Your PhD interview will be an important part of your postgraduate research application. This is your chance to meet your prospective department, discuss your project and show your potential as an academic researcher.
Of course, it’s also when that potential is going to be assessed.
You’ll need to show an awareness of what’s involved in a PhD project and prove that you have the right aspirations and approach to work on one for three (or more) years. You’ll also need to make it clear that this is the right university, department, research group or laboratory for you.
None of this has to be especially intimidating. Putting some thought into your project and your choice of institution can make answering PhD interview questions quite simple.
On this page we’ve put together a list of the questions you might be asked at an interview. We’ve also explained why the university might be asking each question, with some tips on what to cover in your answer.
You won’t necessarily be asked all of these questions – and you almost certainly won’t be asked them in the order here. Some of them also overlap with each other. But they’re all topics that you should be prepared to discuss at a PhD interview.
Your own personal qualities as a student, team-member and individual are some of the most important factors in a university’s decision to accept you for a PhD.
Regardless of your subject area, you need to be the kind of person who can dedicate themselves to a three-year project. You also need to be able to work alongside other students and academics in a positive and successful research environment.
The interview is the best way for a university to assess this. Just as there’s more to doing a PhD than research and writing, there’s more to a prospective student than their academic record.
This popular opener can feel like an awkwardly open ‘question’.
You’ll be prepared to explain your project, to say what a great fit it is for the university, perhaps even reference some current research. But how do you ‘answer’ an invitation to just introduce yourself?
By introducing yourself.
Your interview panel isn’t trying to catch you out here. They’re offering an icebreaker to help ease you into the rest of the interview.
Obviously your response should be relevant to the occasion. But it doesn’t just have to be a run-down of your academic achievements, interests and goals (the interview will get to those in time!).
Say a little about your background, where you’re from and what your interests are. Don’t be afraid to relate these to your academic specialism and your choice of university.
If something specifically inspired you to consider a PhD, mention it. If there’s something that’s attracted you to this city as well as the university, say so. (There’ll be plenty of time to talk up the institution and its research later).
*Please note: The PhD application process is not biased against people with cats called Timothy and friends called Kevin. Or those who like blue things and ice cream.
At some point in your interview your panel is going to want to know what’s behind your decision to undertake a doctorate.
This may seem like a simple question, but be wary of giving an overly simplistic answer. Just pointing out that you’re good at your subject and a PhD seemed like the logical next step won’t impress anyone at this stage – particularly if there’s a funding decision to be made.
The panel is already satisfied that you’re academically capable and interested. You’ve demonstrated that by getting an interview (and turning up for it).
Now they want to assure themselves that you’ve got the motivation and drive to see you through three or more years of hard work on a PhD project.
You need to convince them that you’re doing the PhD for the right reasons – and that you’ll still care about it in two years, when it’s just you, a cat, a cup of coffee that went cold half an hour ago and a huge pile of results to write up. And the cat is asleep on top of the papers.
It might seem strange for your panel to ask about what your post-PhD plans. After all, those don’t have any really impact on your ability to do a PhD, do they? And graduation is at least three years away in any case; should you really have thought that far ahead?
The answers to which are ‘yes’ and ‘of course you should.’
Universities want to make sure you’re doing a PhD for the right reasons (as above). Asking about your future plans is a great way to check this.
Students who ‘sleepwalk’ into a research project are much more likely to come unstuck or lose motivation when the going gets tough later on.
It’s also the case that not everyone who gains a doctorate will go on to an academic job. Universities want to recruit PhD students responsibly and provide the kinds of skills and training they actually need.
This doesn’t mean you have to have everything worked out, or that your ambitions have to be unique. If your post-doctoral plans are to apply for a post-doc, say so. But demonstrate an understanding of academic career paths – and show that you’ve put some thought into alternatives.
Equally, don’t feel that you have to want to be a scholar to be accepted for a PhD. Research training can prepare you for a range of career paths. An appreciation of these will impress your interview panel. (Particularly if you’re applying for a professional doctorate).
A well-worn question, but a great opportunity to reflect on your abilities - and opportunities for further development during your PhD.
The important thing to remember about this question is that the panel isn’t as interested in judging your ‘actual’ strengths and weaknesses as they are in your ability to identify and reflect upon them.
In practice, this means giving solid examples for strengths and showing how they relate to the PhD project you have in mind.
Don’t just say you’re a good time-keeper. Point out when you’ve had to be well organised and show that you understand the importance of self-directed study to a successful PhD.
When it comes to weaknesses, maintain the right balance.
A PhD interview probably isn’t the best time to wallow in existential self-doubt (unless you’re applying for a very specific topic in Philosophy*). Equally though, answers like ‘my only downfall is excessive perfectionism’ can sound a bit contrived. If the panel is asking you about strengths and weaknesses, they want you to identify and reflect on both.
