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  • Writer's pictureTimothy Lambden

PhD interview advice

Here’s some PhD interview advice I gained form applying for a PhD at Cambridge University.

Undergraduate Vs PhD interviews

At undergraduate level, it’s more of a case of what the university can do for you. At Postgraduate, it’s a case of what you can do for them. It’s important to be aware of this distinction. You’ll be treated more as a peer than as a student, and this is reflected in the interview.

At undergraduate level you get a degree to set you up for a job in the future. The better the university/degree (BA MSc etc), the better the job prospects. They assess you to make sure you will be a good fit for the course and have the background required to succeed.

At Postgraduate, it’s a case of what you can do for them. You’re not there to attend classes and sit exams, you’re there to conduct research to answer questions no one knows the answer to. There is no set material to read and memorise. You have to create it.

Exam results matter far less than relevant research experience in the field you are applying for. You’re not judged on how well you do in exams, so few PhD programs require an exam based admissions test, they judge you on your competency as a researcher and how well the research you have done stands up to scrutiny. Be prepared for this in your interview.

PhD interview advice:

I’m going to echo advice given to me by a PhD student and awesome human being Tom who played a big role in inspiring me to apply for my PhD. This advice was incredibly valuable to me, and which is generalised below:

Find out who will be interviewing you:

I had four interviewers in total. Although I wasn’t told who they would be beforehand, I had looked up anyone I thought might be, to become familiar with them prior to my interview and their own research fields. It made me feel more relaxed and better prepared as they tended to bias questions more related to their own research field.

Read up on the program you are applying for:

It’s something that not all candidates do unfortunately. I’d strongly recommend speaking to previous students about their experience, it will help give you an idea if the program is the right fit for you.

Style of question:

For a PhD interview, most questions are not to test your knowledge, but to see how you think. Their aim is to challenge you and see how you can cope. Be prepared for questions you wont directly know the answer to. Most questions will be based upon your application, so make sure you know it off by heart.

When they ask a question, you don’t have to answer it immediately, you can take a few seconds to think, and ask for clarification if the question isn’t clear. It helps if you explain your thought process out loud. Try not to take leaps in logic to reach an answer, but explain your thought pattern on how you arrived at the answer instead, it enables them to give you hints to nudge you in the right direction if you’re struggling.

Don’t worry if you feel it’s not going well — everyone feels like that, and that’s the point. Try not to get shaken up, they’re aiming to see how you work under pressure.

Most of the questions will be technical, however at the beginning/end they may ask you more “soft” questions such as “why did you apply to this program”, “what makes you a good candidate for this program”. “Why do you want to do a PhD” etc. You will likely answer these questions in your written application, but they may ask again to see if the answers match. They will also use your application as a basis for further questions, so don’t put anything in your written application that you’re unsure about.

If you’re interested in a particular research area, and mentioned it in your application, be aware of any recent big breakthroughs/papers from that field. They may ask questions about this and want to see if you’re genuinely engaged with the topic.

What not to do:

Definitely don’t bullshit them. Don’t lie at any point; in the interview or on your application, that should be obvious. Be confident but don’t be pretentious or arrogant, it won’t go down well.

And lastly, and most obviously, don’t be late to the interview, there are always a few people who are.

General PhD advice:

Before applying really ask yourself if a PhD is something you wish to do. While I’m over the moon to receive my PhD offer, getting in is the easy part. It’s much easier to receive an offer for a PhD than it is to do a PhD. I’ve got another 4.5 years ahead of me, the journey ahead is a far far more tenuous one.

It would feel strange of me to give PhD advice when I am yet to start my own, so here are some source that were quite useful for me.

For advice on doing a PhD I recommend Raj Pandays 30 lessons learned from my PhD. It’s a short read but one I found incredibly useful.

For those who want a more in depth guide, covering all topics, from application, to picking a supervisor and research topic, I recommend an uncommon guide to research, writing and PhD life by James Hayton. I’d strongly recommend it to anyone thinking about doing a PhD, or who has just started one.

Thanks to Tom, Nordin and Kou for reading drafts of this article.

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