Grad school interviews are a lot like normal job interviews, but there are some differences to keep in mind when preparing for a PhD interview. For example, there’s a lot more emphasis on the substance than soft skills (though those are still important). There may be more emphasis, for example, on how you cope with working in isolation than on your teamwork skills.
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When preparing for a PhD interview, read your supervisors' recent papers, look at what the department has published recently, what they publicize, any news, etc. Academics have a reputation for a having a bit of an ego, so it’s key to read and engage with your potential supervisors’ work.
You should also ask who will be at your interview and research them beforehand (in case someone other than your supervisors will be in attendance).
Below are the top questions to help you in preparing for a PhD interview (that they asked me in mine). This is by no means exhaustive and different universities will have different policies, but it’s definitely a good starting point!
They’re likely to refer to these when they’re interviewing you, so you should make sure you know them inside out when preparing for a PhD interview.
While many programs don’t require a separate writing sample, it’s a good idea to go over your previous research projects. They may ask you how you designed their methodologies, conducted analyses, etc. to get a sense of the strength of your research skills.
Know how long it’ll take to get there, and what room you’ll be in. If you’re doing it remotely, make sure Zoom/your internet are working and that you have the contact info of the person you’ll be speaking with (and know who is actually going to place the call—you or the interviewer).
It’s amazing how much even one practice session can boost your confidence and make your answers seem more natural when you get into the actual interview. It doesn’t have to be someone who regularly interviews people (though this does help as they’ll likely be tougher on you!).
Give them the list of questions you’ve prepared and run through them a couple of times. It’s important not to memorize your answers (so they end up sounding too rehearsed), but just to practice enough so you feel comfortable answering them.
This is one people often have different opinions on, as academia is generally more casual than the private sector. However, it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed.
I wore a suit to my interview and I think generally that corporate office appropriate attire is the move here. I did dress it down with flats instead of heels. Though I was definitely still a bit overdressed, they remembered me at least!
As discussed above, it’s good to have them for reference during the interview. It also shows you’re prepared, particularly if you’re able to give them copies (academics are notoriously disorganized and there’s a good chance at least one of them might be missing a copy of some of your application materials).
A notebook is helpful for writing down the answers to any of the questions you have for them. I find that, when I’m nervous, I tend to not remember things as well, so it’s important to write down key information to refer to later (particularly things like when you can expect to find out about the outcome of your application).
A successful PhD interview will be engaging for both sides and feel more like an insightful conversation about a topic you (and your potential supervisors) are interested in.
Confidence can really set you apart in the interview as well. The stereotypes about PhD students sometimes lacking social skills are true, so some poise can really give you a leg up.
Within 24 hours of your interview, as with all interviews, you need to send each person who was present in the interview a separate email thanking them for their time. It is also helpful to reference something specific you discussed in your interview that you found particularly insightful or memorable.
If you follow these tips, you should be well on your way to getting admitted to your dream grad school program! If you haven’t heard by the time they said you would, give it a couple more days, and then feel free to follow up.
Let me know below if you’ve tried any of these tips and what worked for you in your grad school interviews! Best of luck!
Or, still not sure if doing a PhD is right for you? Check out our articles on the 10 reasons you should (or shouldn't) do your PhD, a day in the life of a computer science PhD student in London during the pandemic, and a week in the life of a PhD student.
Interviewing for a PhD in London? Check out my practical tips for moving to and living in London.