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Posted on 22 Feb '18

The Art of PhD Study: PhD Interviews

How different is PhD study in different disciplines, really? Our Content Editor, Mark, has a background in the Arts and Humanities. Here he offers some tips for students facing interviews on self-proposed projects in these fields. Gaia Cantelli, meanwhile, has done her PhD work in Molecular Biophysics. In a companion blog she offers her own tips for Science and Engineering students.

Interviews for an Arts or Humanities PhD can be a strange business. There's a good chance you aren't applying for an advertised project. Instead, you're probably putting forward a research topic you've devised yourself - and asking the university to invest time and resources in it (and in you).

This means that the 'interview' can seem less like a job application and more like a pitch. Less The Apprentice and more Dragon's Den.

This has its pros and cons. There's more freedom to focus on your own ideas - and play to your own strengths. But, at the same time, a lot's riding on how well you put those ideas and strengths across.

A Science or Engineering student can safely assume the advertised project they're applying for is considered worthwhile by the department or university offering it. An Arts or Humanities student often has to work a bit harder to 'sell' their own proposal.

And, believe it or not, this is as true for unfunded projects as it is for funded opportunities. It takes a lot of resources to supervise a PhD and train a new researcher. Those are resources the university needs to commit to you (and you only) for the three years (or more) of your project. The interview is your chance to really convince them you're worth it.

The following are a few tips for doing that.

#1 Build on your research proposal - but don't just repeat it

You may not be applying for an advertised PhD, but that doesn't mean you're going into the interview 'blind'.

Some key parameters will already have been set by your research proposal. This should be the starting point for discussing your project - it'll almost certainly be the starting point for some of the questions you'll be asked about it.

Writing a good research proposal will obviously help you here, but if you've been invited to an interview, it's safe assume you've already done that.

The trick now is to build on the content of your proposal, but to see it as a start-point, not an end-point.

In reality, this is as much an opportunity as a challenge. Even the best proposal can't summarise everything you plan to cover in a project. The interview is your chance to expand on what you've outlined, develop and flesh-out some ideas and perhaps introduce a few possibilities you didn't have space for.

Done well, this can be an excellent demonstration of the scope and potential of your PhD. You've submitted a great research proposal and now you're showing what your broader vision is for the project.

This doesn't mean you have to provide a roadmap for your entire PhD at the interview (see tip #4). But you should be able to say more about the objectives and methodology in your proposal. And anything in your proposal is fair game for questions.

By the same token, it won't look good if your answers only refer back to your proposal. The same applies if you're asked to give a presentation. Acknowledge your proposal, but don't just perform it.

#2 Anticipate specific questions in advance

In a broad sense, this advice applies to PhD interviews in any discipline. You know you're going to be asked questions. You should think about what those might be.

This isn't particularly hard to do. In fact, generic questions for PhD interviews are quite easy to predict, hence our guide.

But pitching your own project can give you an added advantage - if you recognise it in advance.

You've set the terms for this project yourself. You know what's in your proposal. You know what you had space to cover in detail - and what you didn't. From there it's not too hard to imagine the kind of questions you might be asked.

Remember that the interview isn't designed to trick you or catch you out. If a question seems logical or obvious to you, it's probably going to occur to your panel too.

Often questions will pick up on aspects of your proposal and ask how you plan to 'action' them when it comes to pursuing the actual project. After all, the interview is meant to investigate how you're going to bridge that gap between proposal and practice.

  • Did you acknowledge the influence of existing scholarship? Be ready to say a little more about why this work seems significant to you and how you expect to apply and build upon it.
  • Have you suggested some possible methodological approaches? You may well be asked to identify their strengths and weaknesses, or simply say a little more about your selections.
  • Were you able to suggest a set of primary sources? Why those? How do you plan to go about investigating them? Where are they located?

As with tip #1, you don't want to be too scripted, but there's no harm in sketching out some possible questions and having a few answers at the ready. One way to do this is to ask a friend (preferably a fellow student) to read your proposal and say what questions it suggests to them.

#3 Don't just speak about yourself

The interview is obviously concerned with your project, your PhD and your suitability for both. But it's not just about what you bring into the room.

Unless you're applying for an advertised PhD or a place within a more defined research programme, you also need to make a case for the fit between your project and the university (or department) that's interviewing you.

There's a simple way to do this. Talk about them in the interview.

It's easy for Arts and Humanities students to feel like they don't actually need much from their university. Access to the library and its inter-loans service. A supervisor to email and meet with at regular intervals. An email account. Maybe a desk somewhere.

The reality, though, is that you and your project represent a commitment on the part of the university. Part of this is financial (the time and resources you need cost money, after all) but just as important is the investment a university is making in you as a representative of their research work - and a participant in it.

All this means is that you need to demonstrate that you and your project are a good fit for this university. That involves knowing something about its researchers, their interests and their past and present projects.

It won't hurt to also mention any resources or facilities you plan to take advantage of. These cost money and suitable postgraduate researchers are a great way to justify that investment.

Does the library have relevant archival resources, or a subscription to important digital repositories? Is there a departmental research group you'd like to contribute to?

Finally, spare a thought for 'impact'. Universities are very keen to reach out and engage with the general public - and doing so effectively can be a big driver for funding.

Could your project offer opportunities for collaboration with the local community around your university? Is there something you can offer to existing public engagement and outreach activities within your department?

#4 Don't feel you have to have a brilliant answer for everything

Enjoy your PhD interview.

It's a chance to talk passionately about a topic that, by definition, must be important to you. Whilst you do you'll have the full attention of proven experts in your subject: people who'll be devoting serious consideration to your ideas and your potential as a future collaborator in their department's work.

So talk freely and show passion. Treat each question as an opportunity to do that. But don't worry yourself about having the best possible answer to everything.

Your research proposal wasn't your PhD. And your interview isn't your PhD viva.

You aren't being examined on a PhD you haven't started, or a topic you haven't research.

You should have something intelligent to say in response to all the questions you're asked. But sometimes the most intelligent response is to acknowledge that you don't have the answer - yet. That's what the PhD's for, after all.

Editor's note: This blog was first published on 24/11/2016. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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