will explore biotic stress responses in cold water invertebrates, including ragworms, shore crabs and mussels. This project is most suited to candidates with a chemistry or molecular biology background

Project 3: Modelling organismal responses in aquatic ecosystems. This project will identify biochemical and genomic networks of the organismal stress response, and generate computational models to assess stress, using the University’s high performance computer, VIPER. This project is most suited to candidates with a background in computational biology or computer science.

For more information about all the projects, and how to apply, see the pdf below:

Advert – Molecular Stress in Changing Aquatic Environments

Posters as cartoon strips?

In my final year module, I get the students to produce a poster on a piece of published scientific research, so I am always on the look out for wise, easy-to-follow advice on how to produce a great poster that still fits with the (pretty detailed) marking criteria. And this made me start thinking about poster design.

At big conferences, there are often hundreds and hundreds of posters. At the Behaviour 2013 conference in Newcastle-Gateshead, there were something like 600, displayed over three floors (if I remember correctly). That’s a lot of posters. This means that poster presentations are often considered to be the poor option at the conference, compared to talks. But posters are an excellent way to get your work out there, and chat to new people at conferences.

Most posters look the same. By that, I mean they have the same sort of content, the sort of content that the mark scheme for my module guides students towards. Obviously they all look different, but they are all set out in the same sort of way: an introduction, some methods, some results and a bit of a discussion, like a short paper (some not short enough!). My students and I have produced many such posters over time:

 

But there are also some very eye-catching posters out there, ones which probably wouldn’t end up with a decent mark based on my mark scheme, but are fantastic posters nonetheless. James O’Hanlon won the prize for the best poster at the ISBE in Sweden in 2012 (I wasn’t there) but the poster has stuck in my mind because there is hardly anything on it – just a massive picture of an orchid mantis and a figure. Yet it tells the story the author wanted it to tell in the simplest way possible. It’s awesome. And if a poster from a conference five years ago, that I didn’t even go to, sticks in my mind, it’s a great poster. It has definitely done the job a poster is intended to do.

I don’t consider myself a very creative person, and it is hard for me to move beyond the ‘standard’ format when I am thinking about designing a poster (or defining the marking criteria for a poster!). Here’s one where I tried to use an ‘infographic’ approach to show whether students liked using their phones as clickers during lectures (HEA STEM conference 2014). It didn’t end up quite as infographic-y as I wanted, and is still quite similar to the mini-paper approach.

clickers v3

Phones-as-clickers for HEA STEM 2014

 

When I was waiting to hear if my abstract for ISBE 2016 in Exeter had been accepted as a talk or a poster, I came up with the idea of presenting the work as a cartoon strip. I even got as far as sketching out the different frames (using my finger, in Evernote, on a tablet). I gave a talk in the end, and I don’t know if I would have followed through with it if I’d been offered a poster instead.

selfish herd v3

It was never a poster in the end. Helen’s project on selfish shoals as a cartoon strip

Why do hummingbirds like red?

Earlier this year, we published a paper about the choices birds make at different coloured bird feeders[1]. Last week, I was contacted by a TV researcher with a question about hummingbirds. He’d seen a video clip of a hummingbird trying to feed from a man’s orange baseball cap, and wanted an explanation as to why this might happen. The obvious answer is that hummingbirds like red (and reddish colours), but do we know why? Asking a behavioural ecologist “why?”? I had to know.

First a disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert in hummingbird behaviour, pollination ecology, or floral trait evolution. I don’t even live anywhere where there are hummingbirds. As part of the bird feeder project, I briefly looked into the literature on choices at supplementary feeders, which happens to be entirely (until we published out paper) about hummingbirds. The first thing that jumped out from that brief survey of the literature was that the assumption that hummingbirds like red is actually wrong.

Why, then, is the hummingbird attracted to the hat?

Generally speaking, hummingbirds feed from red flowers, and flowers that are pollinated by hummingbirds tend to be red. So, this leads naturally to the assumption that hummingbirds like red. This is probably bolstered by the fact that if you wanted to buy a hummingbird feeder, you’d probably have to look quite hard to find one that wasn’t red.

