How To Prepare for a PhD Interview

So, you’ve written your personal statement, you’ve sent through your application and now you’ve been invited to a PhD interview, the first step is to congratulate yourself; only 30 – 50% of PhD applicants make it through to the initial interview stage. The invitation is a sure-fire sign the admissions team were impressed by your academic track record, essays, research proposals and personal statement, but you aren’t out of the woods and in the door just yet. 

PhD interviews are conducted by universities to discuss the PhD program or your research proposal with you in more detail. You can also expect to be asked questions about your academic background, skills, and career goals. By asking these questions, university admissions teams will assess whether you are capable enough to carry out doctoral research. With enough preparation, your PhD interview doesn’t need to be daunting. 

To help you prepare for your interview, this page will outline advice on how to prepare for a PhD interview and give you an insight into what typically happens at PhD interviews. However, it is worth bearing in mind that each university interviews its potential PhD candidates differently. 

Along with following the advice outlined here, you will also want to ensure you have a good idea of what to expect from your interview. For example, some university boards will ask you to do a short presentation; others will only ask you questions based on your research proposal and other application materials that spurred them to pick up the phone and invite you to elaborate on your application. 

Know What To Expect From a PhD Interview

Even though PhD interview questions can vary significantly from institution to institution, depending on the circumstances of your PhD application or be formulated specifically around your subject area, every interview serves the same purpose. 

So while it is difficult to give you an idea of a standard PhD interview format, the principle is the same; you will be discussing the finer details of your research proposal or your academic background if you are applying for a program with pre-determined aims and objectives. 

Formal interviews will put you in front of a postgraduate recruitment panel, potentially comprising admission tutors and PhD supervisors; on the other end of the spectrum, you could be asked to meet your potential supervisor for lunch or in a coffee shop on campus to discuss your research interests. Some universities even choose to include orientation activities in the initial interview process; this will give you the chance to explore the research facilities and meet staff members and peers. 

Whichever setting your interview takes place in, and whoever is present, remember that the focus will always be on your achievements, academic interests, and goals.

PhD Interview Presentations

If a PhD interview presentation is required, you will be informed by the university well in advance to allow you to prepare. Your prospective department will also outline their expectations for the presentation, including how long it should be, what needs to be covered, and how it should be delivered. 

Typically, PhD interview presentations should take no longer than 15 minutes to complete, be delivered via PowerPoint and cover your academic achievements and background, research methods and the impact of your research. However, for students interviewing for advertised positions, there may be a requirement to give a short presentation on a specified topic related to your field.

How Long Does a PhD Interview Take?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for how long a PhD interview takes; the duration depends on the format, how quickly you provide the information that the postgraduate recruitment panel and several other factors.

With some interviews, you should block out an entire day in your calendar as the university may invite you to meet the recruitment panel in the morning, have lunch on campus, explore the department, and have your formal interview afterwards. With others, you can expect to meet your future supervisor and speak with them for an hour over coffee. Whichever interview format you are invited to, remember you’ll be doing the degree be prepared to make the most of it!

row of students sitting on a bench waiting next to eachother

PhD Interviews for Advertised Positions

Most STEM PhD programs come with pre-defined aims, usually part of a research program with broader research objectives; your doctoral research will contribute to the body of research. Furthermore, many advertised PhD projects will also have secure funding. With these kinds of positions, all applicants must prove via their interviews that they can carry out the research to a high standard and prove they deserve the secured funding or studentship.

For example, imagine a particular PhD degree involving the analysis of a particular protein. Being a talented and competent life scientist can get you the interview, but exhibiting your knowledge of the specific proteins and familiarity with the techniques and equipment you need to run your analytical research will seal you the position. You don’t need to be an expert; you need to prove your capacity to become an expert – given the chance.

With advertised positions, the interviews are typically more formal, and the main component will comprise a question-and-answer session where you will be in front of a qualified postgraduate recruitment panel involving three or more people, including project supervisors, postgrad admissions staff, lead investigators and funding reps.

