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Dos and Don’ts of a PhD Interview

Dos & don'ts of a PhD interviewPhD interview questions can be very tricky to answer and this is for a good reason.

Studying for a PhD is an amazing academic achievement, as well as serious time commitment, and it's certainly not one for the faint-hearted. Once you've decided to embark on this academic path, your PhD interviewer needs to be sure that you are able to rise to the challenge and are academically capable of achieving this ultimate goal. And the PhD interview is how they assess your potential for a place on the program when applying for a PhD.

Your PhD interview will consist of questions that will enable your potential supervisors to get to know you better and have an understanding of what you’d like to study, why you’ve chosen your field of study, and whether you’d be a good fit for the PhD program. 

This interview will also give you the opportunity to ask questions about the program and the university to make sure it’s the place you’d like to study. 

Here, we've compiled a list of dos and don'ts of a PhD interview from the interviewer's perspective, to hopefully guarantee you success when answering the PhD interview questions and thus beginning your Doctorate journey.

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PhD Interview dos and don'ts

PhD interview questions to help you prepare

Your interviewers will ask a range of different questions in order to determine whether you will be let into the PhD program. They will ask different types of questions to get an idea of who you are, what your interests are, and how much of an asset your research will be to the university. 

General PhD interview questions

One important aspect of the PhD interview is for the interviewers to get a good idea of who the interviewee is.

They will do this by asking a series of questions that are more general to try and get a sense of your likes and dislikes, and your overall personality. These opening questions could be viewed as ‘warm up questions’ and are likely to also include questions and discussions about your academic history, reasons why you are interested in your particular research topic, and why you’re studying a PhD.

Example questions could include:

  • What is your academic background?
  • Describe your personal qualities?
  • What sets you apart from the candidates?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?


The PhD interviewer will ask you questions about your motivation to study a PhD which you should find straightforward to answer as you clearly have a keen interest and knowledge in a particular research topic to be considering it at PhD level. Now all you need to do is illustrate to the interviewer why you are the right person for this PhD at their university.

The first way to do this is to go into detail about your personal motivations for studying a PhD. Do you have a historical or family link with this topic? Was it an area you covered in your bachelors degree that you now want to explore further? Are you destined for a career in academia? 

Another thing you should demonstrate in your PhD interview is what experience you’ve had either academically, personally or in the workplace that has strengthened your passions for your research.

It is also important to show that you have researched the university, the supervisor and your project. If many universities offer this particular PhD course, then why did you choose this specific one? Do they have resources that will be useful? Is there a supervisor you’d like to work with? 

Example questions that you can expect to receive at this stage in your PhD interview could include:

  • Why are you motivated to pursue a PhD and why in this specific field?
  • Why did you choose this university?
  • Why did you choose this program?
  • Tell us about a time you experienced a setback

Relevant experience

Your PhD interviewer will be interested in any relevant experience you have to qualify you to study this PhD. Use your answers to draw attention to your specific qualifications that may not be obvious from your CV or project. Discuss other courses that you’ve taken, past research, etc. Use this time to reassure your prospective supervisor that you have the skills and experience needed to undertake a doctorate.

Consider what is the critical knowledge and skills needed for this project and explain to the interviewer how you meet these.

Don’t just summarise your CV as the interviewer has already seen this. They will want to see your passion and motivation for your research project.

Example questions they may ask at this stage could be:

  • What experience do you have that makes you suitable for this particular PhD and in what ways?’
  • Why should we choose you?

PhD Interview dos and don'ts

Your PhD project

Interviewers will want to know that students understand their project and the research involved in successfully studying a PhD. 

You should be prepared to discuss your project idea in detail and demonstrate to the interviewer that you are the ideal candidate. For example, you should explain that you understand the current gaps in knowledge around your topic and how you propose to fill these gaps. Show that you know what your aims and objectives are and how your efforts will contribute to the research field.

Here are some example questions to help you discuss your PhD project:

  • How are you planning to deliver your project on time? 
  • What will you do if you do not find the expected results?
  • What difficulties would you expect to encounter during this project?
  • How did you develop this proposal?

Future ambitions

It’s important for students to know where their work may lead them. Knowing how a PhD will help achieve this, and articulating these aspirations to the interviewer, will give the interviewer a better picture of the student’s goals. 

If the goal is to have an academic career, use this as an opportunity to show the interviewer that you understand the academic career path.

An example question at this stage could be:

  • How will this PhD open the door for future ambitions and aspirations?

Your own questions

As well as being properly prepared to answer questions about your PhD proposal, it is also important to ask your own questions to the interviewer to make sure that this is the university and PhD program that you’re looking for.

Example questions that you could ask a potential supervisor could include:

  • Are you likely to remain at the university for the duration of my PhD program?
  • Are there good links within a specific industry/work field for your post-PhD career?
  • How many PhD students to you supervise at one time?
  • How much contact time am I likely to get?

PhD interview questions: DOs 

  • PhD Interview dosEstablish rapport with us and show us your social skills.
  • "Brand" yourself. Show your personality. We must remember you for something besides your academic skills.
  • Be confident and sure of your abilities, but don’t be overconfident. You are not the best in everything that you do, so don't pretend you are!
  • If we ask you a witty question, reply with a witty answer.
  • All PhD interviews are different. Be flexible when preparing for your interview and don’t take anyone’s advice as definite, instead use it to build upon.
  • Avoid simple yes or no answers.
  • Show that you are an independent and original thinker by engaging in debate and supporting your arguments with reasonable statements. However, always be polite and argue without insulting us.
  • Be professional. Professionals can find the right measure between being serious and being informal.
  • Show that you care about what you want to study and about what we do, and don’t be interested in our PhD program just to get the title.
  • Research what we do. We don’t want to talk to someone who knows nothing about our work.

PhD interview questions: DON'Ts

  • PhD Interview don'tsDon't pretend that you know things that you don’t. If you don’t know something, admit it. That is better than to give a weak answer signalling that you don’t know what you are talking about. 
  • Don’t undermine the importance of 'soft' general questions like “Where do you see yourself in future?” or “What is motivating you to do the PhD?”
  • Don't be passive in communication. We are interviewing you, but you are also interviewing us.
  • Don’t give too general answers. Be specific and to the point because that will show us that you are not feigning but you know what you are talking about.
  • Don’t get nervous if you think the interview is not going well. In many cases this is just your personal impression, which may be wrong.
  • Don’t come dressed as if you just woke up – make an effort! 
  • Don’t talk jargon. It is not very likely that we were born in the same place or have the same background, so we may not understand what you are saying.
  • Don’t try to pretend that you are someone you're not. We don’t like pretentiousness and can usually see straight through it.
  • Don’t try to be too funny. We may have a different sense of humour than you do, especially if you come from a different culture.
  • Don’t become too emotional during the PhD interview. Enthusiasm is good but not if it’s exaggerated, then it becomes quite off-putting.

Summary of PhD interview questions 

This table shows some examples of different categories of questions you might enounter at a PhD interview.

General questions

Your academic background, personal qualities, what sets you apart from the other candidates, eyc.


Why are you motivated to pursue a PhD and why in this specific field? Why did you choose the university?

Relevant experience

What experience do you have that makes you suitable for this particular PhD and in what way?

Your PhD project

How are you planning to deliver your project on time? What if you don’t find the expected results?

Future ambitions

How will this PhD open the door for your future ambitions and aspirations?

Your own questions

At the end of each interview your interviewers will usually encourage you to ask them questions of interest to you.



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