How to Crush your PhD Interview (Top 10 Questions)

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Grad school interviews are a lot like normal job interviews, but there are some differences to keep in mind when preparing for a PhD interview. For example, there’s a lot more emphasis on the substance than soft skills (though those are still important). There may be more emphasis, for example, on how you cope with working in isolation than on your teamwork skills.

Read on for my guide to absolutely smashing your PhD interview, including the top 10 PhD interview questions you should prepare.

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1. Research your program, department, and supervisor.

When preparing for a PhD interview, read your supervisors' recent papers, look at what the department has published recently, what they publicize, any news, etc. Academics have a reputation for a having a bit of an ego, so it’s key to read and engage with your potential supervisors’ work.

You should also ask who will be at your interview and research them beforehand (in case someone other than your supervisors will be in attendance).

2. Prepare some questions.

Below are the top questions to help you in preparing for a PhD interview (that they asked me in mine). This is by no means exhaustive and different universities will have different policies, but it’s definitely a good starting point!

  • Tell us about yourself and your experience.
  • Why do you want to do a PhD?
  • If you don’t get funding from the university/department, how will you fund your studies?
  • What recent publications did you find most interesting?
  • Tell us about your research project. They will often keep probing you deeper about your methodologies. It’s okay not to have everything figured out yet, but they want to gauge your problem-solving abilities.
  • They may test you on your technical knowledge of your PhD subject. It’s okay to say you don’t know some things but be honest about your knowledge gaps (and how you plan to address them).
  • What specific skills or experience do you have that make you a good fit for this project and the department?
  • Why are you interested in this research question? Why are you interested in our group or department?
  • Tell us about your master’s thesis (or another substantial research project).
  • Do you have any questions for us? You should definitely take advantage of this. The interview is as much a chance for you to see if the supervisors/university are a good fit as it is for them to get to know you. I asked questions about how the two supervisors saw the balance of supervision between them and about training opportunities . It is also fair to ask them when you can expect to receive an answer about admission and funding.

3. Re-read your Resume/CV, research proposal, personal statement, and previous dissertations.

They’re likely to refer to these when they’re interviewing you, so you should make sure you know them inside out when preparing for a PhD interview.

While many programs don’t require a separate writing sample, it’s a good idea to go over your previous research projects. They may ask you how you designed their methodologies, conducted analyses, etc. to get a sense of the strength of your research skills.

4. Make sure you know where you’re going for the interview.

Know how long it’ll take to get there, and what room you’ll be in. If you’re doing it remotely, make sure Zoom/your internet are working and that you have the contact info of the person you’ll be speaking with (and know who is actually going to place the call—you or the interviewer).

5. Practice with someone.

It’s amazing how much even one practice session can boost your confidence and make your answers seem more natural when you get into the actual interview. It doesn’t have to be someone who regularly interviews people (though this does help as they’ll likely be tougher on you!).

Give them the list of questions you’ve prepared and run through them a couple of times. It’s important not to memorize your answers (so they end up sounding too rehearsed), but just to practice enough so you feel comfortable answering them.

6. Dress professionally.

This is one people often have different opinions on, as academia is generally more casual than the private sector. However, it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed.

I wore a suit to my interview and I think generally that corporate office appropriate attire is the move here. I did dress it down with flats instead of heels. Though I was definitely still a bit overdressed, they remembered me at least!

7. Bring several copies of your resume/CV, research proposal, and personal statement, as well as a notebook.

As discussed above, it’s good to have them for reference during the interview. It also shows you’re prepared, particularly if you’re able to give them copies (academics are notoriously disorganized and there’s a good chance at least one of them might be missing a copy of some of your application materials).

A notebook is helpful for writing down the answers to any of the questions you have for them. I find that, when I’m nervous, I tend to not remember things as well, so it’s important to write down key information to refer to later (particularly things like when you can expect to find out about the outcome of your application).

8. Be confident and conversational.

A successful PhD interview will be engaging for both sides and feel more like an insightful conversation about a topic you (and your potential supervisors) are interested in.

Confidence can really set you apart in the interview as well. The stereotypes about PhD students sometimes lacking social skills are true, so some poise can really give you a leg up.

9. Send a thank you email.

Within 24 hours of your interview, as with all interviews, you need to send each person who was present in the interview a separate email thanking them for their time. It is also helpful to reference something specific you discussed in your interview that you found particularly insightful or memorable.

10. Get your offer!

If you follow these tips, you should be well on your way to getting admitted to your dream grad school program! If you haven’t heard by the time they said you would, give it a couple more days, and then feel free to follow up.

Let me know below if you’ve tried any of these tips and what worked for you in your grad school interviews! Best of luck!

Or, still not sure if doing a PhD is right for you? Check out our articles on the 10 reasons you should (or shouldn't) do your PhD, a day in the life of a computer science PhD student in London during the pandemic, and a week in the life of a PhD student.

Interviewing for a PhD in London? Check out my practical tips for moving to and living in London.

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