Updated: Feb 3
by P. A. M.
Many undergraduate students often don't know where to start when preparing for a postgraduate degree interview. If you have just received an offer for a postgraduate degree interview and are unsure how to begin preparing - this article is for you.
This article will outline a three-step approach that will help you to build confidence and feel prepared for a postgraduate interview.
As you read this article and prepare for your interview, remember interview skills can be developed with preparation and lots of practice.
Step 1: Make good use of your time
Being shortlisted for an interview reflects the committee’s interest in your qualifications and capabilities. The interview is your opportunity to expand on your skills and experience and to convince them about your motivation and ability to complete the programme.
For most programme applications you will usually have some time notice. Use this time to prepare!
1.1 Research the department and/or laboratory and the people
Familiarise yourself with the department and/or laboratory research. Investigate the techniques and methods they use. Look at your potential supervisor’s papers and read their most recent research. If you have time, find out which other faculty members have previously collaborated with your supervisor. This is especially important for PhD positions because you will need to understand the area of research and what your role will be within the research group.
You are not expected to be an expert, but you should be able to hold a conversation on the subject you have applied for. Have a good grasp of basic concepts and definitions. For research programmes, be prepared to critique a journal article ─ you will usually be told in advance if this will be a requirement.
Extra advice for PhD positions: if time permits, research current students in the programme through the department’s webpage. I would highly encourage you to contact a couple of the students for advice and ask them to share their experience on working in the department or laboratory.
1.2 Read over your statement of purpose or cover letter
Make sure you know your CV and statement of purpose inside out. Be ready to expand and answer questions on the information you have provided. If you have previous experience of doing research make sure you can go into detail about what you did. Review what you have done and make sure you can go into depth about your undergraduate/masters modules too.
Most interviews will start with an open question along the lines of “tell me/us about yourself”. Write a paragraph about you and the journey that has led you to where you are at now. How did you become interested in this field? How do your previous experience and future plans tie in with the programme you are applying for? Memorising this brief paragraph and being able to deliver a clear response will build your confidence at this initial stage and help you settle down for the rest of the interview.
1.3 Look at the original advert
Read through the programme webpage, the programme prospectus, and/or the PhD advert. Prepare to answer questions as to why you are a good fit for the programme.
How do your skills and previous experience build into the programme aims?
Furthermore, make sure you have a clear answer as to why you want to pursue a postgraduate degree. You should be able to put this into a couple of sentences. Give good reasons and let your passion show.
Make sure you identify areas that you want to understand further and the skills you wish to further develop. You will likely be asked about this. Remember to be honest.
1.4 Prepare your answers
It may be impossible to know exactly what you will be asked during an interview, but there are some commonly asked questions you should be ready to answer. Prepare a short paragraph for each and learn them by heart. Come up with multiple examples for questions regarding your strengths and weaknesses, as well as situations where you have solved problems or worked in a team. Regarding your research and previous experience, practice talking through your thinking process (For example - why did you choose method A instead of method B?).
Having these answers prepared and memorising them is key in building confidence for the interview.
Step 2: Practice
Try to be yourself in the interview. To do this, try practicing by yourself in front of a mirror. Practice out loud and without looking at your notes. Pretend it is the date of the interview and answer the questions as if you were in front of your panel. Go over the questions you get stuck on until you feel confident with your performance.
Try to have a mock interview with friends, family or colleagues. Practice eye contact and addressing all members of the panel. Be mindful of the speed of your speech and make sure you enunciate. After being asked a question, practice taking a minute to think about your answer and organise your thoughts before speaking.
As you practice you will realise there are questions you avoid or fear to be asked. Mark them down and double practice those. Prepare answers for the weakest points in your CV and areas that you need training.
GOLDEN ADVICE: Schedule a mock interview with your careers office, (for example, UCL Careers Office and Cambridge Careers Office). They have a very high demand so do this as soon as you have confirmation of the interview. This will be similar to the real interview, and their feedback will be invaluable.
Step 3: Expect to be nervous and accept your anxiety
And lastly, the most valuable piece of advice I can give you: expect to be nervous. This is especially true if this is your first interview and it is absolutely normal. Fighting your nervousness and anxiety by getting frustrated at your own feelings will exacerbate the emotion. Fighting emotions will also drain your energy and distract you through the interview. Acknowledge and allow those feelings to come with you as unwelcome guests into the interview.
Watch this video for a metaphor about dealing with ‘unwelcome’ emotions by allowing them in.
And finally, on the day of the interview, do not forget you are a student and you are applying for a student position. You are not expected to be an expert on the topic or to have the answers for everything. Show the panel that you are motivated, willing to learn, and committed to your projects.
Best of luck!
Interested in what PhD research may be like? Why not read our article 'What to expect when preparing for research' to find out more!
P. A. M. has a BSc in Psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill and a BSc in Clinical Psychology from USFQ - Quito. She has also completed a Master's degree in Health Psychology at University College London, prior to starting a Ph.D. at University College London in behavioural science and health.