A-Z Challenge: Q – Questions for your PhD Interview

As part of the A-Z Challenge and SASiety’s Postgrad Survival Guide, we have previously discussed the benefits of Higher Education and how to secure Funding for postgraduate studies. But even with a research proposal and a potential supervisor, there is one more big hurdle between you and your place on a doctoral programme: the PhD Interview! 

Interviews can be nerve-wracking at the best of times and this one can determine your future academic career. No pressure, then.

First things first: don’t panic! If you are asked to attend an interview, you’ve already got one foot in the door! They would not interview you, if your proposed project didn’t have merit. The purpose of the interview is to see whether you are a good fit for the department / faculty, the university as a whole, and your chosen supervisor – as you will be working together for the next 3 – 6 years (3 years full-time, 6 years part-time study).

The first time I interviewed for a PhD place, I was woefully unprepared. I had no idea what to expect and what questions to prepare for, and suffered from a severe case of stage-fright. This first interview was in Germany, and I faced a panel of 11 professors, lecturers and research assistants. Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

For my second interview, this time via video conference and chatting with my supervisor and the acting director of my institute here at the School of Advanced Study, I knew what to expect. This time, I had prepared cue cards and even though I was still nervous, I was confident about myself and my project.

PhD Interview Questions

Keep in mind that all of your answers should show how you and your project fit into the university and its research. Expect to be asked about yourself, your PhD project, your previous studies and research, your motivation, your chosen university, and problem-solving. You should know your proposal inside and out.

Here are example questions (in no particular order). Practise answering these questions without rambling before your interview. I was asked a few of these, as well as a few clarifications regarding points in my research proposal.

Know what you said in your personal statement! Your answer should be based in your academic journey – what led you to this moment.

Present your strengths in terms of research and how you can apply them in your studies.

Be honest about weaknesses, but also have a solution. If your weakness is a specific skill you haven’t mastered yet, your university might even offer seminars to help – this is something you should know / look up beforehand and mention you’d be interested in them.

Keep this brief. If you have any hobbies that tie into research in the widest sense, mention them. This is often an ice-breaker to put you at ease.

They want to know how doing this particular programme will help you after graduation and how you will benefit from a PhD.

An alternative question is “What makes you the right candidate?” – How do you and your research fit into the research profile of your chosen institution.

Look at the question about weaknesses. This one is specifically about skills that can be trained, like presenting and public speaking. Be honest with yourself. Don’t claim to be an expert at everything.

Whether you’re self-funded or not, what attracted you to this topic? If your topic stems from a specific experience in your life, mention that.

This is not only about how your research fits into the field of study, but also how you fit in. Are there opportunities for collaboration? Teaching (if available) or leading workshops/seminars might also fall under this.

Read, read, read! Read a lot of articles, especially recent ones, to prepare for your interview. If you know who you’re interviewing with, look up their work, too. Show that you know the current research. Even if you don’t get asked this particular question, you might find a way to mention that you read [enter title, author and journal here].

My focus is on eco-criticism in Pacific literature and I was asked whether I would also consider gender in my research. I was able to name an article from 2018, published in a journal my interviewers were familiar with, that dealt with female voices in the Pacific.

Be familiar with the research profile. Does your research fill a gap? Does it build on previous research by the institute?

Keep in mind: your research is sound, if you got to the interview stage! This interview is more about you fitting into the department. Mention that you would consider this a learning opportunity while you continue to apply elsewhere. It’s a good idea to make a note of the kind of things you got asked and what the interviewers seemed to focus on, once the interview is over.

While you can’t possibly prepare for every question you might get asked, it is a good idea to make cue cards about things you want to mention. When we’re under stress, we sometimes forget the most obvious things, so having bullet points to remind yourself and focus can be a big help during an interview. I even colour-coded mine.

Ask Your Own Questions

Ideally, this interview should be a conversation between potential future colleagues. Be prepared to ask a few questions yourself – there is nothing worse in an interview than saying you don’t have questions. Often, an easy flow of conversation is a good indication.

Here are some example questions:

I’m studying by distance learning, so I also added:

The Take-Away

Be prepared. I can’t stress this enough. I had to do my very first PhD interview jet-lagged (date got moved by the university from a month before my holiday to 2 days after I got back from Asia) and in two languages – it didn’t go well. Know your research proposal and statement and get enough sleep the night before.

Be confident, but don’t brag. Once again, you wouldn’t be invited to the interview if your project wasn’t good enough. Keep that in mind. If you prepared your own research proposal, you’re the expert on your topic.

Be comfortable. Don’t rush your answers, take your time to consider. Stand or sit comfortably. If possible, have a glass of water nearby.

Focus on how cool the work is. Your enthusiasm for your project and this opportunity should be contagious. Show that you’re all in.

Have a real conversation. You’re potential colleagues. Have a discussion, make sure they’re the right fit for you and your project as well.

Written by Conny Kaufmann, IMLR PhD Candidate

Check out the other A-Z Challenge participants as well!

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