PhD Interview: How to Kill It — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
9 min readFeb 12, 2023

You go a PhD interview? Welcome to the big leagues. Nervous? Don’t worry, your hard work has paid off and you’re in a great position. Before you march confidently into that interview room to meet your interview panel, though, there are some tips and tricks to consider to help you prepare for your upcoming interview and ensure you leave as a shining success.

The real question is how do you reign supreme during this pivotal moment of your academic career? We’ll be discussing everything from acing grueling common PhD interview questions to crushing small talk with ease — buckle up for the ride on how to kill it during your PhD interview!

Are PhD Interviews a Common Practice?

Most PhD programs in the U.S. do not require a PhD interview and often, interaction with faculty only happens when you are accepted to a PhD program and visit campus. During your visit, you have the chance to meet with faculty, potential supervisors, and current students who can answer questions about the research environment and discuss what it’s like to be part of this particular PhD program.

This is an important step in determining if a specific university is the right fit for you and can help you decide whether or not to accept what the university offers you. The campus visit can be beneficial when making your final decision as it can provide you with critical knowledge of the inner workings of your target PhD degree.

However, other doctoral study programs in the US and, most specifically abroad, sometimes require future PhD students to go through an interview as a part of the application process. The PhD interview is an opportunity for the admissions committee to get to know the applicant’s academic history and academic background a little better, evaluate their specific qualifications, and decide if they are the best candidate for the PhD degree.

During the PhD interview, the admissions committee may ask questions about your academic achievements, strengths and weaknesses, current research experience, and career aspirations.

By presenting your best self and participating in meaningful conversations about your future goals and discussing potential difficulties you might encounter as you pursue PhD research, you have the opportunity to make a strong impression on the interviewing committee.

Overall, the PhD interview can be, in some cases, an important part of the application process. If you have been invited to an interview, you must take the time to prepare PhD interview questions and practice your answers beforehand.

To make sure you’re ready for your Interview, here are common PhD interview questions you must be prepared to answer:

Please Introduce Yourself

This is often the first question that gets asked, and many students don’t know to answer it. When introducing yourself during a PhD interview, it is important to make sure you are both confident and enthusiastic.

Start by giving a brief overview of your educational and professional experience. Make sure to highlight any relevant skills or work experiences that could be beneficial to your candidacy. Include anything you have achieved that you think could be impressive to interviewers. And make sure to make this brief! No need to ramble on. Keep it short and sweet. We highly suggest that you keep all your answers around 2 minutes.

What Are Your Research Goals?

As you embark on this stage of the admissions process, it is essential to be fully prepared to discuss your reasons for wanting to pursue PhD research, as well as any short-term and long-term research goals. You should have already considered these matters in depth beforehand; now is when you get the chance to explain them with enthusiasm and detail. Utilize specific examples and demonstrate how intense your interest is by showcasing both breadth and depth of knowledge regarding your research topic

What Are Your Research Interests?

Be prepared to articulate how you envision your academic career path in detail, from the big picture of your research field down to your specific PhD project. What are you hoping to achieve with a PhD? Do you have specific development opportunities in mind as an applicant? Who do you envision yourself working alongside in pursuit of those goals? Do you have a prospective supervisor you would like to work with? How will your specific project be meaningful for others in the same research field?

It is important to remember that the primary purpose of a PhD admissions interview is to assess if you are academically capable. Therefore, when discussing your research topic, make sure to highlight what excites you about your PhD project, how you envision a potential research proposal, and why you believe your research project has the potential to contribute to the field. For example, if you are interested in computer science, explain what drew you to this area and how you believe it can potentially lead to major developments in the field.

When discussing your research project, try to provide specific examples of other projects you have undertaken, papers you have published, or other accomplishments that demonstrate your commitment to your future career as a researcher. Additionally, make sure to provide concrete evidence that you have the project management skills and the academic knowledge necessary to excel as a PhD student. Provide clear explanations of concepts or ideas that are central to your research project, as this will help to show that you are a knowledgeable and capable researcher.

What Are Your Short-Term and Long-Term Career Goals?

When discussing career goals during a PhD admission interview, it is important to be able to share what career path or career paths you are looking to pursue in the future. Be sure to be prepared to discuss how obtaining your doctoral degree will help you achieve your desired career objectives. Generally speaking, having a clear sense of your career goals and being prepared to explain how obtaining a doctoral degree will help you reach them can go a long way in securing a spot in the PhD program of your choice.

Why Are You Interested In This Specific Program?

When participating in a PhD admissions interview it is important to demonstrate that you have researched the program and have an understanding of the academic environment the university offers. Showing that you have a clear idea of what the curriculum entails and how it aligns with your own research project is key to demonstrating that you are a suitable candidate for your target graduate school.

