Third Time’s the Charm – My PhD Interview Experiences |
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Third Time’s the Charm – My PhD Interview Experiences

How do you know when the person interviewing you is not the best choice for supervising your PhD? Sofia is a first-year PhD student in Austria – this blog is about her experience finding the right project and supervisor.

During my previous degrees I faced the challenge of being interviewed on several occasions. I gave an interview to be accepted by my Bachelors thesis supervisor, an interview to secure my admission to my Masters degree programme, and then another one with my future Masters thesis supervisor.

Every time I sincerely tried my best to express myself clearly and sincerely and make the best possible impression. I always wanted to be genuinely ‘liked’ both as a scientist and as a person. So, when after seven years of studies the time came for me to give interviews to future supervisors and principal investigators (PIs) for my PhD, I thought I was well prepared.

But as I was giving imaginary interviews to myself in the shower, I realised that I knew little about what to expect from the other side of the interview. Until that moment, I had always focused on the project description and my qualifications, but not so much on the person behind the project. And although I had been lucky enough to mostly meet the right people, this hadn’t always been the case.

This time though I was ready to commit myself to a much more challenging and time-consuming degree: not only the most important step in my career so far but the one that would shape me into the scientist I would be for the rest of it. Thus, I had to make sure that everything would be tailor made for me. I had to find the perfect match for my needs.

But how can anyone be sure that the person interviewing them is “the One”? In my case, the answer came quite easily. After submitting several applications at the same time, I was asked to give three interviews during a two-week period. All of them with PIs working abroad. All of them via Skype, as a first step for sorting matching candidates. All of them about different projects I was truly interested in. None of them even relatively similar to another.

These people were interviewing me, but I also needed to make a decision about working with them for three or more years. So, how did I do that? Read on!

First interview: the big fish

On this occasion two PIs interviewed me at the same time for two different projects. Both of them in large groups, part of a famous institute, very specialised in my field.

The interview began with a short presentation of my Masters thesis, followed by 45 minutes of purely technical questions and tough criticism.

Most of the time my interviewers just stared at me waiting for answers. They shared nothing about themselves, their projects, the PhD layout or their motivation. They didn’t need to “sell” the job. They were the “big fish”. By the end of our session I was sweating and praying not to be accepted because I couldn’t imagine myself waking up every day for the next four years and having to work for them.

Second interview: the friendzone

This time my interviewer was a young research technician working on the project I’d applied to. The PI wanted him to make a first list of the most suitable candidates for follow-up interviews with himself. The technician was very kind to me, friendly and chatty.

He told me everything about the project, the PI, the colleagues, himself, the salary, the institute, the university, the town, the best student pubs, the biking, the parties, the beer, the chocolates.

He asked me absolutely nothing. Not who I was. Not what I had done before. Not what I wanted to do. After fifty minutes of giggling we hung up the phone. I was friendzoned. And so was he.

Third interview: the boom!

My final interview was conducted by a young PI, just initiating her own research group in Europe after returning from a four-year postdoc placement in a large US research centre.

She started our interview with a warm smile and a welcoming “I was really impressed by your CV”. This gave me all the courage I needed to continue. She then went on with explaining everything to me: who she was, her scientific background and her aims for this particular project. She was full of enthusiasm and had a solid vision of what she wanted from her first PhD student.

Then she asked me all about myself and answered my questions. She didn’t judge me for the techniques I wasn’t familiar with. She just wanted to make sure that I was willing to learn new things and capable of setting up protocols and operating procedures for the new lab. During our talk she made some jokes, told me about the city and the country, asked me about mine. She was friendly and professional at the same time. The conversation had a flow. And it went smoothly all the way. She had a thirst for training someone. I had a thirst for learning from someone. And something in my head went “Boom!”

That was it. That should be my perfect match. Not to my surprise, three days later I received the official invitation from the PhD office to participate in the final hearing, in person, competing with twenty other candidates.

The right choice

Skip forward: I was successful and moved abroad to start my PhD two months ago.

I now work closely with my supervisor every day. She guides and supports me and I dedicate myself to the project. When we get a chance we get we make a joke and chat a bit about life. And then we focus on work again. And so the days have passed without me regretting my decision for a second.

So, what advice would I give you for your own PhD interviews? The only secret I have to share is the one demonstrated by this post: try, fail and then try again. And remember that sometimes you just have to follow your instinct and that first impressions do count. And if your instinct tells you two times in a row that someone isn’t just right for you, don’t get disappointed.

As they say, third time’s a charm.

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Last Updated: 24 May 2018