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Q&A: The PhD Interview

Recently (well, honestly, not that recently, I’ve been falling behind a bit on answering your questions), I received the following question from a reader:

I have an upcoming interview for PhD Studentship… I’m very confused and tense about it.

Considering yourself to be a person who is taking interview for PhD studentship, what “general” questions would you ask to the candidate?

I think your answer would help met a lot…

Plus, if you would like to give any additional advice, I’ll appreciate it !

First things first, the fact that you have been invited for an interview to discuss a possible PhD studentship is already positive news. It means that the PI sees potential in you, and wants to talk with you in person before making a decision. Professors are busy people, and they won’t interview 20 candidates for a PhD position – they make a selection based on your letters and resumes, and then invite very few people to talk to. So, relax – the professor interviewing already thinks that on paper you are a good candidate.

I must say as well that I do not interview for PhD studentships. Even though I have recently been promoted to full professor in Ecuador, I do not interview for PhD positions because the institution I work at only has undergraduate programs. At Delft, the decision to hire PhD candidates depends on the full professor that leads our research group, in which I work as a part-time researcher.

Given that I have no experience interviewing candidates for a PhD position, I can only tell you how I prepared for my PhD interview. The most important part is making sure you are well-informed about the work of the research group and professor you are interviewing with. Read his most recent publications and his most cited publications, check all the information on the research website, and see what else Google can teach you about your possible future boss and workplace.

Other than preparing based on contents, treat it like any other job interview – it is not an exam, it is an interview. If possible, attend a workshop about interviews towards the end of your master’s studies. Practice with standard job interview questions, such as you can find here. While most of these standard questions will never be asked during an interview for a PhD scholarship, they give you a sense of preparation, and help you speak up about your goals, your plans, and what you hope to achieve during your PhD years.

As for my PhD interview, I barely remember anything of it. Stress, sweaty palms, pure panic. I am not exaggerating.

My story starts on Friday, December 18th in New York. I am traveling back from a trip with friends to Atlanta, where I am studying for my M.Sc. in Structural Engineering. We are supposed to fly from New York to Atlanta with a stop in Charlotte, NC. Once we reach Charlotte, we are informed that our connecting flight is canceled. We are put on the waiting list for the next flight, but can’t get on. All of us are traveling to Europe the next day, so we really need to make it back to Atlanta. We decide to rent a car. One friend drives, I sit next to him and talk hysterically trying to keep him awake (we had been awake since 4 am or so to catch our flight), the other friend is passed out on the back seat. We have an epic visit to a random Waffle House somewhere, where we do the endless coffee pot thing, and the server and her mom look at us as if we are exotic animals, because we are Europeans. We continue our road trip and make it to Atlanta late at night. I think I remember cooking up pasta with shrimp in cream sauce around midnight in my friends’ house at the end of this.

The next day, I wake up to pack my suitcases with all presents from the USA for my family and friends in Europe, and get ready for my flight home. My friends come pick me up in the rental car, and we manage to fit in everybody and all our suitcases. I take the red eye flight to Brussels, and arrive majestically jetlagged on Sunday morning to Brussels. My PhD interview is the next morning, in the Netherlands.

That Sunday, my best friend comes to visit me. She finds me napping on the couch, exhausted after finals, the NYC trip, and all travel adventures. I crawl out of the sofa for cake and tea, but I’m not sure if I am a good host that day (probably not – but my friend never blamed me for it, because she’s awesome). I go to bed, but of course can’t sleep because I am too jetlagged.

Interview day – Monday December 21st: I wake up at the crack of dawn to take the first train to the Netherlands for the interview. My mom travels with me, to keep me company, and keep me awake. We travel from Lier and get off at the Antwerpen Berchem station, where the trains to the Netherlands used to leave. Turns out the Antwerpen Centraal station is now the departure station. We run out of the train station, catch a cab, and are still in time to take our train to the Netherlands. For some reason, we have delays or other problems, and by the time we reach Rotterdam Centraal, we are too late for the connection to Delft. We catch another cab to go to the university in Delft.

I only have the address of the lab. The cab driver does not know which building is civil engineering. I have vague memories of running on a slippery, icy pavement on my high heels (my interview shoes!) to dash into a building and ask them where I can find the civil engineering building. Finding the Stevin II lab inside of the civil engineering building turns out to be a last hurdle to take. I arrive half an hour late to my interview, sweaty, stressed like never before, and totally unprepared.

Once I finally find where I have to be, I see there are three people waiting to interview me. I stare at them like a wild animal who sees humans for the first time, or a rabbit staring into the headlights of a car. My equally distressed mother is trailing behind me. The three people ready to interview me look all relaxed though. They sit at the coffee table, chatting, and sipping coffee. They even mention: “We didn’t expect you yet!”, after I mutter apologies for being late, and ask, given that I had to travel from Belgium, why the appointment was so early. I didn’t dare to tell them I simply took the first suggestion of the secretary.

My mom and I each get a coffee, and then I am taking into the office of the full professor for the interview. I barely remember anything from the interview, except that I didn’t speak much at all, and that they mostly talked about the project – I think. I just remember the moment one of them said: “In case it wasn’t clear yet, we really would like to have you here.” I must have given another wild-animal-stare, but I realize I am in. I feel much more relaxed. After the interview, my mom and I are taken for a trip to the laboratories, where I am shown all the cool stuff in the lab. I remember much more details from the lab visit, as the stress had ebbed away, and I started to feel genuinely excited about working in Delft.

After the lab visit, I think my mom and I are offered another round of coffee. My interviewers are friendly and chatty, and I remember them telling us that they would love to give us a ride to the train station back, but they all came by bike. My mom and I blink at the thought of these important, not-so-young men biking through the freezing winter air. I realize the Netherlands will be quite different from Belgium, where taking your car to go to the bakery at the end of the street is common practice. My mom and I end our day with a visit to the city center of Delft, and we treat ourselves to a big plate of poffertjes. And this is the story of my PhD interview – not the ideal situation, but I did end up getting the PhD position of my dreams.

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