Additionally, it is also important to demonstrate your familiarity with the faculty and staff in the program. Being able to identify a prospective supervisor, demonstrate your familiarity with a specific research group at the university, or share the information you have obtained through conversations with other students can help demonstrate your enthusiasm for your target department.

Finally, it is important to be fully aware of the unique aspects of the program and how it will help you prepare for a successful research career. Showing that you have considered the unique benefits the universities offer is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to excel in grad school.

Be Prepared to Demonstrate Your Research Skills

In addition to being able to discuss your strengths and weaknesses, it is also important to use the interview questions to demonstrate your intellectual ability and research skills. You should come to the PhD interview prepared and ready to have an in-depth conversation about essential questions or topics related to your field, but also the challenges you expect to encounter in your research journey.

If you don’t know specific material mentioned during the interview, be honest but demonstrate how interested you are in learning more about it. Showing enthusiasm for further exploring different aspects of your profession will make a great impression!

And don’t worry: admissions committees do not expect you to know EVERYTHING about your topic. Focus on sharing the knowledge you already possess by highlighting any key findings from your research and providing a detailed explanation of how they were achieved. It is also useful to discuss the implications of your findings and how they could be applied in other contexts. Don’t hesitate to cite relevant literature and explain how it has informed your research focus.

You Probably Guessed By Now: The PhD Interview Is More Or Less A Commentary of Your SOP!

If you are invited for a PhD interview, the interviewers will likely want to discuss your statement of purpose. This means that you should be prepared to expand on what you already wrote in your statement of purpose: why you are interested in pursuing a PhD and how your research interests align with their research department.

Here are a few tips for talking about your statement of purpose during a PhD interview:

1. Be Prepared to Discuss Your Statement in Detail:

Make sure that you are prepared to discuss your statement of purpose in detail. You should be able to explain the research topics that you are interested in and how they fit into the research goals of the department beyond what you have already written in your SOP. Be prepared to back up some of the ideas discussed in your essay.

2. Be Clear About Your Goals:

You must be clear about your academic and professional goals. Make sure that you explain what you hope to achieve with your PhD studies and how you intend to contribute to the research department.

3. Describe Your Relevant Experience:

Don’t forget to discuss your relevant experience. Explain how your previous studies and research have prepared you for a PhD program and how the skills you have acquired will help you to succeed

4. Express Your Passion:

Be sure to express your enthusiasm for the program and your passion for the research topics you are interested in. Showing that you are passionate about your work will demonstrate that you will be a great asset to the department. Admissions committees also want to make sure that you will be able to finish your dissertation and be successful as a researcher. Oftentimes, your passion is what will keep you going when you encounter obstacles.

5. Be Honest and Open:

Finally, be honest and open when discussing your statement of purpose. Don’t be afraid to express any doubts or fears that you may have about your research topic. Academia is less about providing answers than asking the right questions. Being open and honest will help to make a good impression on interviewers.

If You Have Been Out of School For a While: Be Prepared to Talk About Your Resume

When discussing your resume during a PhD interview, it is important to be prepared and confident in the information you provide. Be sure to clearly explain the impact of your research and other accomplishments.

Additionally, it is important to focus on what makes you unique as a candidate for the program, such as your experience, skills, and unique approaches to problem-solving. Be sure to explain any awards or honors you have received as well as any publications or presentations that you have made.

Finally, be sure to address any special qualifications or certifications you may have that make you an especially strong candidate for the program. By being prepared and confident in the discussion of your resume, you can make a positive impression on the admission committee and demonstrate why you should be accepted into the program.

Other Potential Topics Of Discussion Your Might Encounter During the Interview

Teaching/mentoring experiences

If the program you are applying to values PhD students as teaching assistants, be sure that in your application you are prepared to discuss any prior experiences of mentoring and tutoring. You should also explain why it is important for you to become a teacher/scholar.

Your fit with your target PhD program

The department is eager to get a better understanding of you as an individual and potential colleague through the interview process. Likely, they will start off with some general inquiries about your experiences, books that have made an impact on you, and undergraduate studies — essentially just trying to spark up a conversation. Remember to relax and be yourself!

Questions about the PhD program

Don’t forget that the interview is a two-way dialogue — make sure to prepare interesting, relevant questions about the department. Anything you could have found out through basic research (any information on the school’s website) should be avoided as it will not leave an impressive impression.

In Conclusion

If you’re looking for the best preparation possible for your upcoming PhD interview, look no further than The Admit Lab’s Mock Interview Services. We can help you develop specific strategies that will give you an edge over other candidates and help to bolster your confidence so that when it comes time to impress the doctorate program admissions committees with your answers, there won’t be any doubt as to how prepared you are. Learn more about what we have to offer here!

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on February 12, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/