Preparing for PhD interviews

Your name is up. You are nearly the last one to be called. For the last four hours you have been sitting in a seminar room with a dozen other applicants that all seem much more confident and much less nerve-racked than you feel. The excitement of getting offered an interview has long past, and you attempt to go over everything you have prepared during the last two weeks in a split of a second. You take one last sip of water, dry your hands on your trousers, and make sure you still remember your opening sentence. You turn your head, take a deep breath, and swallow your nerves. “That’s me”, you reply, standing up and shaking the hand of Professor Interviewer #1. You smile. “It is nice to meet you”. PI#1 smiles back – “Let’s do this” – and starts walking towards the room where the interviews are being held. 


Three years ago, this bag of nerves was me. Now that I am half way through my PhD I feel like I finally have enough perspective to try to write something useful about the PhD interview experience. During the past couple of years, several people have approached me asking about tips and advice on interviews in general, and about specific things related to the programme I am in or the ones I applied to*. The next few lines are born from answers I got to questions I myself asked when preparing for these interviews, answers I’ve given to the questions I’ve been asked since, and an attempt to turn a mix of blurry memories into a coherent overview of what you might expect when you go to your hard-won MSc or PhD interview. This post is meant to complement another one I wrote two years ago on “Tips for applying for a PhD” and, similar to that one, I will try to keep updating it with further information that comes to mind or with new questions that arise from people that read the post and/or reach out to me.

*Full disclosure: I interviewed for the MSc in Neuroscience at VU Amsterdam and GSN-LMU Munich in 2013, and for the following Neuroscience PhD programmes in 2016: King’s College London, OXION (Oxford), Wellcome Trust (Oxford), Wellcome Trust (UCL). If you have questions regarding these programmes or anything else in my CV, feel free to drop me a line (@oriolpavon).


Types of interview you may encounter

Every programme has a different process, and even if the two of us were to attend the same interview, your experience might differ from mine. This is why you should try to ask as many people as you can about the specific interviews you have been invited to: how was it for them, how did they prepare, and what advice they have to offer in hindsight. Now is the time to reach out to former colleagues and to friends of friends of friends. Do not hesitate to send emails asking for advice, people are usually happy to help and the more perspectives you have the better prepared you will be!

The Skype Interview

My first interview for an MSc programme was over Skype. It was abysmal. Even though I really prepared what I wanted to say about my project, I totally blanked. I entered a surreal loop in which I was staring at the small window showing your tiny face on the screen, and for a very long minute I stared at myself mumbling. The interviewer was very nice and, probably not being the first time they came across that reaction, helped me get back on track and finish the interview. I was absolutely convinced I blew it, but I was nonetheless offered a place. So here goes what is probably the most useful piece of advice you’ll hear: your subjective experience of how an interview went is meaningless and most certainly doesn’t reflect what the committee got out of it, so you shouldn’t overthink and replay every word you said looking for errors. From my experience, this is also the most useless piece of advice, as I find it extremely hard to avoid the self-reflection loop and end up finding a million reasons why it went terribly wrong. Nevertheless, the truth is that you only experienced the interview from your end of the table, and the decision on whether you are a good fit for the programme is not yours to make, so your energy is better focused on preparing the next one, or celebrating you are done!

It is worth bearing in mind that Skype interviews have the potential pitfalls of a lousy internet connection. Make sure you are somewhere you won’t be disturbed and with good connectivity (use an Ethernet cable if you can), and ask to do a sound check at the beginning just to make sure you can hear and understand what everyone is saying, especially if one of the interviewers tends to whisper their questions or has an accent you haven’t heard before.

The Interview Week

At the other end of the spectrum, far away from the fast 30-minute talk by Skype, we have the interview that lasts for several days. Some programmes invite all the shortlisted applicants to an “Interview Week” packed with one on one interviews with faculty, social events, and get-togethers with current students. In one of such interviews I attended, the Graduate School was holding a Symposium where current students (both at the MSc and PhD level) presented posters from their research, which was an amazing opportunity to see the type of science they are carrying out and to ask questions about the projects, the research groups, and the programme. This type of interview has also the potential of turning into a nightmare, and I heard from places where the three days turn into three levels of ever-increasing difficulty, in which the participants are only informed if they made it into the next “round” very late at night.

