Updated 1 June 2020
To secure a PhD position at a university you will first have to attend a PhD interview. This interview will take place once the admission committee has decided that your research proposal and academic ability reaches their required standards, and they are interested in hearing more about you and your proposed research topic.
An interview is an opportunity to share your interests with the committee and reveal your drive and suitability for the institution. It is also a chance for you to learn more about the particulars of the programme and determine if it is the correct fit for you.
In this article, we will share the top 10 PhD interview questions with advice on how to prepare.
The format of the PhD interview will vary from institution to institution, and so will the degree of formality. You should expect to answer general questions about your yourself, your motivations and future intentions, as well as discussing your PhD research proposal in greater depth.
You may be asked to attend an interview with your prospective PhD supervisor, or have a panel interview with admissions and the head of the department you wish to join.
It is most likely that you will be required to speak to several interviewers, one of them being your potential supervisor.
The interview may be formal and require a presentation of your proposed project, or it may be a more informal chat about your research, its nuances and potential legacy.
Depending on your location, your interview may either be face-to-face or via Skype (or an alternative video conferencing service). Video interviews are common when applying for a PhD, especially if you are located far away or internationally, so be prepared for this eventuality.
Do not be afraid of enquiring as to the interview structure when you receive your invitation to interview. Your interviewers will want you to feel as comfortable and prepared as possible, to be able to gauge your potential and fit accurately, so will likely be happy to answer any queries you may have.
When preparing for your interview, make sure you know your proposed research topic/question and its academic relevance, scope, limits and future potential in great detail. You are applying for a rigorous research position so you must know your stuff.
Also, research the institution and your potential supervisors to see what work they have done in this field and be prepared to talk about it in depth.
Your interviewer(s) will be looking for an indication that you have carefully thought through your proposal and have the required background knowledge to excel in conducting further research. You should have a comprehensive idea of existing research in your field and of the methodologies you will use to conduct your project.
You must be able to convey your proposal clearly, which, in the case of heavily scientific or niche research, is not always easy. Bear in mind that some of the interviewers in your panel will likely not have the same depth of knowledge as you (and some will have more).
Make sure that you are prepared to both simplify your explanation of your research, as well as discuss it in greater, more technical detail. Adept simplification is the mark of a candidate who has a command of their research area.
The best way to fully prepare for a PhD interview is to run through the questions you are likely to be asked and think about your responses. Below are ten of the most critical questions, with tips on how to answer them successfully.
This open question is sometimes used to begin a PhD interview, the idea being that it gets you comfortably talking about a topic that is not too daunting or technical.
It provides the opportunity for you to tell the interviewer(s) about your academic background and personal motivation for following this path. Feel free to explain why you came to be interested in your chosen topic through personal anecdotes, but keep these relevant and appropriate.
It is best to link all personal information back to your academic studies if possible, keeping the conversation on topic. Interviewers want to get to know more about you, but this information should be relevant and add to your suitability for the PhD position you are applying for.
The context of this question will differ depending on whether you have applied for an advertised PhD project or have devised your own research proposal.
The rule of thumb is to ensure you prepare comprehensively for a question that asks you about the specifics of the research project you will be working on during your PhD – whether it was self-crafted or pre-defined.
You will be expected to have mastery of the proposal and be able to discuss its direction, academic contribution and potential limitations in detail. You should also be prepared to convey how you will deal with setbacks or complications that may arise when conducting your research.
Describing your research project will invite further questions on your topic, methodology and approach. You must be able to answer any questions about your proposed research comprehensively and defend your decisions.
It is also crucial that your genuine interest and drive for conducting this project is relayed to your interviewers, so let your enthusiasm for your research topic show.
For this question, it is good to talk about the specific features of the programme that attracted you. This shows that you know what the programme offers in detail, have thought carefully about your application and value the nuances and specificities this PhD structure offers.
Be prepared to discuss your motivations for conducting further research in this field. Interviewers are looking for a genuine passion for your academic topic. Reflecting upon and explaining what led you to create, or apply to complete, this particular project will help to convey your enthusiasm.
It is also an opportunity to discuss what drew you to the university and faculty, as well as to the specific programme. Think back over what features and benefits encouraged you to apply and convey your positivity towards them.
Maybe there are certain professors you are particularly interested in working with, or the faculty approach to the programme differs from others you considered and you feel it is best suited to your research goals and learning style.
Conveying a level of engagement with the department and its existing and current research will likely serve you well, so do your research.
