PhD interview preparation

Originally posted on the EGU blog network

The following post is written primarily for those who are applying for a PhD project where the funding is supplied by a research council, such as NERC. All PhD interviews are all different, and this post definitely won’t cover everything, but it should help you prepare for most eventualities.

If in doubt, go smart - but don't worry, you can spend the next three years wearing jeans and a hoody. Credit: Alex France
If in doubt, go smart – but don’t worry, you can spend the next three years wearing jeans and a hoody. Photo credit: Alex France

On the day itself, the interview will probably be divided into three or four parts.

i) Meeting with the project supervisor. Being invited to interview is a good sign that the project supervisor is keen to employ you; however, at this stage it is still possible for a project to have several students vying for the same place. For this reason it is important you make a good impression with your potential supervisor. It is also your opportunity to find out as much as possible about the project. Ask lots of questions! This is not really part of the formal interview process but you may be asked to demonstrate some practical skills (e.g., identification of minerals in thin section). Academics can be sneaky like that…
ii) Department tour and lunch. This part is usually conducted by current PhD students and so offers a good chance to quiz them on important aspects of the department (e.g., social life and extra-curricular activities). Remember to convey your enthusiasm for the project; the students may well be asked to report back to the project supervisor at the end of the day. Don’t be alarmed if PhD students sometimes appear cynical and jaded – this is considered normal behaviour for 3rd years.
iii) A panel interview. The most important bit! At this stage, you are being formally assessed as to whether you will be offered funding. The panel will probably consist of between two and four academic staff from the department (this won’t include the project supervisor) and can last anything from five minutes to half an hour. The type of interview is usually quite different to a ‘normal’ job interview, both in the style of questioning and in the things you’ll be expected to talk about. Be aware that the panel may not be experts in your chosen field, so don’t assume you will be bombarded with highly technical questions. Instead, these are the sort of things you’ll be asked…

About the potential PhD project
It is likely that that majority of interview questions will focus upon your overall understanding of the project you are applying for. Before the day itself, try to read up on relevant papers (usually a reading list is supplied with the project advert – if not, ask your potential supervisor for one; you’ll look über keen). Take advantage of meeting the project supervisor and try to get to the bottom of what you’ll really be doing. It’s ok if the project isn’t completely planned from start to finish (this is your job) but the research question should be well thought out, and you should be able to justify to the interview panel why it should be funded. Potential questions include:

  • Describe the project (long version)
  • Describe the project in two sentences
  • How would you describe the project to someone who sat next to you on a train, i.e., to somebody with no scientific background?
  • How would you justify the purpose of this project to a taxpayer?
  • What are you going to be doing that’s new? What about this project has never been done before?
  • What do you expect to find out?
  • What are the potential pitfalls of this project?
  • What is your contingency plan if plan A doesn’t work out?
  • What equipment will you need to use?
  • Will there be any fieldwork?
  • Will you need to apply for any extra funding?
One day this could all be yours! Credit: Jorg Cham (PhD comics)
One day this could all be yours! Credit: Jorg Cham (PhD comics)

About your masters project/dissertation/mapping project
Another big line of questioning will be about the biggest piece of research you have undertaken to date, whether this be a masters or undergraduate dissertation, or in the case of BSc Geology, a mapping project. The interview panel will be trying to find out how you coped with the pressures of research, how you managed your time, and above all, if you enjoyed the process. Taking a copy of your project along, or even just a couple of key figures, can help you to explain complex ideas and demonstrates proactivity.

  • What did you do in your masters project?
  • What did you find out?
  • Did you have any problems? How did you solve them?
  • How did you manage your time? Did you meet your deadline?
  • How does it relate to the PhD you are applying for? (Remember that even if the subject is unrelated, the process will be similar!)
  • What did you enjoy/dislike about research?

About yourself
In contrast to ‘real world’ (non-academic) interviews, you may be surprised at how little you are asked about yourself and your extra-curricular activities. You probably won’t be asked to tell the interviewers about “a time when you worked in a team” or “resolved a conflict” or “demonstrated leadership”. This is all good stuff to keep in the back of your mind, but here are examples of more typical questions:

  • Tell us about yourself
  • What do you enjoy about science?
  • Where do you see yourself in ten years?
  • What are your career aspirations?
  • Why are you interested in this project?
  • How do you cope with failure or setbacks?
  • What do you like doing outside of your studies?

About the university
It’s wise to have a of background knowledge on the type of research being conducted in the department you are applying to. Have a browse at their website and see what big impact papers have been published recently, and check the university press releases to see if anything relevant has been in the news.

  • Why are you applying here (over other universities)?
  • What do you know about the department?
  • What sort of research do we conduct?
  • Why are you applying to us now when you turned down an offer to study here at undergradutate level? (thanks @hibbert_kate for this tip!)

‘Wildcard’ questions
Interviews conducted by senior academics always have the potential to go ‘off-piste’. If they ask you a seemingly bizarre question (e.g., how many pubs are there in France?) then don’t panic, just work through the answer rationally in a way that demonstrates a logical thought process. Some may even throw in a really challenging question to see if you can cope with being put under pressure – be prepared to admit you don’t know something rather than making up the wrong answer!

  • Tell us about an interesting paper you read recently
  • If you had a research budget of £100,000, what would you do with it?
  • If we give you the position, what do you think the rest of us should be doing with our time, whilst you complete your PhD? (thanks to @GeomagJerk for sharing this)
  • What are the biggest unanswered questions in your field?
  • Describe *this* rock (usually restricted to geology interviews!)
  • How would you describe chemical potential to a child?
  • Do a rough calculation to show how thermal energy is transferred to a parcel of crust descending through the mantle

Above all, be interesting (academics love a good theory or story), be confident, and be yourself. If you know i) what the project is and ii) why you want the project, your answers will be more coherent and your enthusiasm will shine through. Good luck!

You could probably paraphrase this...Credit: Dani P.L.
You could probably paraphrase this…Photo credit: Dani P.L.

Look out for the next post in this series: You’ve been offered a PhD – what should you do now?

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About Charly Stamper

I’m an ex-experimental petrologist.
I used to make pretend volcanoes; now I work in renewable energy

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