The Panel Interview

The middle ground is probably not that scary after all. At least in the UK, you will usually face a panel of 4-7 Professors, from which at least two will act as “lead interviewers”. You might be asked to give a short 10-minute presentation on your most recent project. If that is the case, work hard on your slides (keep it clear and simple, and below 1 slide per minute), make sure you practice until you can smoothly pick up the flow even if they interrupt you with questions, and have some slides ready to address the most obvious questions. And never ever go over time. The fact that you start presenting something you know plays in your favour, so use it to your advantage and nail it. Read widely on topics related to the project you’ll talk about and the developments of the field since you last worked on it. They might ask you about the implications of your results or how you will analyse them if they are preliminary, the possible flaws in the techniques you used or the experimental design, and what you could do next or could’ve done different. Remember that the panel members will have different backgrounds, so make sure everything you mention is clear for everyone.

It is also possible they do not ask you to give a presentation. If that is the case, you should still prepare a two-minute summary of your latest project and be ready to present it with the only help of pen and paper. Depending on your background, they might want to test your knowledge on basic concepts like an action potential or a synapse, or they might ask you to draw and explain concepts related to one of your projects. Something I struggled a lot with were the questions regarding my BSc project, which happened 3-4 years prior to the interview, as I didn’t remember it as much as the recent ones and my answers weren’t as accurate. The most important thing if this happens is not to bullshit: they will push you to your limits to find how you react when you are not in a safe territory, so be honest when you don’t know something or can’t recall it, but also try to figure it out. If you come across an odd question, try not to sound defensive. They are trying to catch you off guard and see how you react, so ask for clarification and take a few seconds to think about it if you need to. It usually doesn’t really matter if you get the answer wrong, they are mainly interested in your thought process.


Other things they might ask you

If you are applying to a programme with rotations, they are likely to ask you whether you know which groups you would like to rotate in and why. Make the effort to find at least two or three groups you’d genuinely like to work with, read some of their recent publications and try to come up with possible research questions that might align with their interests while overlapping with your experience. Importantly, they can and will question you on anything you’ve mentioned in the CV and in your personal statement. Know your stuff would be my best advice here: read widely about the topics you’ve worked on and really know everything you put in your personal statement and CV. The application you submitted is essentially the picture they will have of you when you walk in, and they will assess whether it is an accurate depiction of the real you.

Other questions to be asked will probably be Have you applied to any other programmes?”, “Have you got any offers so far?”, “Which offer would you accept if you get more than one and why?”, “Why do you want to do a PhD in this programme?”. You should be ready for these questions and be able to give actual reasons for why you want to join this Programme/University. This is where doing your homework can give you an edge. Read the programme’s website, browse the research groups that are part of it, find out which courses are available and what requirements the students need to fulfil. Is there anything you would like to ask us?”. This question will surely come before the interview is over, and you should have at least one question ready. This shows that you’ve actually read down to the tiniest detail of their website, and that you have a genuine interest in knowing something that is not there. Do students go to summer schools?”, “Is it possible or even usual that students take on collaborative projects across two labs?”, “Is it possible to do a rotation in a lab not listed in the programme?”.

Finally, you might be given an article the day before and be asked to present its main findings to the panel, defend or debate their conclusions, and propose follow-up experiments based on their results. You could also be asked to explain a recent publication you have read or one you think had a strong impact in your field. Alternatively, you might get a mystery figure panel without a legend and be asked to describe what the images might represent and why. There is nothing much you can do to prepare this, as these are intended to assess your critical thinking and your deductive skills. If you have the chance, try to do several mock interviews as practice, be it with your current lab or some friends, and take note of the questions you struggle with, the gaps in your answers, and the extremely valuable feedback they give you.


The things you should find out before the interview

One thing that helped me a lot was to ask who would be in the interviewing panel. I am not sure whether most people ask this, but none of the programmes had any reservations about sharing that information with me. Knowing the panel meant that I could read their papers, gauge their interests and watch their talks online to become familiar with how they sound. This might be your best chance to anticipate what kind of questions they might ask you and from which perspective they will be judging your work.

