Most PhD applications include an interview of some sort. This allows your university (and perhaps even your prospective supervisor) to discuss the PhD with you in more detail.
They’ll also ask questions about your background, goals and project.
On this page you can find out what happens at an interview, including advice on how to prepare for a PhD interview.
You can also read our separate guide for a detailed overview of PhD interview questions (and answers!).
The format for a PhD interview can vary, depending on your subject area and the circumstances of your application.
You might be in front of a recruitment panel. Or you might just meet your supervisor in the campus coffee shop and chat about your research interests.
This makes it quite difficult to describe a ‘standard PhD interview’.
There’s a bit of a difference between going over the finer points of your MSc thesis before a panel and discussing your favourite historians in a canteen.
But two things unite both formats. Each hinges on a discussion of your academic interests, achievements and goals. And that discussion is important, however it takes place.
Even the most ‘informal’ interview aims to establish this.
Depending on the format for your interview it could involve:
Depending on the format of your interview, you may be asked to prepare a presentation on the advertised PhD project or your research proposal.
When you’re invited to an interview, your prospective department will let you know what their expectations are for the presentation. They’ll usually specify:
You’ll normally be speaking before a small committee of staff members, who will ask you questions about your research after the presentation.
As you can imagine, the length of a PhD interview varies according to its format.
Some interviews involve several components activities, over an entire day. You could greet your panel in the morning, have lunch, visit your department and then sit down for a formal interview.
Or you might just meet your supervisor for coffee and discuss your ideas with them for an hour or so.
You can read more about what to expect in different circumstances and subject areas below.
Most PhDs in Science, Medicine and Engineering are specific projects, with pre-defined aims and objectives.
They normally take place in a group that’s pursuing broader research objectives, to which your PhD will make a small (but important) contribution.
Such projects may have funding secured in advance (as part of the budget for their laboratory or workshop). Or they may have funding available in principle, confirmed if the project meets certain conditions. (These could include attracting a suitable PhD student!).
An interview for one of these projects needs to ensure that the applicant can complete a specific project. And that they deserve the funding available for it.
Imagine a PhD that involves analysing a specific kind of protein folding. Just being a talented life scientist may not be enough to complete this project. You’d also need to have some knowledge of the proteins in question, as well as the kinds of equipment and techniques required to analyse them.
Or, what about a digital humanities project involving the latent semantic indexing of a periodicals database? A general Masters in literature may not be enough here. You’ll also need to be able to use this kind of database. (And ideally know what latent semantic indexing is).
This isn’t to say that you have to be an expert in your research topic before you begin it. That would defeat the function of the PhD as an academic training exercise.
But you will need to be the kind of student who can develop the necessary skills and expertise in the time available. Your interview is when the university will do its best to make sure of this.
An interview for a funded PhD project will be a formal process. The main component will be a question and answer session in front of a designated postgraduate recruitment panel.
This panel will usually involve three or more people. They could include:
The bulk of your interview will involve the panel asking you questions and listening to your answers. These will focus on your academic background, research interests and goals. You may also be invited to expand upon parts of your PhD application.
Some interviews may ask you to give a more specific presentation as well as answering questions. This won’t normally be long or complicated. You may be asked to talk through your research proposal in more detail, or provide a summary of a previous research project (such as a Masters dissertation).
Once your panel has finished asking its questions, you will be invited to ask questions of your own. This is an opportunity to show your enthusiasm for the subject whilst also finding out more about it.
In some subjects, such as the Arts, Humanities and some Social Sciences, pre-defined (and pre-funded) PhD projects are less common.
This isn’t always the case, of course. Arts and Humanities research can involve huge ongoing projects, focussing on the collaborative analysis of vast archives. Many branches of the Social Sciences also undertake long-term data gathering and analysis.
Yet, the majority of PhDs in these areas tend to be original projects, proposed by the student seeking to undertake them.
If this is the case for your project, you will normally apply to a university’s PhD programme, rather than a specific PhD ‘position’.
