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Posted on 5 Mar '20

Top Tips for Acing Your PhD Interview

Holly Dale successfully completed interviews for three very competitive PhD places (being selected from around 400 applicants to each position). Here she shares some advice for other students facing a PhD interview.

Applying and interviewing for a PhD can be stressful and confusing. During this time, I found myself asking a lot of questions of friends, colleagues and Google alike.

The advice I found online (including this site) has really helped in guiding my way through this challenging process. Since I couldn't imagine how I would have coped without this invaluable information, I wanted to return the favour by passing on my advice to you! I hope it is of some use.

Tip #1: Do your homework!

I cannot stress this one enough. After all, you are applying for a place as a PhD (i.e. research) student - you really have no excuse not to do a targeted Google search beforehand.

My top tips for pre-interview due-diligence include reading around the topic area; perhaps select a handful of key papers by your prospective supervisors you could talk about, or note down your thoughts on the key studies relevant to your prospective research area.

I also recommend thinking about what questions or challenges you might face during your interview (this is especially true if you have to give a presentation) and preparing some responses. Preparing in advance can be a saviour when unexpected nerves suddenly impair your ability to think on your feet.

Tip #2: Be prepared to explain why you applied to do a PhD here

Although, in reality, you may be applying for PhD places at several universities (I certainly did), your interviewing university will want to feel special.

Whilst ingratiating remarks will likely get spotted a mile off, it doesn’t hurt to clearly explain to your interviewers what it is about the university that initially attracted you to apply. Perhaps it was the reputation of the department in your respective field, or the additional training opportunities the university offers? No matter the reason, make sure you are prepared to answer this question when you are inevitably asked.

Tip #3: Know your value. Why are you worth investing in? What can you do for us?

This is especially true for those people applying for a funded project, or those whom expect to receive some sort of bursary or stipend on enrolment. So how can you demonstrate to your interviewers that your prospective university is likely to receive a return on its investment?

Good examples would include a successful publication record: This suggests that you are likely to publish in ‘High Impact’ journals later on. You should also include evidence of funding awards/grants you have previously received or intend to apply for, since this indicates that you may be more likely to bring in future funding to the university.

Another good example would be to emphasise successful previous work (e.g. a First class undergraduate project or Master’s thesis). This will evidence your ability to successfully conduct an independent project or piece of research.

Tip #4: Pick three strengths and weaknesses

This question came up in one of my interviews and surprised me, since it seemed like a question you would expect in a ‘regular’ job interview, as opposed to a PhD interview. Thankfully, I was able to think on my feet. Nevertheless, this is definitely the sort of question that can easily trip someone up if they aren’t prepared!

Your strengths should, ideally, be tailored to the project/department at hand. Your weaknesses, meanwhile, should be areas which you can easily address or develop (e.g. you currently lack experience in a specific methodology, but you have found an online course on which you can enrol to address this).

Think about these carefully; you don’t want to seem too arrogant or too self-abasing! This question can easily be handled with some preparation in advance.

Tip #5: Think about what challenges you might face in your specific project/area, and how might you overcome these

No PhD is meant to be an easy ride, but nor is it expected to solve all the outstanding questions in your research area in one thesis.

Along the way, you may face a series of setbacks or challenges which mean that you have to either change direction or tackle a problem from a different angle. Demonstrating this skill is to be expected: PhD students are meant to be able to be think ‘outside-the-box’.

In advance of your interview, think about some potential challenges you may face in your research, and come up with some ways that you could overcome these. The more original you can be in your thinking and approach, the more you will impress your interviewers.

Tip #6: Make sure you understand the key skills/attributes any PhD candidate needs to succeed

This is another common test given to all PhD students during a funding round competition, employed to see how different candidates perform. The interviewers will be looking for you to demonstrate that you understand what’s involved in studying a PhD - and how challenging it can be.

Things you might want to mention include: personal traits such as determination and perseverance; practical skills such as time-management and organisational skills; and, academic qualities such as presentation skills and experience with academic writing.

Tip #7: Is there anything you would like to ask us?

Many candidates make the mistake of thinking they can relax at this point or fail to ask anything because they don’t want to expose their ignorance.

However, this question is the best opportunity you will get to show just how informed you are, and position yourself as a capable and enthusiastic candidate. Think about what you might want to ask in advance and be prepared to ask it in a clear and calm manner.

Editor's note: this post was originally published on 28/06/18. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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