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!)
#6 Why this project?
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).
- This PhD appeals to my existing research interests. But I’m also attracted by the opportunity to specialise and develop new expertise. Other projects didn’t seem to offer the same possibilities to pursue the questions that really interest me.
- To be honest, I’ll do anything if it’s funded.
#7 What makes you the right candidate for this PhD?
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.
- I’ve been interested in this topic since the final year of my undergraduate degree. This lead to my choice of Masters and helped me pick my dissertation topic, which I really enjoyed. I’m really excited to now go on and do some sustained research in this area as a PhD student.
- Well, I really like books…
#8 What difficulties do you expect to encounter during this project?
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.
- I can see that some of the archival material I’ll need to examine for this project may be difficult to access. My first task will be to request permissions, arrange visits and develop a system for recording my findings. I’m hoping to undertake training in archival practices and seek advice from my supervisor as I develop these key skills early in my project.
- Yeah, I know a PhD is hard, but I’m just going to see how I get on.
#9 What would you like the impact of this project to be?
‘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.
- I’m keen to share my passion for this subject with a wider audience. I’m hoping to maintain a public-facing blog documenting my research and would also be keen to approach local schools and museums to discuss educational events.
- To be honest, I can’t really see how my work on medieval manuscript preservation has any benefit outside the university. I’d still like some funding though.
#10 How will you fund this project?
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.
- I’ve shortlisted external funders and would be keen to investigate any small bursaries or other forms of support through the university. I’ve also made arrangements to work part-time, with the option to adjust this if my funding situation improves.
- I have no idea how I’m going to afford this. Are you sure I can’t have a scholarship?