5 steps to nailing your PhD interview

First things first - well done and congratulations! Be proud of yourself for getting this far. You’ve done the hard part - now let’s make sure you get over the final hurdle. Here are 5 steps to nailing your PhD interview.

Like a job interview, a successful PhD interview takes preparation. Even the most brilliant research proposal may fall short if what the panel sees on paper, does not match what they see in person. What’s more, successful PhD completion - which your chosen university will care about as much as you - takes more than your academic capability.

Your interview is your chance to show you have the focus, motivation and tenacity to complete a large research project on your own. It’s also an opportunity for you and your potential supervisors to confirm if you’re a good fit for each other. After all, the strength of this relationship is one of the key factors to ensure your successful PhD completion.

So how should you prepare for your PhD Interview?

Step 1: Demonstrate your knowledge of your research area

Ensure you are familiar with - and knowledgeable about - your PhD proposal. That means that you can demonstrate knowledge around any PhD interview questions that come your way. Make sure you can contextualise your area of research focus. Why have you developed an interest in this research topic in particular? Why are you proposing the methodology presented? What makes this research project unique and why?

In order to really shine, be prepared to show the panel your knowledge beyond your proposal. In order to achieve this you are going to need a good understanding of how your research proposal differs from the body of work currently in existence, along with knowledge of who the research experts are in this field and their key studies.

Step 2: Sharpen your knowledge of your research supervisor(s) work and that of the wider department

Showing your interview panel about your knowledge of your potential supervisors’ research and that of the wider department is not only a great way to demonstrate your interest in this research area, but to also hint that you may be a good fit within the department longer-term. Forming good relationships with other researchers will stand you in good stead for Post Doc positions and any co-authorship opportunities which may arise in future - should academic research be your longer-term goal. Even if your career aspirations are outside of academia, being able to explain why this university and potential supervisor(s) are your first choice will only help to reinforce your suitability.

Step 3 Show your interview panel why they should invest time and energy in you

Academic researchers and lecturers are incredibly busy people with multiple demands on their time. They may have enthusiasm for supporting your research, but they need to see the same on your side. In addition to your passion, show them that you are a good listener and willing to learn, but that the idea of working autonomously does not faze you. 

Step 4: Come up with some interview questions

Like a job interview, it’s a good idea for you to come up with some prepared questions to ask the panel. The 5 steps to nailing a PhD interview is a series of tasks, so having questions to ask is important . This provides an additional opportunity for you to not only check that this university and supervisor(s) are the right fit for you, but is a further opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of what a PhD involves. Here are some possible questions to consider:

  • How many other PhD students are there in the department/school and are there any opportunities to socialise with them?
  • What support is available to help you with your career?
  • Is training available to help you with the necessary skills to successfully complete your PhD? (eg time management; writing)
  • Is funding available for things like conferences or travel?
  • Are there any opportunities to teach?
  • Who funds some of the key research within the department?
  • What resources will you have access to? eg library, labs etc
  • How quickly will you be expected to complete your PhD and are there options to switch to part-time study/distance learning if relevant?
  • What wellbeing support is available?
  • Do they encourage a work/life balance?
  • What have similar PhD students gone on to do?
  • What does the panel see as the key challenges to you successfully answering your research question?

Step 5: Preparation for the face to face moment

So you’ve prepared what you’re going to talk about. The last step is about taking as much pressure off you on the day by thinking about the details in advance. None of this is rocket science - but considering these points sooner rather than later may just help you stay calm and focused.

Firstly, what are you going to wear? Dress as you would for a job interview. If that shirt’s not ironed, don’t leave it until the interview day to do so. Where is your interview taking place? Make sure you’ve planned your route/parking/booked your tickets, and if possible, familiarise yourself with where you have to go when you arrive. Also familiarise yourself with who is interviewing you, their role/specialism (and name pronunciation!)

Many interviews are now through video call, so ensure you have downloaded - and are familiar with - the software being used. This is particularly true if you are required to present or share further information during your interview. If you’re not based in the UK, make sure you check the time difference based on the time of year.

Nerves can cause real problems for some, so consider downloading a mindfulness app such as Calm or Headspace if this is you. Some even offer specific ‘before an interview’ sessions. Finally, imposter syndrome is more common than a cold with many PhD students. Remember, you are worthy and you can do this!! Just follow these 5 steps to nailing your PhD interview and you will be fine. Good luck.