Also, when answering a question of this kind, convey not only your motivation behind applying for the programme but show that you have the drive required to complete it. PhDs are significant undertakings and will take determination and devotion, so communicate that you have a passion for the programme that will see you through.
Interviewers will be looking to see that you have thought about where you are heading after completing your doctorate. This helps them determine your motivations and if you are applying for a PhD for the right reasons.
If you have clear goals, you are more likely to be committed to the programme. Ensure you can discuss these openly and confidently.
If you intend to stay and progress in academia, as many undertaking PhDs do, this question is a chance to show that you are well informed and understand the demands of an academic career path.
If you have a different path in mind, don’t be afraid to share it. PhDs can lead to a variety of different career paths.
The university will want to ensure that they can provide you with the correct skills and training for your chosen path, so share your aims and impress your interviewers with your aspirations of practical application.
Questions like this one are good opportunities to reflect upon your strengths and abilities. Make sure you have fully researched the types of competency that the university will be looking for and relate your answer back to these.
Ensure that you can explain how the qualities you outline relate to the successful delivery of your PhD project. The ability to be self-reflective is a valuable quality so be sure to elaborate and back up your examples of strengths with solid examples.
Be honest about your strengths and also what you find challenging. You can use this space to talk about how you expect to grow and develop through the programme, and identify what you are hoping to learn.
You may well be asked a more specific question about your personal training needs, so ensure you have considered what would be beneficial.
Your interviewers will want to know that you are being realistic going into their PhD programme, as there will inevitably be challenges encountered when carrying out your research.
Think carefully about potential issues, whether these are related to work-life balance or research specificities. When preparing to talk about your proposal at interview, think about these possible problems and devise how you would overcome them, so you can convey this confidently to your interviewer.
Interviewers will be impressed by the fact that you have carefully thought through the challenges and will be reassured by your determination and commitment to succeeding in completing your PhD.
This question addresses project legacy and contribution and it is highly likely a question in this vein will be encountered at interview. Ensure you have thought through the wider implications of your project and any branch research that it may inspire.
Impact is particularly important if you are applying for a funded PhD. This will have particular conditions and those who devised the project will have certain aspirations for the impact the work will deliver.
For both a self-created or pre-defined project, ensure you understand the importance of the contribution the research is making and the impacts practical application of the research could have going forward.
The extent of the tangible impact a project may have will differ depending on discipline and topic but all projects will have their own academic contribution. Ensure you can sell the relevance and importance of your proposed research strand.
If you are being interviewed for a non-funded position, you may well be asked this question. It may also arise in interviews for funded positions where the funding has not yet been secured or may not fully cover the project expenses.
Funding will also need to be a consideration if the proposed project timescale overruns.
Your interviewers are not prying into the details of your personal finances. They want to know that you can take on this commitment without it being a financial burden that will negatively interfere with your life and studies.
Display that you fully understand the commitment in terms of both time and finances, and have a clear plan to meet the requirements.
When undertaking a PhD you are not just a student but a junior academic and contributing member of the faculty. You may well have teaching responsibilities, though these may be in an assistant capacity to begin with, depending upon your level of experience.
You will likely have an opportunity to publish your research or be involved in other relevant publications with your supervisor. Think about what you can offer the department and promote your abilities.
If you have had research published previously or presented your work at academic conferences, this is the time to mention and be proud of your achievements.
When asked a question of this kind, it is also beneficial to display that you know other research that is currently being conducted in the department. When preparing, think about any potential crossovers or ways in which your research may contribute to already established strands or projects.
A PhD interview is an opportunity for your interviewers to get to know you, but it is also a chance for you to determine if this programme is the right fit for you. Viewing it as a two-way exchange will ensure you gather all the information you require to make an informed decision and help to calm any nerves you may have.
Use this space to ask any questions you may have regarding:
Examples of thoughtful and useful questions may include:
It is important that the PhD is the correct choice for you, so don’t be afraid of asking questions that will help you feel assured of this.
By the time you have made it to the PhD interview stage, you will have likely already done much of the project exploration and institutional/programme research needed to make you confident in answering the interviewers’ questions.
By practising the answers to a variety of potential PhD interview questions, you will be well prepared to tackle the interview.
Ensure you know your PhD project in detail and can defend your research approach and stand up for the relevance of your research question, displaying its academic contribution.
Be clear on your motivations and goals, letting your enthusiasm for conducting your research shine through.
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