Advice / Getting started

Preparing for your PhD Interview

Joe Casson PhotoThis post is by Joe Casson. Joe is currently a PhD student in the Faculty of Life Sciences.

I recently helped out at a post-graduate open day, giving advice for prospective students looking to apply for PhDs in the Faculty of Life Sciences.  Although I was specifically asked to help with those applying to the Wellcome Trust PhD programme, I found that the overwhelming concern for most students was the interview stage.  For this reason and the impending interview season, I thought I would share my own experience and give what advice I can to help anyone who is nervous about an interview.  Although each interview will be different, I found there are a few obvious questions for which you should be prepared.

Why do you want to do a PhD?

If you are asked this it is important to be enthusiastic, talk about your past experience and what you enjoy about research. It can be difficult to avoid clichés, but you can explain what you hope to achieve during and after the PhD, and how you think the programme will help with these goals.

Why do you want to study X?

This question gives you a chance to demonstrate the reading you have done around the topic, be sure to read the supervisor’s recent work and any relevant big papers. If you are up to date with the key recent advances in the field before you have even begun, it shows enthusiasm and independence that are required for a good start to the project.

What makes a good PhD student?

I was actually somehow asked this twice in my panel interview so had to come up with two different answers!  It’s quite a simple question though, so make sure you mention obvious things like organisation skills, communication and teamwork, independence and motivation. You can also use this opportunity to sell yourself: “In my experience, I’ve found that my work improves when…”

What would you like to do after the PhD?

Contrary to popular belief, academics are not always looking to recruit future professors so you can be honest if you are unsure about post-doctoral academia. A PhD provides training in many sought-after transferable skills that will help with whichever career you choose, so show that you have considered your options and decided that the PhD is the best choice for your future.

Why Manchester?

This one is pretty easy as Manchester is amazing!  In all seriousness, the university is one of the best in the world and no doubt the department to which you are applying is world class, but feel free to declare a love of Happy Mondays or if you’re a diehard City fan.

Finally, during your interview you will likely be required to discuss a published paper and give your thoughts on the relevant area of research.  Bear in mind that the panel will interview a number of candidates and will have heard the same explanations of Introduction, Results and Discussion before.  The way to stand out here is to be critical.  No paper is perfect and if you go through with a fine toothcomb you can quite easily find gaps in data, overreaching conclusions and ideas for alternative experiments.  Pepper your presentation with these and you will give a more unique interpretation of the research and show that you have already acquired a key skill required for a PhD.


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