Colibri-thalassinus

Mexican violet-ear (Colibri thalassinus) at a flower. Image: Mdf (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Instead of asking why hummingbirds like red, we can turn the question around and ask instead why hummingbird-pollinated flowers tend to be red (although they are not exclusively red[2]). There are actually two competing hypotheses as to why this is the case[2,3,4,5]. The first is that hummingbirds have an innate preference for red, and find it easy to locate red flowers (birds have excellent colour vision).  The second is that the red colour is less attractive to other potential pollinators, such as bees, who find it more difficult to locate red flowers (bees do not have red receptors, and so are sometimes considered ‘colour blind’ to red, although studies have shown they can discriminate). By either mechanism, flowers that are pollinated by hummingbirds have generally evolved to be red, even though they might be quite distantly related, in a case of convergent evolution.

For the first hypothesis, there’s a body of experimental work investigating preferences for flower colour in closely related species of plants suggesting a preference for red and orange flowers over yellow ones[3]. But if we look at experimental work on hummingbird choices at artificial feeders, we don’t actually see this pattern – there is no particular preference for red over other colours – except when the hummingbirds are trained to feed from red feeders, or are captured from the wild on or close to red flowers[1,3]. Other than that, one study that seems to show that when artificial feeders are put in new locations, red ones seem to be investigated first by hummingbirds, but afterwards colour makes no difference[1,3]. What’s important are things like location and nectar quality. So, the support for an innate red preference in hummingbirds is actually quite weak, and the answer is not nearly as simple as “hummingbirds like red”.

foraging bees

Foraging bee. Image: PGloutnay CC0

The other hypothesis, that the flowers are red to deter bees, has a body of empirical support[6,7]. For example, bees find it harder to locate red flowers when they are against a green foliage background[4], especially when there is no UV component[2], prefer white over pink flowers when there is no difference in nectar reward[5], and avoid foraging on red flowers[7]. Overall, there seems to be quite a lot of support for “bee avoidance” rather than “hummingbird preference” as an explanation as to why hummingbird flowers are red. But why might flowers evolve to avoid being pollinated by bees? Aren’t bees what spring to mind when you hear the word “pollinator”? Because bees are potentially less satisfactory as pollinators: they tend to eat some of the pollen, and are more likely to result in self-fertilisation for the plant[5]. By avoiding pollination by bees, the plant can retain more of its nectar resources for its ‘preferred’ hummingbird pollinator, thereby attracting hummingbirds due to the greater nectar rewards that are associated with red flowers.

So back to the original question, if hummingbirds don’t really have a preference for red, why the attraction to the hat? Experience might play a role here here. If hummingbirds are attracted to resources that are of a familiar colour (and we know they can be trained to particular colours), associated with higher nectar rewards, and the flowers (and artificial feeders) they are feeding on tend to be red, and if red is also conspicuous in novel locations, then the hummingbird might well choose to explore the opportunities offered by a novel orange object in their environment. On arriving at the hat, the holes may bear enough of a similarity to the narrow corolla tubes (the central part) of hummingbird-pollinated flowers for the hummingbird to try feeding from them.

hummingbird2

Feeding hummingbird. Image: GeorgeB2 CC0


[1] Rothery, L, Scott GS & Morrell LJ. (2017) Colour preferences of UK garden birds at supplementary seed feeders. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0172422 doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172422
[2] Lunau K, Papiorek S, Eltz T, Sazima M. (2011) Avoidance of achromatic colours by bees provides a private niche for hummingbirds. J Exp Biol. 214: 1607–1612. doi: 10. 1242/jeb.052688
[3] Handelman, C & Kohn, JR (2014) Hummingbird colour preference within a natural hybrid population of Mimulus aurantiacus (Phrymaceae). Plant Species Biology, 29: 65-72. doi: 10.1111/j.1442-1984.2012.00393.x
[4] Rivest SA, Austen EJ & Forrest JRK (2017) Foliage affects colour preference in bumblebees (Bombus impatiens): a test in a three-dimensional artificial environment. Evolutionary Ecology 31: 435–446 doi: 10.1007/s10682-017-9893-4
[5] Bergamo PJ, Rech AR, Brito VLG & Sazima M (2015) Flower colour and visitation rates of Costus arabicus support the ‘bee avoidance’ hypothesis for red-reflecting hummingbird-pollinated flowers. Functional Ecology 30: 710-720 doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.12537
[6] Schemeske DW & Bradshaw HD (1999) Pollinator preference and the evolution of floral traits in monkeyflowers (Mimulus). PNAS 96: 11910–11915 doi: 10.1073/pnas.96.21.11910
[7] Gegear, RJ, Burns, R & Swoboda-Bhattarai, KA (2017) “Hummingbird” floral traits interact synergistically to discourage visitation by bumble bee foragers. Ecology 98: 489-499 doi10.1002/ecy.1661