Be honest about the things you find challenging, but identify them as training needs and say how you expect to improve upon them as part of your PhD.
*Actually, it’s probably still a bad idea.
This question (and its answer) can be part of an invitation to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses (as above).
But, you may be asked about training needs more specifically. This is likely if you’re applying to a more structured programme, within a Doctoral Training Partnership or similar.
Either way, this is a great opportunity to reflect on your aims and aspirations as a researcher and show that you’ve read up on the project and programme you’re applying to. If the university offers a series of training modules, mention them. Say what you hope to gain from them and how you think they’ll help you succeed in your PhD.
You might also want to refer to any discussion of your aims and aspirations with a doctorate. If you’re keeping an open mind about non-academic career paths, show an awareness of the transferrable skills this PhD can give you.
And don’t worry about revealing a few gaps in the core skills required by your discipline. A PhD is a training process, not a three-year exam.
This is the university’s chance to further assess your suitability for an advertised PhD position, or the likely fit between your planned project and the expertise it has available.
It’s also your chance to expand on your research proposal and show that you have the skills, experience and understanding to complete a doctorate. For funded places (or other competitive projects), this is the time for you to really prove that you are the best student for this PhD.
It’s a good idea to reference your research proposal (or other appropriate parts of your application) when answering these questions. But expand upon what the panel has already read. (And make sure there isn’t anything in that proposal that you aren’t confident enough to ‘back up’ in your interview!)
The focus of this question will shift slightly depending on whether you’re applying for an advertised PhD project (more common in Science, Engineering and Medicine) or proposing your own research within a department's PhD programme (more common in Arts, Humanities and some branches of the Social Sciences).
If you’re being considered for a pre-defined project, make sure you know it inside out. Say what it is that interests you about it. Compare it to similar opportunities (if appropriate) and explain your particular choice.
If you’re proposing your own project, this is your chance to show some passion and enthusiasm for it. Refer to your research proposal and take the opportunity to discuss and expand upon it.
In both cases you should point to some existing scholarship and show an awareness of the field you’ll be entering. You’ll also want to re-iterate what makes your project distinctive. After all, the PhD is defined as offering ‘an original contribution to knowledge.’
This doesn’t mean preparing a comprehensive list of key works or current research projects (that ‘literature review’ will be one of the first things you do on the actual PhD). At this stage the panel just wants to see that you’ve made an informed choice, understand your proposed project and are enthusiastic enough to see it through.
Depending on how the question is phrased you may also find yourself talking about your choice of university at this stage – or explaining why your previous work makes you a good fit for this particular PhD (see below).
If you’re applying for a pre-defined PhD project, you’ll almost certainly be asked why you are the best candidate to undertake it (particularly if there’s funding available).
Remember too that some of these projects aren’t automatically funded. Their financing can depend on the quality of the student they attract, so your panel will be very keen to make sure you’re going to be ‘Dr Right’.
You might still be asked about your suitability for a self-proposed PhD (in Arts or Humanities, for example). This is another way for your interviewers to assess those all-important motivation and commitment factors.
Whatever your situation, this is a good place to talk a bit about your previous work at undergraduate or Masters level. The panel already knows the grades you received, but now you have the chance to talk about what you actually did on those degrees. Show passion and give examples.
If an undergraduate module on gothic literature inspired you to propose a PhD on an under-researched aspect of eighteenth-century culture, say so. If your Masters has given you skills in exactly the kind of statistical analysis required by this doctorate, mention that.
This is another fairly popular question topic. It might form part of a discussion of your strengths, weaknesses and training needs. Or you might be invited to speak more specifically about the challenges involved in your project.
The panel isn’t trying to catch you out here, so don’t be afraid to speak frankly. All projects involve their own potential pitfalls and complications.
Overcoming them will be part of completing a PhD; recognising them will show that you're ready to begin one.
Show that you’ve put some thought into the approach necessary for your research and the methodology you might use.
Don’t be afraid to identify problems you aren’t yet certain how to solve (the best way to organise some data, the authors to include in your initial survey of texts, etc) but suggest how you might go about investigating them.
This is also a good time to mention any training needs (if you haven’t already) and speak about how you plan to take advantage of development opportunities within your programme.
‘Impact’ is an increasingly important factor in academic work and this applies to PhD research too – especially if you’re funded.
Even if your panel doesn’t explicitly ask about impact, it’s a good idea to mention what you hope the wider outcome of your project might be. If you are asked this question – and are prepared for it – this is a great chance to get a leg up on the competition.
Impact essentially refers to the measurable effects of research outside academia. It’s a given that your PhD will have an effect on future work in your field. But universities are increasingly focussed on the benefits of their work beyond the ‘ivory tower’ of higher education and research.
This is particularly important if your project is funded. The money supporting your studies will probably have come from public revenues (via a Research Council studentship) or from a large charity or trust. Those organisations will want to make sure their investment is worthwhile.