If accepted, you will have the freedom to do your own independent research. But you’ll benefit from the resources, training and support available within your programme.
Because these projects and their funding aren’t pre-defined, their interviews can be more flexible.
It won’t be necessary to confirm that you have the specific skills needed for a specific project. Or that you are the student most deserving of a designated studentship.
But this doesn’t mean that the interview for a self-proposed PhD is easier than one for an advertised position. If anything, greater scrutiny may be paid to your project proposal and to your suitability for independent research.
The university itself hasn’t identified this research topic. It needs to ensure that the project is viable, that you understand what’s involved in completing it and that you care enough about it to do so.
Interviews for self-proposed PhD projects may be more informal, but this isn’t always the case.
You could still find yourself discussing your application in front of a panel. If so your experience will be like to that outlined for advertised projects, above.
Or, you may simply be invited to chat with your prospective supervisor. This could take place in their office or in an informal setting on campus.
Don’t underestimate the importance of such a meeting. A relaxed interview can seem less serious. Yet the discussion it enables will still play a crucial role in assessing your potential for PhD study.
Your supervisor may not need to assess your suitability for a specific project, but they still need to be sure that you have the knowledge and skills to carry out research in their field.
Equally, there may not be funding available, but your prospective supervisor is still considering investing three years (or more) of their time and effort guiding your project and assisting your development.
Whether you chat with a supervisor or sit before a panel, you can expect to spend some time discussing your research proposal. This may involve formal questions and answers, or it might simply involve ‘talking through’ what you’ve written. Make sure you’re familiar with the contents of that proposal – and ready to expand upon any areas where more detail might be requested.
Other questions may focus on your previous work, on your career goals and your reasons for undertaking a PhD.
Informal interviews are unlikely to include a presentation. However, you may still be invited to talk freely about your academic interests or offer an overview of previous research work.
If there is an opportunity to allocate funding to your project (through a Research Council studentship, or similar) this may be discussed at your interview. In most cases funding is merit-based, so make sure you are prepared to talk up the specific value of your project.
Whatever form your PhD interview takes, you should prepare for it carefully. Even a more informal discussion will touch on aspects of your previous work and explore your current research proposal.
Reviewing these materials in advance will allow you to discuss them with confidence.
The following are some good ways to prepare for a PhD interview:
Regardless of your interview format, you should pay some attention to your appearance.
Academic workplaces are fairly relaxed on a day-to-day basis, but your PhD interview isn’t too dissimilar from a job application. Show that you’re serious about the opportunity and dress accordingly.
A chat in your supervisor’s office can probably be treated more casually than a formal panel interview, but there’s no harm in erring on the safe side.
You won’t necessarily need to bring anything specific to a PhD interview, unless you’ve been asked to.
You may wish to bring copies of previous academic work. It may be appropriate to mark-up key passages for reference during the interview. Or you could simply have the material available to re-read whilst you wait.
If you submitted a research proposal, you should have a copy handy. Your interviewer/s will probably refer to it.
You’ll also need to bring any presentation materials you’ve been asked to prepare. Make sure you have these in a suitable format. The last thing you need at a PhD interview is malfunctioning presentation software.
Finally, a pen and paper won’t go amiss (handy if you want to make notes as a question is asked).
This may seem like a slightly odd topic. Sure there’s only one thing you want to get out of a PhD interview: a place on a PhD?
Well, yes and no.
You’ll want to make sure you come across as well as possible during your interview and give a fair impression of your academic potential. Hopefully the advice on this page will help with that.
But the PhD interview isn’t just an opportunity for your university to learn about you. It’s also a unique chance for you to learn about your university.
After all, you’re considering committing a significant amount of time and energy to a PhD with them. And this may be one of the few occasions when you visit the campus and meet staff and students before actually starting your project.
With that in mind, here are a few ways to take advantage of the opportunities a PhD interview offers:
Last updated - 26/01/2021