New research project: Parental care

This week marks the launch of our new, University-funded research cluster on Parental Care. About this time last year, the University put out a call to fund new research clusters, providing money for a combination of PhD students and postdocs, to allow groups of academics to develop their research into exciting areas. Isabella Capellini, James Gilbert and I put together a bid for 2 PhD students and a PDRA, and were successful! We advertised the jobs and recruited some excellent new people to join our emerging research cluster.

Isabella and James both have a track record in parental care research. Isabella has just finished supervising an excellent PhD on the evolution of male care in mammals (well done Hannah!), and James has done lots of work on parental care in insects and has a string of smashing papers. Me? I have a few bits that might be loosely termed “reproductive biology” – stickleback nests[1], guppy sexual behaviour[2,3] and some theory about mate guarding[4] and protandry[5]* from my PhD days. So parental care is really a new field of research for me.

So over the next couple of weeks, our two new PhD students, Stephanie McLean and Yannis Dimopoulous, and postdoc Dr Andrew Furness are joining Isabella, James, James’s current PhD student Alex Austin and I to create a ready made research cluster of people all interested in the same sorts of things. Stephanie will be working empirically on fish, Yannis will be doing comparative work on parental provisioning in insects, and Andrew will also be working comparatively, on parental care and life histories in fish and frogs.

banner copy

Anemone fish protecting its spawn (Silke Baron CC-BY 2.0), Bees (PollyDot CC0), Common rocket frog with tadpoles (Crisco 1492/Brian Gratwicke CC-BY 2.0), Ducklings (Capri23auto CC0)


*When migratory birds arrive back at their breeding grounds, males often arrive earlier than females. This is protandry, and we asked why it happens.

[1] Morrell, LJ, Hentley, WT, Wickens, VJ, Wickens, JB & Rodgers, GM. (2012) Artificial enhancement of an extended phenotype signal increases investment in courtship in three-spine sticklebacks. Animal Behaviour 84: 93-101 [link] [OA version]
[2] Chapman, BB, Morrell, LJ & Krause, J. (2009) Plasticity in male courtship behaviour as a function of light intensity in guppies. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 63: 1757–1763 [link]
[3] Croft, DP, Morrell, LJ, Wade, AS, Piyapong, C, Ioannou, CC, Dyer, JRG, Chapman, BB, Wong, Y & Krause, J. (2006) Predation risk as a driving force for sexual segregation: a cross-population comparison. American Naturalist 167: 867-887 [link]
[4] Kokko, H & Morrell, LJ (2005) Mate guarding, male attractiveness and paternity under social monogamy. Behavioral Ecology 16: 724-731 [link]
[5] Kokko, H, Gunnarsson, TG, Morrell, LJ & Gill, JA. (2006) Why do female migratory birds arrive later than males? Journal of Animal Ecology 75: 1293-1303 [link]

Are we moving the goalposts?

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” [1]

One of the aims (or learning outcomes) of a university education is often that students should become ‘autonomous learners’, in that, broadly speaking, they should develop into people who actively pursue their own education rather than being taught exactly what they need to know*. But whether or not students do develop into autonomous learners depends, fundamentally, on whether autonomy is a fixed trait (as supported by some studies) or something that can be developed over time, or through particular experiences (as supported by others). On top of this, it is all very well for universities to set out to develop autonomous students, but do the students see themselves as becoming increasingly autonomous?

