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Posted on 22 Feb '18

The Science of PhD Study: PhD Interviews

No two PhDs are the same and experiences in different disciplines can be very different indeed. Gaia Cantelli graduated from an interdisciplinary Molecular Biophysics programme at King's College London. Here she offers some tips for students applying to advertised projects and programmes in the Sciences and related disciplines. Looking for advice on self-proposed projects in the Arts and Humanities? Check out Mark's companion post.

So you’ve been invited to your first interview for a PhD project! Congratulations on a job well done.

Depending on whether you had to go through an interview to get into your undergraduate course or your Masters, this might be the first time you are invited to a formal interview. Even if it isn’t, preparing can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience.

Here are a few tips and tricks that will help you get by!

#1 Do your homework

Boring as it sounds, there is no real substitute for knowing what you’re talking about.

This is all the more important if you're applying for a specific opportunity (as many Science and Engineering students will be). Your university wants to make sure you understand exactly what's involved in the project it's advertising. So do the project's funders.

Most interviews will require you to bring a presentation showcasing some examples of your previous work. Make sure you rehearse it and go through any potential questions the panel might ask you! It might be a good idea to practise with a few friends who are familiar with the field and could ask you the right (and toughest) questions!

Also ensure you understand everything that goes into your presentation. It might sound obvious, but it’s rather easy to slip in bits of theory you are not fully familiar with, especially in your introduction.

If you mention something, make sure you completely get it! If you can’t understand it (or if it’s simply too much work for you to learn everything about a totally unrelated field), get rid of it.

Another key pointer for advertised positions is to really spend some time familiarising yourself with the project in question. Treat this like a job application. Know what's expected of the role and be prepared to show why you're the right candidate for it. Remember, you're not just proving you can do a PhD: you're proving you're the best person for this PhD.

Remember, the panel are looking for somebody who can make the most out of your particular project! Think carefully about your experience and try to highlight elements that might be especially relevant to the research topic at hand. This is especially important when applying to a multidisciplinary PhD.

As a final, general rule, when presenting, avoid having flashcards or reading off of your notes. Your attention should be focussed on the members of your panel, not on your notes.

If you can, take the time to learn parts of your presentation by heart. This can be especially useful at the start, or when approaching difficult transition. At the end of the day, practice makes perfect!

#2 Examine your motives

Your interviewers will be looking for people who are committed to their subject as well to wanting to do a PhD within your particular programme or institution.

Make sure you know just how to phrase why you want to work within your field, why you want to enter a doctoral programme and why you have chosen your particular university or institute.

Check out the online information available for your programme: how do they advertise themselves? What do they pride themselves on?

If they mention their great training programmes, mention them in your interview. If they put a lot of resources into their teaching opportunities, tell them about how excited you are about teaching.

You need show them you’re a great fit not only within your field, but also in the institute or department you would be working in.

If you are applying for a specific project, make sure you are prepared to answer appropriate questions about it.

You might be applying to an advertised project simply as a way to join a specific group or department, but your application will most likely be judged on the basis of how well it will fit in with the proposed project itself. If this is the case, it might be a good idea to ask guidance form your perspective supervisor on what parts of your CV you should highlight during the interview.

#3 Sell, sell, sell!

A great way to look at a PhD interview is a sales pitch for yourself. Don’t be afraid to sound a little braggy (within limits of course) and shamelessly promote your own case.

Think about your CV and all your relevant experience: what are your strong points? Honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses and find a way to focus on your strengths.

If you have some really great experience, make sure you bring it up during your interview. If the occasion does not arise, a really great opportunity to mention it is during the last phase of the interview, when you are usually asked if you have any questions.

The best way to sell is to make sure you know who you’re selling to. In most cases, you will know the names of who you’re dealing with in advance. While actually stalking them wearing a trench coat and dark sunglasses might be a little much, a quick Google search might not be a total waste of time.

Who are these people? What are their research interests? Where did they go to Uni and where did they do their PhDs? Are they involved in any particular programmes? Make sure you put this information to good use during your interview.

#4 Be personable

Fred Astaire used to say you cannot teach stage presence. While this is undoubtedly true, there are a few things you can do to make sure you come across as a personable interviewee.

Shake everyone’s hand when you walk in the room and take your time when answering questions. Make eye contact with your interviewers and keep it throughout your presentation. When somebody asks you a question, take your time when answering and look straight at them while you answer!

You can easily practise these skills in your day-to-day interactions with strangers – your barista, your taxi driver and even your neighbours can all be unknowingly helping you work on your stage presence.

While it would be ideal to really be cool and confident, looking the part will go a long way towards making a good impression. This is the time to fake it till you make it! The best way to look relaxed and at ease is to smile – corny as it sounds, a genuine smile is the best possible projection of confidence.

Of course it is much easier to be confident with someone you have already met! While panel interviews are often conducted by faculty members not directly related to your project, a lot of PhD programmes allow for at least a part of the panel to be made up of people you would actually be working with on a day-to-day basis.

If this is the case, ask to meet up with them beforehand – you can check out the facilities as well as make a first pre-interview impression and put yourself at ease!

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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