In order to be admitted to a PhD programme at most universities, students have to pass one crucial step in the application process: The PhD Interview. Here’s a list of 30 common interview questions!
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).
By this point, you should have a research proposal – either written yourself if you’re self-funded, or provided if it’s a funded opportunity – and made contact with a potential PhD supervisor.
It’s vital that you prepare for the interview and know your project inside and out. I was recently admitted as a PhD student in Modern Languages & Cultural Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London! It’s still surreal that I’ll be starting my PhD in a week when I’ve been working towards this for four years!
Below you will find questions that you should prepare for and situations you may encounter.
Interview participants and set-up
Every university is different. Best case scenario, you have a chat with your supervisor and the head of the department or institute you’ll be based at. This was my case at SAS, where I had a 40-minute conversation with my supervisor and the acting director of the Institute of Modern Languages Research. Worst case scenario, you sit in front of a panel of a dozen professors and research assistants, as was the case at Universität Giessen, Germany, during my first PhD interview in 2018.
Any combination is possible. If you can, try to reach out to current PhD students at your chosen university to find out what set-up to expect, especially if you suffer stage-fright.
Due to corona or other circumstances, you may be asked to do your interview by video conference. This is ideal, especially if you tend to get nervous during interviews! Being home will keep you calm because you’re in familiar surroundings. And while you should know your project by heart, being on the computer allows you to have an index card next to the computer with bullet points.
This was my interview set-up:
I made sure my laptop was on eye level by putting a few wooden tiles underneat it. Not pictured is the little post-it flag I taped next to my web cam to make sure I look into the camera and keep eye-contact (I tend to avoid too much eye-contact). I had index cards with a summary of my project, questions I wanted to ask, and answers to 3 questions I found trickiest so I wouldn’t ramble. I had a motivational card and a glass of water, as well as my personal statement to remind myself of what I’d written in my application. Because I tend to suffer stage-fright under scrutiny, I took some non-alcoholic Bach’s Rescue Drops an hour before my interview to stay calm – and it worked. Before I connected to the Teams meeting, I made sure my web cam, mic and speakers were set up and working, I didn’t have light glare on my computer screen and I closed the windows to keep noises from the street to a minimum.
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.
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.
1.) Tell us about yourself
Know what you said in your personal statement! Your answer should be based in your academic journey – what led you to this moment.
2.) What are your strengths as a student?
Present your strengths in terms of research and how you can apply them in your studies.
3.) What are your weaknesses as a student?
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.
4.) Do you have any hobbies or outside interests?
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.
5.) What are your career goals?
They want to know how doing this particular programme will help you after graduation and how you will benefit from a PhD.
6.) Why should we consider you?
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.
7.) What would a friend or supervisor say about you?
Be honest. You most likely had to provide references – which may or may not have been sent confidentially – so your interviewer might already know what they said about you. It helps to be on good terms with former professors whom you ask for references.
8.) Are there any training needs you can identify ahead of your PhD?
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.
9.) Why did you choose your research topic?
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.
10.) Why do you focus on [insert your topic here]?
Justify your topic. Is it a niche? Under-represented? Has new data come to light that warrants further research?
11.) Describe your research project.
It helps if you have written an abstract for your research proposal. Give a brief overview of the title, research question(s) and hypotheses, your methodology etc. and what you want to find out.
12.) How did you develop your research proposal?
This is for those who suggest self-funded projects. Present how you got your topic, what gap you want to fill in the literature, how you chose your research method, alternatives you considered etc.
13.) What are important issues in your research areas?
Keep in mind, that research areas often overlap. Focus on your own research area, but mention if there are interdisciplinary implications.
14.) Describe your research area(s).
You should know your research area(s) and recent trends. As above, mention if you are aware of interdisciplinary approaches or if your research area overlaps with other research fields at your chosen university.
15.) How does you project offer an original contribution to knowledge?
This is important, as a PhD should contribute new information to your field of study.
16.) How would you contribute to our programme?
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.
17.) What was the last paper you read?
Read, read, read! Read a lot of articles, especially recent ones, to prepare for your interview. 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 multiculturalism in Pacific literature and I was asked whether I would also consider gender in my research. I was able to name an article from 2019, published in a journal my supervisor has also been published in, that dealt with female voices in the Pacific.
18.) What didn’t you like about your previous university?
Don’t bash your previous institution! But if there were issues, mention them and how you overcame them. It could also be that your new university has a proven track record in something your former university lacked, which made you want to change schools.
19.) How has your background prepared you for this programme?
If you have previous (work) experience that gave you skills you’ll need for studying, mention that. Were there instances where you had to learn time management, researching, or how to study online? These can all be relevant.
20.) Describe your previous research.
Give a quick summary of your master thesis and any papers you have published. Even better if there is a common thread between your previous research and your current project.
21.) What do you believe to be a major current trend in your field?
This is a chance to shine. Show that you are well-read and know the trends and major players.
22.) What is the most important development in your field over the last 10, 15, 20 years?
As above, this tests your knowledge of the literature and whether you know your field. You might pick something controversial as the most important development, but be sure you can defend your decision.
23.) Why did you choose to pursue a PhD this year?
Especially if you have been out of university and in the work force for a while, this is something you may get asked.
24.) If applicable: Why do you want to study part-time / by distance learning?
This can be due to work commitments or familial commitments, for example. Especially as a more mature student, you might not be able to move to a different city due to obligations. Be aware that there might be disadvantages to this type of study compared to full-time on-campus tuition.
25.) Why did you study [bachelor and master subjects]?
Mention whether you picked a specialisation and what your reason was for doing so.
26.) Why did you choose [Professor/Dr. X] as your supervisor?
Be familiar with their research interests and where they overlap with yours. If your project is interdisciplinary, mention why you choose them as first supervisor instead of someone with another research focus.
27.) How does your research fit into the school’s / the institute’s research profile?
Be familiar with the research profile. Does your research fill a gap? Does it build on previous research by the institute?
28.) What will you do if you’re not accepted?
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.
29.) How do you handle stress?
PhD studies can be stressful. Show that you have something to balance that stress out. If working to a tight deadline is a strength (due to work, for example) mention that.
30.) What challenges do you think you might face in this programme?
This might have to do with gaining resources, lack of necessary skills, time management etc.
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:
1.) As a supervisor, what is your supervision style and what do you expect from your research students?
2.) What brought you to this university?
3.) To what extent are students involved in assisting faculty members with related research projects?
4.) Will there be opportunities to publish articles?
I’ll be studying by distance learning, so I also added:
5.) How are distance-learning researchers supported?
6.) In your opinion, what do distance-learning students struggle with more than on-campus students?
7.) How can distance-learning students participate in school and departement activities?
8.) What kind of opportunities do distance-learning students have to work on or attend conferences and seminars?
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.