Preparation for your PhD Interview | Becky Shaw
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
Looking back to the start of the year, I think I really enjoyed the PhD interview process. At the time however, I don’t believe that I had ever been so nervous about a life event as I was in that moment in time. The first two months of the year passed in a blur. From frantically writing applications and CVs, coordinating references and impatiently waiting for replies - it was a nerve wracking few weeks. I hope this will give you some insight into what a PhD interview is like, what I found enjoyable and what I would do better if I was to do it again.
This was a stage for some but not all of the PhD projects I applied to. Two of these consisted of a virtual meeting, one was in person. This interview stage was for the initial panel of supervisors to choose between candidates in order to narrow down one individual to put forward for a funded position. This step felt a bit cut-throat when I first understood the process, but it was also a way for me to get a feel for what the supervisors were like and also to ask questions about what the day to day of PhD life would be like in their lab group.
Again, not every single interview process will be the same. For two of these initial interviews, I had to present myself and previous research projects I carried out. For the third, I was quizzed about fundamental biological processes that were relevant to the project.
**Top tip: If you are carrying out a virtual interview, make sure you have a good Wi-Fi connection and check this before you start. Also practice using your microphone and make sure that your settings are at an optimum volume. Try not to have any distractions around and try to make sure you won’t be disturbed. As much as interviewers can be understanding, distractions can knock you off your train of thought. **
Despite having worked for a few years between my last year of university and the PhD applications, I still presented my Honours project to the interview panel. I chose this because it was a project that I knew inside out and could comfortably talk about it in terms of research aims and approach. It was also used as a smaller piece of research in a published manuscript and so if you have something similar to this it is great to mention. I tried to stick to the main points of the research (What, Why, How) and where my research could fit into the wider context of the field.
I tried to guess what questions the interviewees might ask concerning my research project and formulated answers around this. I don’t actually remember if they did ask similar questions, but it got me into the mindset of answering questions even if I didn’t know the answers to some of the questions I was asked. This is okay. The interviewers don’t expect you to know everything and it is okay to say that you are unsure. Nerves did get the better of me on several occasions and I tried not to ramble on too much (which is easier said than done).
Some typical questions you might get asked are:
Why do you want to do this PhD?
This is your chance to show your passion and eagerness for not only the project that you will embark on, but also the skills you want to have coming out of the PhD. Remember that a PhD is like a traineeship, how to be an expert in your field 101, is there anyone in your field you aspire to be like? Is there a particular career goal you want to achieve?
What skills do you have that make you a good fit?
These do not need to be solely academic skills. I believe the interviewers want to hear about your interests outside of academia to make sure you are able to switch off from the project. This programme will also ask a lot from you in terms of soft skills like presentations, communication and time keeping. If you have experience in this from a part time job, volunteering or through a hobby, this is relevant to mention.
Outside of your field, what is an interesting finding you have read about recently?
This knocked me a bit when I was asked this. I was overwhelmed enough for trying to study my research project in depth and for extra reading around the PhD project, never mind trying to keep on top of recent literature. However, this is a skill that will come in handy when you do bag that PhD project and you can find recent literature in a more accessible form. In science magazines, from twitter or other social media platforms, the news or even talking with your friends.
Most importantly, what I took away from my PhD interviews was how I felt toward the whole situation. Firstly, doing a PhD is a massive decision and if it doesn’t feel right in your gut it might not be right for you. This was 100% the case for one of my interviews and I ended up rejecting that project and I thoroughly stand by that decision. Secondly, the interview will always be okay. Even if you are a ball of nerves and can’t answer the hard questions, have something prepared that you are comfortable and confident talking about and it might end up just being a fun conversation about science!