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

London to Cambridge

Over the past year I’ve graduated from university, moved town, and embarked on a PhD, so there’s a lot to catch up on.

I scraped through the last year of my natural sciences BSc at University College London (UCL), feeling fed up with cramming quantum mechanics equations and biochemical signalling pathways into my head and ready to get on with something I was passionate about. I had decided to apply to PhD programmes the previous year after undertaking a 2 month research internship in Buzz Baum’s lab at UCL, which persuaded me that scientific research was what I wanted to do. After being extremely fortunate with the encouragement and guidance I received whilst interviewing for a few different programmes, I  accepted a place at the University of Cambridge. Living in London had been an eye opening and exciting experience, however, I felt that it was time for a change of scene and a less hectic and rushed way of living.

View across London

Cambridge university has 31 different colleges and as a PhD student I was required to enrol with one of them. I chose King’s College partly because it has a reputation for being one of the most liberal colleges and partly because it’s ridiculously pretty.

King’s College

This meant that I moved into a room in one of King’s colleges graduate student houses and got the chance to meet a bunch of great people at college events. This was a huge contrast to student life at UCL where you have to find your own private accommodation after your first year of university, and commute across London to meet people. Things are made so easy and comfortable in Cambridge by comparison. It’s a very different way of doing things and I am glad to have experiences of both.

Bridge of Sighs
Punting outside King’s

So far I’m finding life in Cambridge to be relaxed and focused. One of the things I enjoy the most about living here is being able to cycle anywhere, any day. Whilst the nightlife and variety can’t compare to London, I feel like Cambridge will be a great place to focus and learn over the next three years.