How to prepare for a PhD interview

Pranav S. Kulkarni
14 sep ’23

One of the most important hurdles before you decide to embark on a career in academia is the interview with the hiring team. No matter whether it is a PhD position or a postdoc, an interview can make or break your chances of being selected. Here are some of my tips to prepare for a PhD interview.

1. Research the hiring team

Generally, an academic interview consists of the researchers or research managers who are involved intimately with the project they are hiring you for. For a PhD it means the supervisors, collaborators and the promoter. It is generally a good practice to get to know their research output, interests and their academic background before appearing for the interview. Not doing so, signals that either you are disinterested or unprepared. I generally browse through their university staff page as well as their Google Scholar profile and read one or two recent articles before appearing for an interview.

2. Research the research objective

If you know what the project you are being hired for is about, it might be a good idea to read up on the basics to see what the objective of the project is and what is generally the state-of-the-art knowledge. This will prepare you to think about how your own research interests and skills align with what you will be tasked to accomplish. In my PhD interview, I read a few research articles about my PhD topic to get a sense of what the work will be directed towards.

3. Prepare to present

Depending on the university, the position and the hiring team, an applicant might be asked to present either their ideas on what can be done and what is their research vision regarding the subject. This presentation showcases your ability to disseminate your work as well as your ability to be clear and thoughtful which are hallmarks of a successful academic. Alternatively, you might be asked to present some of the research work you have done in the past. In this case, the team is looking to see your rigor, thoughtfulness and confidence in your work.

4. Avoid being over-enthusiastic

Universally, people get hired for their perceived enthusiasm about the position. This applies to academia as well. However, many job applicants can be a little too enthusiastic in an interview and that is not generally perceived in a positive light. The best way to avoid that is to think about why this position interests you rather than think about what you should say to impress the interviewers and to be honest.. Keep your answers short and to the point and do not try to portray yourself as being desperate to get this position. Remember that the interview is an opportunity for the interviewer as well as the interviewee to get to know one another and see if this is a good fit.

5. Avoid being too nervous

On the other end of the spectrum, you might also be too nervous and anxious about the interview. This generally happens to first time interviewees and might result in them forgetting their well-prepared answers or even think clearly during the interview. In these cases, the outcome of the interview is generally poor. In my own experience, I have realized that the more interviews you face the less nervous you become. Also, for a first-time interviewee, to not be too nervous, the best solution is to realize that the hiring team wants to interview you because they see something interesting in your profile. That should inspire some confidence in you and help you put your best foot forward.

6. Asking relevant questions

Most advice offering blogs such as these will state that you should always ask questions at the end of your interview. These questions signal your enthusiasm as well as curious nature. I disagree with this slightly. In my experience, asking genuinely relevant questions is the best way. You can be certain that there are things about the project which you don’t know and are curious about. Do not hesitate to ask about those. If you can’t come up with a lot of questions, that is fine. You can also ask questions regarding the research interests of the hiring team and why they were motivated to start this project. You can also ask practical questions such as targets, salary, work hours, etc. but I feel that these should be best left for subsequent interviews and not the first one.

7. Your profile is your story

In general, most PhD interviews touch on the subject of why you want to pursue this position, or what your motivations are. For such questions, you need to be prepared to tell the story of your interests, skills, education and everything else about your life that led you to being interviewed at that moment. This is not something you can piece together easily. Rather, I will suggest thinking about this and prepare an honest story in advance that you can then tell the interviewer. It doesn’t have to be like a sales pitch, but it should clearly show your motivations and aspirations as well as the highlights of your profile so far.

In my opinion, these are some of the most important tips to remember when you attend a PhD interview. Obviously, there are many more tips and tricks that you can find on the web regarding how to prepare for an interview in general that also apply to PhD interviews.

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