The PhD Interview – What to Expect and How to Prepare |
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The PhD Interview – What to Expect and How to Prepare

Written by Mark Bennett

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!).

What happens at a PhD interview?

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 PhD interview it could involve:

  • A formal question and answer session in front of a postgraduate recruitment panel.
  • A presentation, based on your research proposal or area of expertise.
  • A one-to-one discussion with your prospective supervisor.
  • An informal lunch with your prospective supervisor, other members of your interview panel and / or current PhD students.
  • Various ‘orientation’ activities. These might include visits to research spaces and opportunities to chat with staff and students.

PhD interview presentation

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:

  • How long the presentation should be – usually this won’t be any more than 15 minutes
  • What they want your presentation to cover – for example, your academic background, your research methods, the ‘impact’ of your research
  • How the presentation should be delivered – this will usually be PowerPoint but you might need to provide supplementary materials for your audience or deliver the presentation remotely over a video call

You’ll normally be speaking before a small committee of staff members, who will ask you questions about your research after the presentation.

PhD interview length

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.

Interviews for advertised PhD positions

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!).

Interview goals

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.

Interview format

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:

  • Your project supervisor (or supervisors). They will assess your academic and personal suitability for the role.
  • A member of the university or department’s postgraduate admissions staff. They will normally chair the panel and ensure the interview is properly conducted. This person could also represent any structured PhD programme your project might form part of.
  • The lead investigator for your prospective research group. This is the academic with overall responsibility for the research your PhD will be part of. Normally they will be your supervisor, but this may not be the case for larger laboratories or departments. If so, they might attend your interview.
  • A funding representative. If an external body funds your PhD they may have a presence at your interview. This won’t normally be the case for Research Council studentships (which are managed by universities) but it could occur for other organisations.

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.

Interviews for self-proposed PhD projects

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.

Interview goals

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.

Interview format

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.

Research proposals

Our guide to writing a research proposal has more detail on how you can make a success of this important part of a PhD application.

Preparing for a PhD interview

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 tips on how to prepare for a PhD interview:

  • Review your research proposal – If you submitted a research proposal as part of your PhD application, make sure you re-familiarise yourself with it. It’s highly likely that you’ll be invited to discuss this document at your interview. Be prepared to talk in more detail about your plans and ideas. You should also be able to back up any claims you have made.
  • Re-read previous academic work – There’s a good chance your interview will touch on your Bachelors and / or Masters experience. If you are applying for a specified project, this allows the panel to check the relevance of your previous studies. If you are proposing your own project a discussion of your academic background can help reveal the development of your interests and your enthusiasm for the PhD. You won’t be ‘examined’ on any of this prior work, but it can be helpful to refresh yourself.
  • Read some of your supervisors’ current research – Whatever form your PhD will take, it makes sense to be familiar with what your supervisor is currently working on. This will show that you take the prospect of working with them seriously. Needless to say, it also proves that you understand the nature of the work they do! If you don’t know who your supervisor will be, take a look at some of the research currently being done within your prospective laboratory or department.
  • Look at other current research in your field – By the same token, it makes sense to have some idea of the current state of academic scholarship in your area. Remember: a PhD needs to be an original piece of research. Make sure you know what’s going to be unique and original about yours. This step is especially important if you’ve taken a break from academia and aren’t up to date on current work in your area.
  • Check the details of your project or programme – This may seem obvious, but it can be easy to overlook. If you’re applying for an advertised position, make sure you know it inside out. Know what its objectives are. Know who else (other than your supervisor) is involved in the research. Know about any external funders. The same applies to the PhD programme that will ‘host’ a self-proposed PhD. Find out what other research is currently being carried out there. Look up past and present students. Check what training and development is available.
  • Practice any presentation material – If you’ve been asked to prepare a presentation, make sure you practice it. This is particularly helpful if you aren’t familiar with public speaking. The interview panel will be supportive and encouraging, but you want to look as confident and capable as possible.

What to wear

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.

What to bring

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).

Getting the most out of your PhD interview

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:

  • Visit your prospective laboratory or department – You’re going to be spending a lot of time in your university’s academic workspaces, using its facilities. Take the opportunity to look at these whilst you’re on campus. You may find that a brief tour is part of your interview format. If it isn’t, ask if you can have a quick look around – if nothing else, this demonstrates your interest.
  • Chat to current PhD students – If you do visit your prospective department, take the opportunity to speak to any current PhD students you meet. They’ll be happy to answer questions about what it’s actually like to study at this university (or with this supervisor…).
  • Explore the campus – This may seem a little trivial, but arriving early and having the time to explore your university can be a nice way to relax before your interview. It could also give you something to chat about later.
  • Ask good questions – Whatever format your interview takes, you’ll have a chance to ask questions as well as answer them. This is important, because it allows you to show your motivation and engagement with the project or programme. But it’s also a way for you to find out useful things about the university, your supervisor and expectations of you as a student. Make sure you know the right questions to ask.

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Last Updated: 07 October 2022