What’s it like to be on the other side of the table from someone who holds the direction of the next several years of your life in their hands? Well, that part of the PhD interview process is always stressful—but the rest of it varies tremendously depending on the institution and the situation.
If you have had an academic interview for your Masters course, many things will be the same. The process will start with introductions all round, and you will be expected to tell the academic or panel about your past educational experience and personal background. Keep this part short: we have your application in front of us so we already know these things. We are looking for intangibles here, like your confidence level.
You may also be expected to field a few questions that feel rather like a job interview: “Why do you want to study at University X?” for example. And indeed, in many ways the PhD interview, especially if you are applying for a funded place, is something like a cross between an interview for a job and an interview for a degree place. So research the university, the academic department, and the interview panel members, and have answers to hand about their recent work.
It’s about your project, not just you.
The meat of the interview will focus on your research plans. If you are interviewing to do a specified piece of research, read everything you can get your hands on to prepare. If there is a project proposal or interim reports, go through these carefully and have a statement ready about why you are the best candidate. This should reference specific attributes of the project, such as methodology, aims and objectives, or topics, where you have demonstrable expertise. Also prepare smart questions about the project: we may learn more about you from what you ask us than from what we ask you.
Be ready to explain how you will set up your research, what experience you have in completing projects that are similar in complexity to the work you will be doing, and how you will handle it if results are contrary to expectations.
You can expect to be asked about your motivation, and this may be done in more than one way. That’s because motivation is critical to actually completing a PhD, and non-completion rates are shockingly high at most institutions. Unfinished PhDs are detrimental to the careers of supervisors: we only get credit if you finish successfully. So we want specific, realistic answers. Otherwise, we may suspect that you’ve only applied because you don’t know what else to do after finishing your Masters.
The time is long past when a PhD was an automatic entrée to a career in academia. Accordingly, when you talk about your ambitions for the future as a rationale for further study, we expect these to include a research trajectory, not just a job title.
If you plan to become an academic, ask knowledgeable questions about preparing for the role as a PhD student: whether and how you can gain teaching experience, how you can get involved in departmental and larger research networks, and what links the department has with the major research organisations in your field (for example, the Modern Humanities Research Association or the British Society for Cell Biology).
Specifically for self-funded applicants.
For self-funded PhD students, what staff need to see and hear is that you have a clear reason for doing a PhD and that you have the academic ability to carry it off. We also expect a strong direction for your PhD research, and no concerns about how you will pay.
Successful self-funded applicants also need to be self-directed. There will be questions about how you will handle time pressures (especially if you will be studying part-time in addition to working or caring), what steps you expect to take first, and what contribution to knowledge you think your work can make. We look for questions from the applicant that indicate intellectual curiosity and a high level of knowledge about current research. However, you will have an easier ride at interview than applicants for funded places.