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Posted June 27, 2012

The DOs and DON’Ts of a PhD interview

  The DOs and DON’Ts of a PhD interview: How to prevent your tongue from saying inexplicably stupid things!

You are sitting in a chair surrounded by three people. One of them is a bit older, and you recognise that her clothes were popular around the time you were born, but the other two are younger and casually dressed. WHERE are you and WHY are you surrounded by these people??? You are in a university office, nearing the end of your PhD admission interview, and the people around you are the researchers you may potentially work with.


You are relaxed because you think that the interview went really well – you excelled in explaining the details about your project and in glorifying your research skills – and you are expecting only a few easy questions to close the interview. Suddenly, one of the interviewers asks you: “With so many great PhD programs in the world, why did you choose our department?” Without really thinking, and considering that your PhD place is a sure thing, you exclaim: “Well, once upon a time I fell in love with a person from this city…”

The interview is officially done, and you farewell your interviewers with “See you in a few months”. A few weeks later, you receive a letter from the university. You open the envelope and stare at the letter as if it was an anonymous death threat. What a surprise. YOU HAVE BEEN REJECTED!

But IMAGINE now that you are trapped inside the head of one of your interviewers, and you CAN’T GET OUT. You have to remain inside while they are “interrogating” an applicant similar to yourself, and you are able to experience it from their perspective. The interview starts with more general questions about the applicant’s previous university experience and slowly peaks into more technical questions about the potential research project.

The “interrogators” are satisfied with the answers and think that the interviewee has a strong understanding of research methodology. However, throughout their life they have seen so many students with advanced knowledge, and they just can’t get that impressed any longer. They want something more. They want to work with someone who will enhance their academic life, making it more enjoyable and who will also inspire their own research!

They start asking more personal questions about the applicant’s goals and ambitions to see if he/she is someone they want to work with. But they are completely UNIMPRESSED. They feel that the applicant merely wants to get the PhD title and is mostly interested in the things that have nothing to do with the programme and their department. Even you have fallen asleep from the applicant’s answers!!!

Because you can’t stand listening to this “lullaby” anymore, you use your opportunity of being trapped inside your interviewer’s head to take a look at some more secret areas of their brain. Suddenly, you find yourself in a remote part of their cerebral cortex, in a small round room. This room is redder than the face of a shy first grader, and you suspect that many an embarrassing memory must be hidden here. Bingo! You have found the place where your interviewer hides the memories of embarrassing situations he’s encountered.

You start to “read” these memories and you are feasting on your interviewer’s blunders – it makes for some pretty cringe-worthy stuff. You are pretty amazed by almost everything that you read, but this anecdote steals the show:

Your interviewer applied for a PhD at a famous British university solely because of its reputation and didn’t really care much about the research going on in the department. Before the interview, he got so lost in daydreaming about having a PhD from this particular university that he forgot one essential thing – to read about the specific interests of the researcher who was about to interview him. When he was asked by the interviewer “What do you like about my field of research and why do you think that my research interests will match yours well”, he suddenly woke up and quickly conceived the strategy to “pull himself out of the mud”.

Because he was sitting in the interviewer’s office, he assumed that the books inside the bookshelf have something to do with the sought-after research field. He “deduced” the interviewer’s research interests based on the five randomly chosen titles and made a ten minute presentation about why he is interested in these topics and why this field of research would be a good match for him. However, his potential supervisor replied: “I am sorry, but I am not interested anymore in the things that I did at the beginning of my career. I think it would be better for you to find someone who still does these things.” After you have stopped laughing, you are feeling relieved. Now you know that even your interviewers had their own moments, but sometimes they forget them and evaluate their students too harshly.

You decide that you will prepare much better for your next interview and will not allow yourself to get caught off guard.

Click here to get more help in preparing for your PhD interview, and find out what you SHOULD or SHOULDN’T say during your PhD interview.

Feel free to tell us about any embarrassing interview experiences you have had during your academic career!

1 comment

Collin Oct. 23, 2016, 12:08 a.m.

Thank you ever so for you blog post. Want more.

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