23 PhD Interview tips

23 PhD Interview tips

PhD Interview Presentation Dos and Don’ts

It is becoming increasingly common for master's and undergraduate students to present data they produced during their research as part of the PhD interview process. This may involve presenting to the potential lab, professor, or department interview panel responsible for evaluating candidates. The aim of this is to understand what basic skills and understanding the potential PhD candidate already has about the field or a scientific topic in general. For many this is a great opportunity to impress and may allow applicants to rise above competing applicants that may have the grades on paper but do not have the drive, experience or skills to carry out a PhD in a specific lab.

Here are some dos and don'ts for presenting during a PhD interview:

PhD Interview Dos

  1. Read as many papers as you can about the topic. For PhDs looking for post-doc positions in fields outside of what they carried out their PhD in, it’s recommended to read up to 100 papers to have a decent understanding of the topic and have an intellectual conversation with the Professor you a applying to. For an undergraduate or Masters student I would recommend reading 20-30 papers on the topic of interest of the lab. I know this might seem like a lot, but it will show you dedication and enthusiasm for the field. Be prepared for the “Why this project” question.

  2. Find a good review on the topic. Sometimes reading one good review will give you all the figures and information you need for the presentation. Check out journals like Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology or Nature Reviews Cancer for some great in depth reviews with great figures that will look good in your presentation.

  3. Make the presentation as simple as possible. The last thing you want to do is stress yourself out about the presentation because you don’t know the minute details of the figures. If possible, keep the presentation as simple as possible to 4/5 figures that you understand and can answer questions on.

  4. Have acknowledgements. If you are presenting your undergraduate or Masters work thank the previous labs that you were working with.

  5. Mention that you have a publication: If you are lucky enough to have published with the lab you did your research in, don’t be afraid to talk about the paper and highlight how you contributed to the publication.

  6. Give a short Bio of you career or successes to date. The interview panel might have read your CV, but giving them a short one slide update on your education and achievements can look good.

  7. Try and assure them that you are the right person for the job. Remember, they might have spent have months working on this grant, they are invested in this project and you should be too. They want to make sure you have the motivation and drive to get you through 3 or 4 grueling years.

  8. Be prepared for Post PhD questions. Although you don’t know how you may feel about research after a PhD be optimistic and engaging. Don’t simply answer “I don’t know”, have some potential career paths in mind.

  9. Think about how you might respond to any challenges the PhD might present and be prepared for questions on this topic.

  10. Do ask the interviewers questions. Asking questions will show your enthusiasm for the project. Make the questions relevant like “What will the supervision arrangements be for the project” “Will I have opportunities to teach / present / publish”. Don’t ask “What are holidays/pay”.

  11. Think about what you can add to the group and why you’ll be a valuable asset.

  12. Be prepared for questions on failure and how you deal with it.

  13. Think about what experiments and equipment you’d use if you got the PhD and the purpose of experiment. Think about how you’d set up your first experiment. Be able to describe this in detail during the interview, this will show you’re engaged with the topic and have thought about it detail.

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PhD Interview Don’ts

  1. Don’t use Wikipedia as a reference. Hopefully after reading your papers you will have a good enough understanding of the topic to present primary research papers or reviews on the topic. Using Wikipedia as a reference is a big “No-No” and won’t look good.

  2. Don’t go over time! If you are given 15 mins to talk, take 15 mins! There’s nothing more frustrating than presentations dragging on!

  3. When they ask you about yourself don’t give them your life story. Keep it relevant. Say where you’re form and maybe a hobby or two if its interesting (not I like going out at the weekend). From that point on keep it on topic, how your college/lab experience makes you an ideal candidate. What inspired you to do PhD, why you chose this university.

  4. Don’t give overly simplistic answers and don’t go on and on – find that perfect balance. Yes or no answers won’t cut it, your academic achievements won’t speak for themselves – it’s all about the why, why you are the right candidate for the job.

  5. If they ask you the ‘Catch 22’ of interview questions “What are your strengths and weakness”? You may feel this is a lose lose situation. Don’t just say you are punctual and reliable. Elaborate, give examples of situations when you showed these traits. For weakness don’t be overly hard on yourself, identify what you would like further training on. This type of question is more about your ability to identify weaknesses and strengths and improve on them.

  6. Don’t wear jeans. Dress smart and confidently.

  7. Don’t panic when they ask about an interesting paper you read recently – you’ll have one prepared right?

  8. Don’t lie. If you don’t know the answer better to say it rather than spoof your way through it. As with all interviews the interviewers will see right through it and it could take away from an otherwise great interview.

  9. Try not to be too nervous. Remember they where once in your shoes.

  10. Don’ take this advice as definite – the panel may through in a curveball or two that you haven’t thought about.

Related Resources

Written by Sean Mac Fhearraigh

Seán Mac Fhearraigh PhD is a co-founder of Assay Genie. Seán carried out his undergraduate degree in Genetics at Trinity College Dublin, followed by a PhD at University College Dublin. He carried out a post-doc at the Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge. Seán is now Chief Technical Officer at Assay Genie.

Additional Resources

14th Apr 2023 Sean Mac Fhearraigh

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