Finding the venue and arriving on time are key. To make sure I won’t get lost on the day, I actually go where the interviews are held the day before so I can get lost then. This way I know exactly how to get there, how long it takes, and how does the place look like. Make sure you arrive 10-15 minutes early: being tight on time will only add stress to your day. And the same goes for what you will wear: whatever it is, it needs to make you feel comfortable (be it a suit, a dress, or your lucky jeans or shirt) and you should have it ready before you go to sleep the day before. This will remove another possibly stressful decision from the day of the interview. Don’t forget your bottle of water!

Finally, read the email with the invitation very carefully. Make sure you have all the information you need and if not, send a reply asking about whatever lingering doubts you have. If they don’t specify whether you need to give a talk, double check that this is the case. If you are giving a talk and the information is vague, ask how long it should be and whether there is a limit of slides. If you are uncertain, ask whether you can bring your own laptop and try the AV system beforehand (if you can’t, make sure it works in a device other than your laptop, especially if you have videos that you want to use). If your interview collides with another one, inform them as soon as you can so they can arrange for an alternative date. If you ask for clarifications, be concise and polite, but cut to the chase and don’t overflow their inbox.


Everything counts!

Don’t even think for a second that the only thing that counts is what happens when you are in front of the committee, giving your presentation or answering their questions. Everything counts. If they arrange a lunch with current students, go to it and show your interest even if your interview is over or not for another two hours. If they give you the chance to do a tour around some labs, don’t pass on the opportunity. If the interview process lasts for several days and the program includes social activities like dinner with faculty and current students or a tour around the city, sign up for everything you can. Show up, get involved, and ask as many questions about the University and the city as you like. Importantly, interact with the other applicants, show genuine interest, and be nice. After all, some of them are going to be your future colleagues in the programme, and most of the others will continue to work on your field. You never know when your paths will cross again!


Making the most out of your visit

Getting into a structured and fully-funded programme is a great opportunity. In my opinion, having the chance to do several short rotations in different research groups is ideal if you are still undecided on a topic or you are moving countries and you want to make sure your choice is a good fit before you commit. However, you might already have a shortlist or even a clear preference of who you would like to work with. In that case, being invited to an interview for a PhD programme is the perfect opportunity for you to reach out to these group leaders and ask them for a short meeting. You are already going to be in town, so why not make the most out of it?

Send them an email and always attach your CV. Clearly state that you have been invited for interviews to such and such PhD Programme, that you are going to be around from such to such day, and that you are very interested in their work (make a real effort here) and would like to discuss possible projects. Finish by saying that it would be fantastic if they would have time to meet at [insert a specific time and day] or [another day, more general/flexible] to discuss their research and visit the lab. By giving a specific hour as a first option (Thursday 24th at 3pm) you are setting a concrete option they can quickly check against their calendar to see whether they are free or not. In the case they are not, you have already given them a flexible alternative and they can offer you a slot that already works for them. If you are lucky and they have time for you, prepare it as another interview, read their work and have some ideas for potential projects to test the waters. Also ask whether they would have space if you get into the programme, or potential funding in case you don’t. You never know what opportunities await behind the door if you don’t knock!

One last remark. Getting into a structured and fully-funded programme is a great opportunity, but it is not the only option. Being invited for an interview means that several established researchers from your field thought you are genuinely good. But programmes are not the most suitable path for everyone, and are definitely not the predominant one. If you feel it is your best fit, even if you are not offered a place the first time, it is not the end of the world. You can apply again next year. But not ending up in a programme is fine to. You can always contact the group leaders you want to work with separately and inquire whether you can apply for grants together. Chances are they may already have applied for funding that covers a PhD studentship, or even have some money to hire you as a research assistant for a year. There is no hurry either, Graduate School is not a race. While you wait to try again in the next round, you can still do research, learn new skills, and maybe find out about new and exciting topics you had no idea about.


Some links worth reading

If you have further advice or you’ve come across similar write-ups that were useful to you and are not listed here, please consider sharing them in a comment or via email and I’ll add them so other people can benefit from them. If you found this post useful and don’t know how to thank me, buy me a coffee via the button below or just get in touch to let me know. It means a lot. Thanks!


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