Example PhD interview questions and answers
How to succeed in your PhD interview with answers to frequently asked questions
The interview is a crucial and inevitable part of the PhD application process. It is an opportunity for the supervisor(s) and funding bodies (if it is a funded PhD) to determine whether you are the right candidate for the challenge that is undertaking a PhD. Although this can be a daunting process, with preparation you can go into your interview feeling confident and put your best self forward.
Interviews for PhD positions will likely involve a short presentation on the proposed research project and/or your previous research experience. You can adapt the focus of this depending on how much prior experience you have to showcase. If you have an extensive research portfolio from your BSc/MSc project or time spent in industry, do not shy away from it, especially where there is direct relevance to the project you are applying for.
Following the presentation, you will be asked questions and will also have the opportunity to ask questions of your own (we recommend having a few prepared!).
We have collated some of the questions that are frequently asked in a PhD interview, along with tips on how to answer them. But please remember, the interview process varies widely and this blog aims to provide a suggestive framework on how to answer.
“Tell us about yourself”
This is a typical opening interview question and is often used as an icebreaker. You can practice your answer to help you get off to a good start when you will be most nervous. While it might be tempting to go straight into the details of the project and your career thus far, you can ease into the interview – there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss the project later. Instead, you can focus on your academic career so far, your scientific interests (e.g., a strong interest in biochemistry), and relate them to your desire to undertake a PhD.
“Why do you want to do a PhD?”
This is an important question that you also need to ask yourself, and be convinced of the answer! A PhD is a big undertaking and having the right reasons will carry you through the potentially tough times. Example points to include here:
- A professor during your undergraduate degree that inspired you
- A desire to help improve the outcome of patients with a specific disease (relevant to the proposed project)
- A love for science that you want to put into practice and contribute to the collective knowledge in that area
- You are an inquisitive problem-solver and want to combine this with your interest in [topic].
Stay true to yourself with the reasons that motivate you to do a PhD – there is no right answer and if you have come this far you likely have the right motivations.
“Why do you want to work on this project/Why do you think this project is important”?
This is your opportunity to go into the details of the research proposal and its relevance in the wider context of the research field. This is particularly important if the project will be competing for limited funding. You want to demonstrate to the panel that this project is a worthwhile investment and has clear, impactful outcomes. You can also discuss specific techniques that will be used in your PhD, and how these are cutting-edge and are perhaps more likely to lead to a publication. If the project has potential for collaboration, highlight this and the intended outcomes.
“Why do you want to work in this research group/for this PI?”
Make sure you have thoroughly researched your supervisor’s group, and their previous publications and collaborations. Perhaps highlight a recent high-profile publication or a new technique they have recently developed. This will show your commitment and enthusiasm to join the group, as well as reflect what the group and university are proud of. A supervisor needs to know that your research goals align and that you will mesh well with the rest of the team.
“What can you bring to this group?”
This is your opportunity to showcase both your technical and soft skills. Here you can mention the research experience you already have and how these skills and ideas will enhance the lab. If you do not have much research experience, talk about how you are a fast learner (with examples) and have a keen sense of science and willingness to learn. As mentioned in the previous answer, your future supervisor will want to ensure you are a valuable addition to their team. If you are not specialized in a technique, don’t worry – you are here to learn and most people starting a PhD have limited lab experience.
“Why do you want to be at this university/on this funding program?”
A PhD is a significant time and financial commitment; the funders or members of the university need to know candidates are committed to them as well as the research. Spaces are limited and there needs to be differentiation between candidates. A tip here is to flatter your interviewers by mentioning what they are proud of about their institutions (easy to find online). Example points to mention:
- A world-leading institution with an excellent publication and funding record
- Research collaborations that interest you or could benefit you (e.g., close ties with clinical trials or pharmaceuticals companies)
- Specific facilities or equipment the university has to offer (e.g., a super-resolution microscope)
- The ethos of the university is one you closely align with
- Funding programs that come with additional training and funding opportunities for internships and collaborations. Specific benefits outside of the research are the ones you will want to highlight to the funders, to show your commitment not only to the PhD but also to their investment in you.
“What makes you the right candidate for this PhD project?”
This can be a tough question to answer if you have had limited prior experience, but do not be afraid of positively selling yourself. Focus on your determination and desire to contribute to research, your drive for this project, your technical skills, your belief in the impact of the project, and how well suited you are to your supervisor/supervisor’s team.
“What would you like the impact of this project to be?”
Impact in research is mostly measured by publications or obtaining data to apply for further grants. Your ability to discuss this shows your awareness of the research world beyond the microsphere of your PhD. Research is meant to be disseminated via publications and conferences. The immediate impact of your project will not be clear-cut at the start, but you can openly discuss it, which shows a maturity that will benefit you in the interview. Essentially, you want to demonstrate that the proposed project will have an impact beyond the PhD itself and will inform future research.
“What difficulties do you expect to encounter during this project?”
Here you can discuss the specific technical challenges you have identified (e.g., I will need to optimize the culture of these primary cells or I will need to establish a new model to investigate vascular dementia in iPSCs). This shows that you have thoroughly considered the project and are not afraid of facing challenges. If you can, discuss how you plan to overcome these challenges.
“What are your strengths/weaknesses?”
This is another popular interview question and one to prepare. Personalize your answer with examples and use tools like STAR (S-situation, T-task, A-action, R-response) to structure your answer. When discussing weaknesses, you can share how you are working on these, or perhaps put a positive spin on them. Read our interview success blog for general interview tips!
“What do you want to do after your PhD?”
You may not be sure of your future career plans at the time of your interview, but it’s good to prepare a response as this is a common question. Doing a PhD sets you up for an academic career path in research and teaching. Even if this is your plan for your career, emphasize your desire to work in academia and teaching. It is also okay to say you will keep your options open to whatever paths come your way during the 4+ years of your PhD.
“Describe a time you experienced a setback and how you overcame it.”
This is a very common interview question in general and we would advise giving an example in a professional or learning setting rather than a personal one. Plan ahead and respond in a STAR format to help you give a clear and impactful answer. If a similar situation arose again and you dealt with it differently, make sure to highlight this.
“How will you keep yourself motivated throughout the project?”
You can discuss your driving factors behind wanting to do a PhD, and this project specifically. Be open to the knowledge that you will experience peaks and troughs throughout your time as a PhD student – this demonstrates to the interviewers that you’re realistic about the hardships of doing a PhD. Perhaps mention the hobbies (exercise, reading, cooking, etc.) you use to relax outside of work and ensure you maintain a healthy work-life balance.
“What are some recent publications in the field?”
This question is to ensure you have read around your project before the interview and are ready to discuss/summarize some recent publications. This shows your dedication and passion for the PhD project and your preparation for the interview.
“Do you have any questions for us?”
You should have some questions prepared to ask the interviewers. This reinforces your interest and that you are serious about the PhD.
Here are some questions you can ask:
- If speaking directly to the supervisor, you can ask project-specific questions or clarifications from the research proposal
- Will I have any teaching opportunities?
- Are there opportunities and support available to disseminate my work (e.g., conferences, publications)?
- What are the training and career development opportunities?
- Are there any developments planned for the department or university?
For other tips on careers and life as an early-career researcher, please visit our ECR hub.
Blog written by Lucie Reboud, intern at Proteintech, PhD student in cancer research at the University of Manchester.
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