PhD Interview Questions

A PhD interview doesn’t need to be a daunting or nervous experience. Our guide to potential PhD interview questions should help you make the most of your interview, highlight your strengths and ensure you easily glide through all the answers.

Questions about you

A PhD is all about 3 years of in-depth independent research, so you’ll need to show in your answers that you’re dedicated enough to complete 3 years of study both independently and with the support of your supervisors and other students.

Research requires you to be patient and diligent as well as fastidious in detail, and logical and methodical in your planning and analysis. These are all highly prized research skills. You can show how well you meet these attributes in answer to questions such as:

1. Tell me about yourself.

This is very generic; but this is good as it gives you chance to open up about yourself as a person

2. Give me an example to show how you work with others?

Can you link this to any of your undergraduate work on the same theme as your PhD project?

3. Which do you prefer - working on your own or with others?

Remember that you will need both to succeed as a PhD student!

4. What are your top 3 strengths?

Can you link your examples to your PhD research proposal?

5. What are your weaknesses?

When it comes to choosing weaknesses, be truthful and then (using examples again) talk about how you have been working to overcome them.

6. Which areas do you still need to develop further?

No one is 100% perfect so don’t be afraid to pick one skill you want to develop further and that the PhD will support you with. Be sure to state how far you’ve already come in developing this skill during your undergraduate degree (and if applicable your Masters) and how far you intend to go. This shows your ability to self-analyse and be critically aware.

7. What are your career plans?

This is another way to work out your motivations for doing a PhD and see if you have thought about what you will do next. How will a PhD help you achieve your future goals? Someone with a clear goal in mind is likely to be more committed to doing a PhD. For many, the goal will be to pursue an academic career, in which case this is an opportunity to show you understand the academic career path

Questions about your PhD and its research project

Some of the most common questions here include:

1. Why do you want to study this PhD?

You answer should be honest, passionate, well thought through and articulate.

2. Why have you suggested this particular research proposal?

You need to show here what you already know about your subject: any research you’ve already completed and why you’re inspired to go further. You need to be able to say how your research will make a unique impact, what it will involve and what you’re hoping to gain from it when you’ve completed it. The gains should be both personal for you and also for academic research and the university itself. You may want to quote key findings from your undergraduate and Masters research. Highlight key stats and facts you’ve already gathered to show your knowledge. It’s also ok to say what you don’t yet know and how you want to discover the answers with your PhD.

3. How do you manage confidentiality in your research?

Think through how you will capture, store, retain and archive personal information in your research to keep it confidential and how as a researcher you can reconcile different viewpoints to your own.  This will ensure any question can be answered with ease.

4. What difficulties would you expect to encounter during this project?

No matter how carefully you plan, no research project is completed without any hitches. Be honest about where you see potential challenges, but more importantly discuss how you plan to work through them.

5. How are you funding your PhD?

Your answer here will depend on whether you’re self-funding or receiving funding for your PhD, but is one of the more straightforward questions you will be asked during the interview. Remember that the panel is not trying to catch you out with this question. They are just trying to understand that you have funds available to cover both your PhD and living costs. Please be honest and say if you’re going to be working part-time to fund yourself and also how secure any external funding is and when you’ll receive it.

Questions on the university

Staff will want to know why you have chosen to apply to their university, so they will expect to hear a detailed (and positive) response! Questions might include:

1. Why are you applying to this university?

Try to cover how your PhD fits with and expands on the research already being undertaken in your specific department and how the university can gain quodos with the results. It’s great if you’ve already studied your undergraduate degree with them as you’ll already know what works best for the university. However, this is not a good enough reason on its own right to do a PhD with them. There need to be PhD specific benefits.

2. Is there anything else that attracts you to our department?

Think about anything else in particular that you like about the university or department. Tutors want to find out why you will be a good fit for them, so make sure you've done your research and explain any other positives that draw you to applying for a place with them.

General questions

These could include the following:

1. Why will you be the best person for this PhD?

This is your opportunity to sell yourself. Be confident and positive but don’t ramble on for ages

2. What do you want to achieve once you’ve finished your PhD?

This may seem several years away but the university want to check your forward planning and your ability to think through your career options

3. Tell us about an issue you’ve encountered and how you’ve overcome this?

Try to link this to any previous research you’ve done, so that the panel knows you’re prepared and able to tackle any obstacles that may arise during your PhD

4. Is there anything you’d like to ask us?

Remember that the interview is a two-way process. It is important that you have some questions to ask the interviewer to show your engagement and the serious consideration you are giving their program. You are preparing to spend three or four years at this university, so think about what is important to you and what would make or break your decision to attend this university. Make sure you have a list of questions prepared ahead of the interview.Always have 3 to 4 questions prepared in case one or two of them have already been covered during your interview discussion. Remember to ask 2 or 3 which indicate you’ve thoroughly considered your PhD. For example:

  • How will the supervision arrangements work? This is your chance to find out how you will be supervised, and how much contact you will have with your supervisor during your studies. Some departments or universities may be more flexible than others.
  • What opportunities will I have to present my research findings? You will want to make sure you have the chance to share you work with others, whether it's at internal meetings, conferences or other external events.
  • What support will I receive to help me publish my research? Again, part of sharing your work with others involves publishing it in journals and other appropriate publication, so you will need to have the right support to do this.

Above all throughout your interview you need to express your drive and enthusiasm for your project, be confident (not overly though) and assertive and give your answers honestly, passionately and with commitment. This way, you will be more likely to secure your place.

Best of luck with your PhD interview!

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying for a PhD, please see: