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My PhD Interview

My PhD Interview by Zenab Eman Sabahat, PhD Researcher, University of Bradford

If you’ve ever considered applying for a PhD, you may have had the anxiety-ridden thought of what to expect in the interview if you’re fortunate enough to receive an offer.

So, you’ve submitted your application, crossed every ‘T’, and dotted every ‘I’- “but what now?”- I hear you ask. Well, this very question was living rent-free in my own mind between the time of submitting my application and waiting for a response from my prospective supervisors. So, what did I do? Well, let me tell you! Let’s take a trip down memory lane…

What were the challenges I faced leading up to the interview?

There was some ambiguity around whether I needed to include a research proposal alongside my application, given that the PhD I was going to apply for was funded, and the advertisement had already disclosed a proposal. I emailed my prospective supervisor, who advised that it would be worth building upon the existing proposal, including sections such as what, according to research, is the ‘research problem’, and how I would navigate each of the elements indicated in the advert. So, I essentially created my own proposal using the advertisement, and followed the traditional format of introduction, research problem, aims and objectives, methodology, ethical issues, potential problems that may arise throughout the PhD, a brief workplan for the three years, and a conclusion. The time between receiving confirmation that I needed to include a proposal, and submitting my application was very short (7 days) so it was literally a one-woman show! Time was of the essence, so I was unable to turn to other academics for feedback, and just had to do the best I could.

The university portal only allowed me to upload one set of supporting documents (MSc certificate and academic transcript). I emailed the remaining documents to my prospective supervisor, which resulted in some apprehension around whether this would affect my application.

How long did I wait before receiving an interview offer?

After submitting my application on the 24th of May 2022, I was pleasantly surprised to hear back from my prospective supervisors the following day. So soon, I know! The joy of receiving an offer, however, quickly subsided when I learnt that the interview would take place the next day, meaning I had less than 24 hours to prepare for this life-changing prospect!

How did I prepare & what questions were asked?

My supervisor sent an email disclosing the aim of the interview, including a list of potential questions (see below) that the panel would ask in the interview. These were:

  1. Why are you interested in this PhD?
  2. How do you see this PhD fitting within the wider research strengths at the University?
  3. How have you supported someone in distress?
  4. Recall a time where you had to do something with very little guidance?
  5. Recall a time when you have worked in a team, and it hasn’t gone very well?

So, on this basis I knew what to expect. Admittedly, I wasn’t accustomed to the wider research strengths of the University, so I spent the best part of those precious 24 hours inquiring into these on the University website. Although there was no indication of any research questions being asked from the initial list, this was an interview for a PhD, so surely something research-based was bound to come up! I thought it would be sensible to brush up on my knowledge of quantitative and qualitative research methods, and I’m so glad I did! It’s important to note, though, that the panel doesn’t expect you to know everything. It’s better to be honest and transparent about not knowing something, than pretending you do!  

Who was on the panel?

The panel comprised the Director of PGR studies, and the principle/ associate supervisors. The Director of PGR studies was my personal academic tutor throughout my first and second years of undergraduate study, so she was already aware of my academic strengths (and weaknesses!). The prospective supervisors had also taught me at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

How did you feel it went?

In all honesty, I felt I had performed horrendously! The main reason being, there were a few questions that I didn’t necessarily know the answer to. But I knew the best thing to do was to stay calm and remain honest and transparent about my lack of expertise in that specific area. After all, a PhD is the training ground to BECOME the expert. Nobody ever goes into it knowing absolutely everything about their chosen field.