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Ready to take the next step in your academic career with a PhD? Don't miss out on these top tips for acing your PhD interview, from finding the right project to researching your supervisors and preparing for presentations.

You’ve decided you want to further your study following your undergraduate or masters.
You’ve searched the plethora of PhDs available and have submitted your applications, but what next?
How do you prepare for that all important interview?
Read my Top Tips for Interview Prep below.

Where to find a PhD project.

The best ways to find a project for you are to search by subject on, or to reach out to your current (Bachelor/Master’s) supervisors to see what projects they may be offering next year if you’re interested in staying in the same subject and topic.  You can also ask lecturers of your 3rd/4th year modules you liked to see if they are supervising any new projects. This way the projects you see are the ones you’re either most interested in, or tested well in, both of which put you in the best position to do well. If none of the projects available meet your interests, or you have a research direction of your own, you can always approach a researcher or group with this project in mind. However, with this approach, you will be responsible for finding a supervisor willing to undertake this with you, and to secure/provide your own funding.

How to approach the interview,

Make sure you’re as comfortable as possible. Have a drink with you, a notepad, and possibly a set of questions about the project that you want to ask the supervisors. They will ask this! Get comfortable with the platform the interviewers use, if you aren’t already. You can borrow a friend for a few minutes to have a trial Teams/Zoom call, to make sure everything works correctly. Knowing that there won’t be any technical issues should put your mind at ease a little. It might also help to have a short bullet point list of key points of questions you expect to be asked (what modules/subjects you studied that are relevant to this project, what experience you have already, any projects/internships etc that you have worked on already), so you can refer to them briefly when asked.

Keeping focused during the interview.

Project interviews are as much a conversation to get to know you as they are an interview. Supervisors want to see that you have a genuine interest in the topic, and are motivated enough to see it through. This means that while they want to hear from you, it’s okay to stop to think, to ask them to repeat or rephrase a question, or to simply say you don’t know the answer. More often than not you’ll think later of something you wanted to mention but forgot in the heat of the moment, so having a planned list of discussion points can help avoid that.

Researching key project details.

You should be able to have a somewhat small conversation about the topic, or a more in-depth one if you already have experience in it. That being said, you aren’t expected to know everything right away, otherwise there wouldn’t be a point in you doing the project. The point is that you’ll go on to learn the necessary knowledge before applying it. You want to be able to show that you’re able and willing to learn it, not that you already know it all. It’s great if you are able to talk about more in-depth concepts at length, but you shouldn’t be put off a project because you don’t 100% meet the criteria of the ideal candidate, as there’s always time to learn and fill in the gaps.

Research your supervisors.

​It’s always a good idea to do some background reading on the supervisors to see what their topics of focus are, and possibly read some of their publications. This can help give you a better idea of what role they’ll play if you end up being offered the project. It also makes the whole process a bit less overwhelming when you can put a face to the name.

Preparing for presentations.

A PhD interviewer commonly asks for the interviewee to create a short presentation (3-5 slides) to bring the supervisors up to date with what relevant experience you have, to learn a bit about you as a person and to see your motivation for taking their project. It usually only takes up the first few minutes of the interview. It’s a good idea to read back on your old work, Master’s thesis, etc, because if you’re using it as evidence that you’re a good candidate for the role, there’s a good chance you’ll get a question or two about it. The better you are at talking and answering questions on your past work, the better you come across as a candidate.

Final thoughts

What I would say to myself if I went through the experience again: As long as you’re relaxed and well prepared, your interviews shouldn’t be something you need to worry about. They’re a good chance for you to get a better understanding of the project and encourage you before you start. Saying that, everyone feels nervous going into one, and it’s common to feel like it didn’t go well only to be told otherwise. Remember all that you have gone through to get to this point and let that be your confidence. Good luck!

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