This is something we (me, Dom Henri and Graham Scott) wanted to explore [2]. Over the course of a couple of years, we distributed 825 questionnaires to our students, across all the years of a university degree. Some of the students got the questionnaire more than once, so we have data from the same students at different time points, as well as data from different degree levels**. The questionnaire was designed to measure how autonomous students perceive themselves to be, with questions like “I take responsibility for my learning experiences” and “I enjoy finding out about new topics on my own”, scored on a 1-5 “how strongly do you agree” scale. The scores are combined together to create an score of how autonomous each student perceives themselves to be.

What we found was (initially) a bit disappointing. There was no evidence that students thought they got more autonomous as they went through their degree programmes. Does this mean that autonomy is fixed, and students actually don’t get any better at learning for themselves as they move through their degree? Are we wasting effort trying to make them into independent knowledge-seeking-learning-loving graduates? Well, no. There are other things associated with autonomy that we know increase during degrees [3], so why do students not perceive themselves as becoming more autonomous? Is it, we wondered, because we are moving the goalposts?

Self-perception is often associated with the feedback we receive. So a student feels good about themselves if they achieve the grades they expect, and feel more confident when they think they are where they ‘ought to be’ [4,5]. So perception of autonomy might well be affected by things other than actual autonomy, but because we didn’t measure actual autonomy, we can’t say how the two are related. But at university, we expect autonomy to increase over time (it’s one of our stated goals!), so we give tasks that require increasing levels of autonomy, so the gap between where students think they are, and where they think they ought to be, could easily stay the same as they move through their degree programmes.

Because we’re all ecologists at heart, we thought this sounded very much akin to a Red Queen Effect [6], where organisms must continually evolve in order to stay in the same place (not go extinct), named after the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass [1]. So because we expect students to become more autonomous, we are effectively moving the goalposts as students progress through their degree. We do this in lots of other, perhaps more concrete, ways too, like expecting more in the way of critical analysis in essays as students move through their degrees. So perhaps students aren’t going to perceive themselves as more autonomous if we continuously expect them to become more autonomous, and the gap remains the same.

 

Alice & Red Queen

John Tenniel. Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. 1871. Wikimedia Commons

 

Does it matter if students don’t think they are as autonomous as we perhaps want them to be? Well, I think it might. Autonomy is a learning outcome because it’s something employers are looking for. When applying for a job, students need to be able to express various things that might be associated with their autonomy. If they don’t think they are autonomous, that’s might do them a disservice in their applications. That would probably be OK, if there weren’t gender differences in perception of autonomy. Females routinely (in our study and others) report themselves as being less autonomous, less capable, than male students, when there is no reason to expect that they are, and so they could be placed at a disadvantage in the job market. If you don’t see yourself as autonomous and capable, you’re not likely to say you are in an application. And that definitely matters.

Which means that we should do something about it.

 


*There are lots of different definitions of what constitutes an autonomous learner, but generally they include things like taking ownership of learning, confidence in their own ability, engagement with student-led learning, and ‘deep’ rather than ‘surface’ learning.

**Dear students. Thank you so much for agreeing to fill in these questionnaires so often. It’s really helpful and we’re doing it because we want to understand how you think and feel so that we can make things better for our students in the future.

 


[1] Carroll, Lewis (1871) Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Chapter 2
[2] Henri, DC, Morrell LJ & Scott, GW (2017) Student perceptions of their autonomy at University. Higher Education [open access]
[3] Thomas, L, Hockings, C, Ottaway, J and Jones, R, (2015). Independent learning: Students’ perspectives and experiences. Higher Education Academy
[4] Ainscough, L, Foulis, E, Colthorpe, K, Zimbardi, K, Robertson-Dean, M, Chunduri, P and Lluka, L (2016) Changes in Biology Self-Efficacy during a First-Year University Course. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 15(2): ar19
[5] Fazey, DM and Fazey, JA (2001) The potential for autonomy in learning: perceptions of competence, motivation and locus of control in first-year undergraduate students. Studies in Higher Education 26 (3): 345-361
[6] Van Valen, Leigh (1973). A new evolutionary law. Evolutionary Theory1: 1–30

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.