PhD Interviews- Attempting to clear up some of the mystery

The PhD interview seems to be an area of great variety, mystery and something that I personally was quite afraid of. Since they are all so different and you can never really know what to expect I’ve tried to collate a variety of experiences from different subjects and funding routes. However, the variety of responses made it hard to even really categorise them so I’ve just put them all into a post in no particular order. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed and I hope that this will help reassure or at least inform any future applicants that whatever happens, there is no normal…

**If you replied to me and can’t see your response here please let me know asap- the servers went down during my initial attempt at writing this!**

Being interviewed by people I already knew was the hardest thing for me I think – it’s hard to be professional but also keep those friendly relationships up at the same time. The main thing my interviewers wanted was justification – for my choice of topic, for my choice of texts, for my choice of focus in the proposal, everything. Plus the absolute guarantee that I could finish in 3 years, of course. My main advice for arts/humanities candidates would be that you need to *really* know your topic and why you want to do it. You’re not expected to be an expert already, but you are expected to know exactly why the topic is a) original and b) valuable. Also not to be too downhearted if you don’t get it first time round. I know quite a few people who took a year to fine tune things and then reapplied and were successful, plus also a few self-funded people who are doing just fine.
(Gemma, Film Studies, Exeter- an interview for funding)

I had 3 supervisors in mine (for 2 projects) and a chair, which was quite difficult at times as one project was on phytoplankton, another was on the genomics of invasive species, so it was difficult to make sure I was ticking both boxes! They asked about my previous work to ease me in. The chair asked questions relating to my motivation for doing a PhD, including why I didn’t pursue my bachelors dissertation as a PhD as I was very enthusiastic about it! Then the supervisors asked questions specifically relating to their projects. I was asked to described one of the PhDs as if I was talking to the general public rather than scientists. At the National Oceanography Centre they also present you with a piece of data you wouldn’t have seen before and get you to describe what you see. They essentially want to see how you think and analyse information. It was fairly relaxed but mentally draining so I felt exhausted afterwards!
(National Oceanography Centre, 2014)

I didn’t go through an interview process, but my supervisor always has a “mock” interview with him + his current PhD students interviewing the applicant a couple days before the real interview, and the applicants have all been successful–not sure if you want to work that in but it’s always worth asking your supervisor if you could have a mock interview before the real one!
(Scott Polar Research Institute)

My interview actually took place on my birthday, which immediately made it a more jovial affair. The panel consisted of four senior academics from the research cluster, who interviewed all potential candidates. I seem to have come out on top so I was offered the post. The interview itself was very friendly and a combination of questions about me, such as my motivation behind pursuing a Ph.D. or my future career aspirations, and ones regarding the project (e.g. why it was important to find out about mid-Holocene climate change). The panel largely wanted to know about me though, why I was interested in this specific topic (I made sure to read all the relevant papers before the interview), how I was going to deal with things not working out as planned, and what kind of avenues I’d like to pursue as sidelines to the main project. Overall, they wanted to know that I would be able to stick it, have a genuine interest in the topic, and that I could get along with other people 🙂
(Southampton, Geography, 2007)

My interview took place at a research institute rather than a university, but all three of my supervisors were present in the interview. They each asked a couple of questions about my previous research experience- through my undergraduate dissertation, and my masters. They also asked me to explain some of my knowledge on computer programming and languages- as this was stated on my CV but they wanted more details. Finally they asked about my knowledge of the project I was applying for. The questions included asking what I thought the project would entail and what I already knew about the specific area- it’s good to have read a few papers on it before the interview! They also asked what my opinion was on fieldwork, and whether I was still willing to accept the PhD with no fieldwork. I think it is always good to have a question or two for the interviewers also, as it shows that you have read up on the project, and are interested in finding out more. I’m not sure how long the interview actually took, as time flew by, but I think it was around 45mins to 1hr.
(Jenny, Atmospheric Sciences, BAS)

My interview was in Zürich so since I was travelling there from Edinburgh they made a full day of it. In the morning I had to give a presentation based on my Masters thesis in front of the group and everyone could ask questions, but that wasn’t so bad since I had had to give that presentation in Edinburgh too. There was then some time just with the PhDs and post-docs in the group and later I had a lab tour (the PhD was split between two departments so that took a while) and an interview with two professors which was very informal – just asking why I wanted that PhD and why I wanted to do it in Switzerland, what my other interests were etc. I think the main thing is to show your enthusiasm rather than technical knowledge (as that is what you’re going there to learn). They said they had others to interview and I didn’t hear for ages so assumed I hadn’t got it but I emailed to ask and I had got it – so well worth chasing up if you don’t hear for a while!
(Ruth, geochemistry, Zürich)

