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.
#1 Tell us about yourself…
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).
- I’ve always been interested in discovering how things work, but my time as an undergraduate opened my eyes to the excitement and wider benefit of science. I had the chance to do some original research on my Masters and that’s inspired me to take up the challenge of a PhD. I’m also a keen hiker and amateur naturalist, so I’d love to combine my studies here with the chance to visit the local area.
- I was born in a house next to the local post-office. My first cat was called Timothy and he liked chasing string. At school my best friend was Kevin. My favourite colour is blue and my favourite flavour of ice-cream is raspberry ripple…*
*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.
#2 What made you choose to do a PhD?
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.
- I’ve enjoyed my academic work so far, but I really feel I’ve got more to offer as an independent researcher. I’m also passionate about this subject and don’t feel enough attention has been paid to the questions I’m looking to address.
- I can’t think of anything to do with my Masters, but my current tutor says I’m clever enough for a PhD.
#3 What do you plan to do after you complete your PhD?
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).
- I feel my PhD project can open up new lines of inquiry for this field and want to use it as the foundation for a fruitful research career. But, I’m also interested in the wider development opportunities included in this doctoral programme. I want to be an academic, but I’m happy to keep other options open.
- I expect someone will give me a job doing more research. That’s what PhDs do, right?
#4 What are your strengths and weaknesses?
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.
- I feel that I’m a good written communicator. My existing academic and professional work demonstrates an ability to put forward ideas clearly and concisely. I think this will help me manage the weight of information my PhD research needs to cover and the challenge of producing an effective thesis. But, I’m not always as organised as I’d like to be. I want to address this as part of my postgraduate training and hope to take advantage of classes and development opportunities early in my doctorate.
- My greatest strength is that I have no weaknesses! And my only weakness is that I have no strengths. Hang on...
#5 Are there any training needs you can identify ahead of your PhD?
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.
- I’m really interested in communicating my research to a wider audience, but don’t know how best to go about doing this. I think the training module on public engagement will be a big help to me, both academically and more generally.
- I’m really bad at interviews. Do you have a class for that?