5 simple tips for PhD interviews

‘Tis the season for PhD programme interviews and I’ve recently been asked by a few people for advice on how best to prepare, so I thought I’d share a few tips that might be useful for you to reflect on if you are in the process of prepping for your interview.

It doesn’t feel like that long ago when I was getting ready to head off to interviews for PhD programmes. My first interview was in Cambridge. I was pretty nervous as I’d had a pretty disastrous interview experience a few years before when I’d applied to Cambridge Uni for my undergrad.  However, a few things helped make my PhD interviews a completely different and more fulfilling experience: seeking advice from people beforehand, having the support of the researchers I’d been working with, and being passionate about the research I’d been doing. As well as taking a lot of time off uni to prepare…

Some of the tips I give below might seem pretty obvious but I hope they will give some clarity to the kind of scenario you might experience on interview day.

On to the tips!

Tip #1 Show your enthusiasm

For science, for research, for the programme you applied to, interviewers want to know what made you decide to pursue research and why you chose their programme. What experiments have you come across that you thought were brilliant? What made you want to do research for a full 3/4 years?

Tip #2 Be ready to talk about your own research

You have probably undertaken some kind of research project to figure out if research is for you, or just for fun, or as part of your degree. This is your chance to tell people about what you did, why you did it, and what you learnt from it. This also provides something to fall back on if the other parts of the interview run dry pretty fast and can help you steer an interview towards a topic you feel more comfortable with. Draw diagrams, explain findings, get them interested in what you’ve been up to.

Added bonus of fancy lunch

Tip#3 Prepare to discuss questions relating to your area of interest

PhD programme applications often ask for a personal statement of some sort, and you likely wrote about a particular area of research that you are interested in. It’s pretty likely you will be asked questions to do with that area.

Tip#4 Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers

If you already knew everything about everything there wouldn’t be much point in doing a PhD, so be prepared not to know the answer to some of the questions you get asked. From my experience, interviewers are interested in working with you to reach a solution and in seeing how you go about problem solving, they don’t expect you to know the answer straight away.

London skyline before the final interview day

Tip #5 Try to enjoy it! 

Interviews go really quickly and you will only ever have to do a relatively small number in your lifetime, so if you can, try and relax and enjoy the challenge. Remember, the world doesn’t end if it doesn’t work out! They are also a great chance to learn and develop both your interview skills and your understanding of what it is you want to do, something that is invaluable.

Good luck!

Ominous smile on the morning of my final interview

3 months in

I am about 3 months into my PhD now, so I thought I’d give an update on what it’s been like up to now.

So far I’ve mostly learnt things about myself and the way I work best, rather than anything to do with understanding a scientific question. I guess that isn’t surprising as I’ve mainly been playing around with different techniques, trying things, and seeing what works. Having the chance to explore different ideas has been great and I think it’s really important to have that kind of opportunity at the beginning of any scientific project. Much of my life is now spent staring at zebrafish embryos, fortunately they are very beautiful.

Looking down the microscope at a zebrafish embryo

As well as doing things in the lab I have also had some interesting work experiences outside of the lab. I had the opportunity to go to Switzerland for a conference on ‘Organoid Systems’ in November. Labs from all around the world are growing things that resemble organs (or parts of organs) such as the intestine and brain, and trying to figure out how they’re organising themselves (among other things). As well as providing insight into the development of organs and their specialised structures, these organoid systems also open up the possibility to model diseases outside of the human body, using human cells. It’s amazing how close we are to being able to use these ‘organoids’ for medical applications. They are already being used to screen for drugs and offer the possibility to design personalised medical treatments for people – as the affected patients’ cells can be used to grow one of these organoids. In the free time we had I managed to eat a lot of fondue and catch a glimpse of the beautiful scenery outside the conference centre.

A lot of cheese
Mountains just outside the EPFL

With the intention of keeping a good work/life balance and wanting to keep on top of exercise I decided to sign up for rowing around the time I started work in the lab. Getting up before 6am to cycle in the cold and dark to rowing 3 times a week has been an experience, but the positives really have outweighed the negatives and overall I think it’s helped keep me sane over the past few months.

Rowing into the sunrise (actually this was in the afternoon but you can imagine…)

Going into 2018 I am looking forward to improving the way I work, staying focused on the important questions, and hopefully travelling to some new and interesting places.