Getting a PhD interview brings you one step closer to being admitted to a PhD program. During the interview, the interviewer will determine if you’re a good fit for their program/project. They’ll ask you several questions, but these five are the most important and not being able to answer them will quickly take you out of the running.
Question 1: Why do you want to conduct research in this field?
Why it’s important: The interviewers want to hear you convey enthusiasm for their field. You are going to spend the next five years or so immersed in it. The interviewers want to make sure they are hiring someone who will be motivated to conduct good research and will benefit from the interviewer’s expertise in this area.
How to answer: If it’s too hard to put into words why you like the field, start with what you like about it. What aspects are the most exciting to you? What questions do you want to find the answers too? You can also address your motivation for pursuing this type of research by explaining how you got interested in the field in the first place.
Question 2: Why are you interested in our group/department?
Why it’s important: The interviewers want to hire someone who actually wants to work with them. They are looking for someone who is familiar with the PI and the kind of research this group is known for. Giving a good answer to this question tells the interviewer that you want this PhD, not just any PhD.
How to answer: Think about what drew you to apply for a position in this lab, group, or department? Was it a certain publication, the PI’s reputation, a unique resource? What work is the lab doing now that aligns with your research interests? Be specific here and address factors that set this group apart from the others you’ve applied to.
Question 3: Which of our recent publications did you find most interesting?
Why it’s important: This question helps the interviewers determine if you understand what kind of work the lab, group, or professor does. They can also hear how you engage with scholarship in the field and think critically about what you read.
How to answer: During your interview preparation, you should read some recent publications by the lab members or department faculty. Focus on original research and not reviews or book reviews. When answering this question, mention the publications that resonated the most with you and why. Try to choose examples that relate to your own research questions.
Question 4: What aspect of the PhD project do you find most interesting?
Why it’s important: The ideal candidate will understand the project and be enthusiastic about the prospect of working on it. They likely already have experience and skills in this field or a related one. With this question, the interviewer can see if you have already started engaging with the research questions of the project.
How to answer: What caught your interest when you saw this position advertised? Was it the research area, the approach, an opportunity to learn new skills? Make sure your answer is specific enough to show that you understand what the project entails.
Question 5: Why do you want to do a PhD?
Why it’s important: Not being able to answer this question is a red flag for the interviewer. Doing a PhD isn’t easy and it will be hard to maintain the necessary motivation over the several years it takes to earn the degree without a strong answer.
How to answer: For many researchers, their passion for the subject, love of research, and desire to contribute to the academic conversation are major drivers in their decision to do a doctorate. Do you have a research question that can only be answered by PhD-level research? Or what about a personal connection to the field? However you answer, convey your passion and enthusiasm for the research field.