Examples of impact differ a bit between fields.
If you’re in the Social Sciences you may already have some idea of the ‘outputs’ from your project. These could be educational workshops, policy guidance, etc.
If you’re in Science, Medicine or Engineering you’ll hope to provide economic benefits to industry or to healthcare.
Arts and Humanities PhDs can have impact too. Think about the ways in which you could take part in public engagement (teaching people about local history or archival resources they might not be aware of) and ways you could partner with local schools, or even media companies producing documentary work.
This question is obviously more likely in interviews for non-funded PhDs. (It would be somewhat strange for a university to ask you about funding for a project that carries a full studentship).
However, you might still be asked about contingency plans if funding falls through (particularly if funding hasn’t been secured at this stage) or if your project over-runs.
Self-funding students will obviously need to go into more detail here. It’s not the responsibility of your university to ask for a complete breakdown of your finances (or for you to provide one). Yet the panel will want to be sure that you understand the cost involved in doing a PhD and have some kind of plans in place.
It’s fine to say that you’ll be looking for extra funding and part-time work as you start the project. But make it clear that you’ll still have enough time to apply yourself to the actual research.
Unsurprisingly, your interview panel will be interested to know why you’ve chosen their university for your PhD.
If proposing your own project you’ll be asked about the fit between your research aims and the expertise of the department you’d be entering.
If applying to a pre-defined PhD, you’ll be invited to say why this laboratory or research group particularly appeals to you and what you yourself can contribute to them.
Preparing for these kinds of questions is actually quite easy. Read up on your prospective university, department and supervisors. Show that you’re aware of the kind of work they do and give examples.
Feel free to mention other aspects of the university that appeal to you – its reputation, its alumni, even its location – but keep the main focus on the fit between your work and their research environment.
Whatever else your panel asks, you can be pretty sure a question about your choice of university and department will crop up at some point in a PhD interview.
Your answer gives you the opportunity to do several important things.
Most obviously you can talk about the university and its research. Say why you’d like to study with these supervisors in particular, when you’ve used their work during your Bachelors or Masters (if relevant) and how you can contribute to their future projects.
This is also an opportunity to reiterate your awareness of the wider research context for your project. If other departments or laboratories are undertaking related work, mention that. Say what attracted you to this university in particular and what you hope to achieve as one of its students.
If your PhD is part of a structured Doctoral Programme (as is increasingly likely) you can touch on any training and development opportunities it includes. You may mention these elsewhere in your interview, but make sure to include them when speaking about the university’s appeal to you.
Finally, show an awareness of any relevant research facilities, resources or collections.
Does the university hold a unique archive? Say how it might support your investigations. Has the laboratory you’re working in been equipped with any new facilities? Show that you know about them and are interested in using them (as relevant).
Universities spend a lot of money on facilities and resources. They want students – particularly postgraduate researchers – who will make use of them.
PhD candidates are more than just students. You’ll function, in many ways, as a junior academic working within a wider research environment.
You’ll network with other students and academics. You’ll probably teach undergraduates. You may even publish some of your research (independently, or alongside your supervisor).
This means that your potential contribution to a department or laboratory is, in many ways, just as important as what it can offer you.
If you’re asked a question about this, take the opportunity to sell yourself a little.
Talk about your experience (academic or professional) and outline your ambitions. Make it clear that you’re the kind of person who will look to make the most of the proposed project and provide a return on the time, money and resources that the university is considering investing in your potential.
Your PhD interview will probably end with an invitation for you to ask your own questions of the panel. This part of the interview is as important as the answers you'll have already given.
Asking good questions demonstrates your motivation. It also shows that you’ve given some genuine consideration to the project and / or programme you’re applying to.
Don’t just ask questions ‘for effect’ though. This is your chance to find out more about the project you’ll be doing, the people you’ll be working with and the expectations of you as a PhD student.
Remember: you’re a good student, with lots of potential. You’re considering at least three years of hard work with this university. You need to know that you’ll get on with your supervisor, that your work will be appreciated and that there are good prospects for your project.
You’re here to be interviewed for a PhD, but nothing’s stopping you from doing a little interviewing of your own.
Here are a few good questions to considering asking at your PhD interview. They include ways to express enthusiasm for your project, as well as some useful inquiries to make for yourself:
Other questions will probably occur to you according to your specific circumstances and the nature of the project you’re applying to.
Focus on the things that would concern you as a student actually doing the PhD in question, but avoid trivial topics. Your panel will be happy to talk about library resources and lab facilities. They’ll be less keen to advise on the best local pubs or say how often the bus runs between campus and town.
Also try to avoid asking for information that’s readily available elsewhere. This suggests you haven’t done your research – which is never a good sign when applying to do research.
Looking to learn more about PhD interviews and applications? Why not come along and get your own questions answered at one of our 2017 Postgrad LIVE! study fairs?
Last updated - 09/02/2017