The panel will focus on your research goals and interests and how they correlate to your academic background. You may also be expected to expand on sections of your application which need more clarification. 

It isn’t heard of for interviewers to ask you to give a specific presentation in addition to answering questions. However, this presentation shouldn’t be too long or complex. Alternatively, you may be asked to cover your research proposal in more intricate detail or summarise previous research projects. 

At the end of the interview, you will get the opportunity to ask your own questions; prepare some in advance; this will show your interest and enthusiasm, and you will also gain clarification that the program is right for you.

PhD Interviews for Self-Proposed Research Proposals

If you have applied for a position with a self-proposed research proposal, the interview will differ from the interviews for students hoping to complete doctoral research with pre-defined objectives. 

With self-proposed research proposals, you won’t only need to prove your competency, but you will also need to prove the value and originality of your project. Once accepted, you will have freedom over the research you conduct – to a certain extent – however, you will still gain access to similar levels of support, training and resources. 

Even though you have to defend your research proposal, these interviews are typically more flexible and relaxed; you won’t have the pressure of competing for secured funding or affirming why you deserve studentship above other applicants. However, you will face just as much scrutiny as students competing for advertised positions as you will need to confidently convey that the project is viable in terms of time, methodology, and facilities available at the university. 

It is more likely that interviews for students proposing their own research will be more casual; don’t take this as an indication that they are any less important. The postgraduate research panel or your potential supervisor will still need confirmation that you have the right skills and knowledge to go in-depth with research in their field. 

Taking on a new doctoral candidate is a big multi-year commitment for PhD supervisors; you will want to assure them it is worth their time. Typically, this process will include going through points already illustrated in your proposal and expanding on uncovered areas. If funding is on the cards, it will be allocated on a merit basis; with this in mind, elaborate on the value of your project.

How to Prepare for a PhD Interview

Regardless of how your interview is conducted, you will still need to speak about your research proposal and previous work and experience. Spend ample time reviewing your former essays, considering your previous feedback, and going over your proposal with a fine-tooth comb. You should always be prepared to defend any claims you have made with evidence and examples.

During the interview, expect the academic work carried out in your bachelor’s and master’s degrees to be brought up. The merits of them won’t seal your acceptance offer, but discussing your academic background can exhibit your enthusiasm and show how your interest in your research topic developed.

In addition to re-reading your work, take the time to familiarise yourself with the current or recent research carried out by your supervisor. This familiarity will prove that you will relish the opportunity to work with them. If you aren’t sure who your PhD supervisor will be, review the research carried out in the department. 

The lack of originality in research proposals is one of the main reasons for PhD application rejections, which typically happens before the interview stage. However, during your PhD interview, you will also need to verify, if you have self-proposed your own research, that you have investigated the field to ensure your thesis will be completely original.

For PhD projects with pre-set aims, never overlook any of the details of the program. Beyond reviewing the objectives, take an interest in who will be involved, clue yourself in about external funders, and note the available development and training. 

Practice doesn’t only mean perfect; it also means you are committed, capable and confident. Enlist the help of your current academic contacts and peers while practising your interview or presentation material. This is especially important if you don’t have much experience with public speaking or giving presentations.

What To Wear and Bring to a PhD Interview?

Appearance isn’t everything in a PhD interview, but it can go a long way for potential candidates wanting to make the best first impression. Even though academics don’t typically share a similar wardrobe with CEOs during their average workdays, you should present yourself how you would if you were attending a job interview for your dream job. 

The PhD admissions team will inform you if you need to bring anything specific to your interview, such as a presentation. However, if it makes you feel more comfortable and prepared, you can bring hard copies of your previous essays or dissertations, which you can re-read or reference where appropriate. It may also be beneficial to bring a hard copy of your research proposal if you submitted one. 

A notepad and pen will also help you to take notes after you have asked your questions at the end of the interview. Remember, like a job interview, a PhD interview will assess your suitability for the university and the suitability of the university for you. Doctoral research is a big commitment; you will want to ensure that the institution is right for you; your initial interview may be your only chance to explore the campus and meet the staff.

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