My interview at Manchester was a very casual meeting with my potential supervisor, whom I’d contacted in advance before officially applying to the course. I applied to her specifically with a two-page proposal and before meeting she encouraged me to turn it into a fuller ten-page outline of my research plans. We then met to discuss the proposal, and both felt it was a good fit for the university and for her as a supervisor, so from there we turned it into a course application and then a funding application (neither of which required official interviews at Manchester, though the funding application was tough and I was unsuccessful first time round – I was funded from my second year onwards). Before successfully applying to Manchester I had several interviews for funding at other universities (typically, in the humanities in the UK getting a place on the course isn’t as tough as getting the funding). One at Cambridge was a phone interview, and two at Exeter were more formal interviews in which I sat in front of a panel of three people who grilled me on my research proposal. I think when you meet a potential supervisor for a meeting she or he is trying to get the best out of you and find out what the heart of your research interest is. When you meet with a funding panel, they are trying to distribute a very small pot of funding to a very large number of applicants so they are rather tougher.

(Phd, humanities, Manchester)

My PhD interview is now 8 years ago. I received the invitation from Exeter and stopped there for the interview on my way to join a research cruise. At the time, I had all the confidence of a Masters degree with a year in research, and while brutally honest about my abilities or lack thereof, none of the restraining self-doubt of a PhD. I don’t remember much of the detailed questions, I do remember the friendly atmosphere. As I entered the room I met with two men and a woman, who would later be identified as the lab manager and the two supervisors. Charles, who would become my main supervisor, immediately put me at ease with his unassuming, intelligent manner and friendly smile. The researchers had a genuine interest in me and my previous work and education, and it was more of a scientific conversation than a drilling. The lab manager asked a few more detailed questions regarding research ethics, laboratory experience and general squeamishness. A tour around the labs concluded the interview, before I got back on the train for my flight to join ship. Looking back now, I think that they were mostly interested in my potential; my potential to develop as a researcher, my potential to move knowledge forward, my determination to achieve goals and my general application to work and challenges. I was by far not an ideal candidate in terms of background – I had studied marine biology and worked in deep sea ecosystems, applying now for a PhD in freshwater fish, hormone disruption and population genetics. And yet, when I returned from the cruise an offer was made. There are two caveats to this story. Firstly, I did not apply for a Research Council funded PhD. And secondly, I was interviewed under the old system. Then, PhD funding was generally secured by the University and an appropriate candidate then sought. This changed a few years ago, and I am not too clear on the details as I have not had much dealings with it, but I think now Universities first choose a candidate, and the candidate then has to compete with all other PhD candidates for RC project funding. Not everyone is, of course, successful, which I imagine makes this a much more stressful experience. However, I am convinced that the potential slumbering in an applicant is, nonetheless, still of decisive importance.
(Marta, Exeter, biological sciences)

And finally me:

I had two interviews at Reading for two different PhDs and they were very different experiences and both different again from the standard Reading meteorology experience.

My interview with my current supervisor was quite informal, he seemed quite concerned that my degree title contained ‘proficiency in Spanish’ until I explained that it was only through optional modules and I could still do maths. He then decided to test this by writing an integration problem on his whiteboard. I couldn’t solve this off of the top of my head- I generally need to sit and scribble away at maths on my own- but then he asked “do you think you could solve this on your own?”. He obviously believed my response as I got the job!

My other interview was with a panel. As much as they were friendly it was more intimidating to have three people. I’d tried to prepare for this one by reading some papers but that seemed more detail than they needed, they were more worried about the way I thought. One thing I could have been better prepared for was that even though the PhD description described some skills as unnecessary, I needed to be able to show that I could learn them.

The most common Reading experience is thorough their annual PhD visit day where all the supervisors describe the projects they have on offer and then applicants book short interview slots for the projects that they’re interested in. Then students are matched up to supervisors depending on their and the supervisors’ preference.

Note: One thing I hadn’t really thought about when starting this was self funded PhDs as it doesn’t happen so often in the sciences. If that’s a route you’re looking at then I’d recommend hearing from Gemma here.

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