Interviews: PhD positions & funding

It was around this time two years ago that I had (finally!) submitted my PhD research proposal and applied for both a position and ESRC funding here at the University of Bath. The six weeks following the application date were a bit nerve-wracking to say the least, but that period of time confirmed my strong desire to do a PhD. I got the email to confirm an interview that took place on March 23rd, and I found out I had been successful in my application the next day.

Interviews for PhD positions and funding tend to take place around this time of year, but positions can come up at any time. It felt fitting though, whilst I was reflecting on the process two years ago to share some tips regarding the interview.

Give or get?

I’ll start with what I know was one of the most influential factors in my securing funding, and I know this because I received feedback on it. I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, but my interview panel commented that I had come into the room with a give rather than a get mentality. Upon reflection I realised this was true. The interview wasn’t a time for me to ‘get’ the position or the funding, I went into the interview panel with very clear ideas of what I could give by having a PhD position and funding. I told the university that I felt I had a lot to give to the department for which I was applying, I told them that my project was unique and therefore valuable. If you go in with a give rather than a get mentality, you can share your ideas and your passion in a genuine, fluid way, rather than a way that comes across as desperate or grasping.

Be confident

Easier said than done when you are nervous, but if you have applied for a position and you were required to develop your own research proposal, there is a good chance that you already have knowledge in this field, that you have spent a great deal of time reading, researching and planning the project. Ultimately, you know it inside out, therefore it is important to remember that you are the expert when it comes to this particular project. Yes – those on the interview panel or your potential supervisor may have more knowledge about the subject area, but the actual project, if you conceived it, you know it best. Remember this, and remember that interviewers are not there to trick you or catch you out. Which leads me onto my next point…

Have perspective

You could go into an interview thinking that the panel are going to grill you hard and that you are going to get caught out. You will be asked hard questions and they are looking for any reasons not to give you the position. Or, you could go in thinking that they have seen potential in your proposal, enough to call you for an interview when there were no doubt a huge number of applicants. This in itself should instill confidence. I truly believe that the perspective you take when entering an interview has a rebound affect on your interviewers. If you go in with a positive mindset, believing in yourself and knowing that to some degree those people interviewing you also believe in you, then you will give off the impression that you know your capabilities and that you are a strong candidate.

A visualisation exercise: You are sitting in front of a panel of five people, some are in suits, some are dressed more casually. They all have notes in front of them, your application. Some look untouched, others have made detailed notes in the margins. One interviewer looks like he wants to be somewhere else, one is super smiley. Imagine these people have called you in and are going to be asking you questions to trick you, they want to find out your flaws, find out all the reasons that you shouldn’t do a PhD. How do you feel? These people are immedaitely enemies. I know for me, I feel tense, defensive, I can feel contraction in my body, particularly my chest and I can feel myself instantly distancing myself from the situation, a protective mechanism against rejection perhaps. I am nervous and I am hyper-vigilant. All my energy is going into these processes, not the interview itself. I am distracted and I am watching for the trick question. I am worried about making a fool of myself. I’m not going to get the position anyway…

Now, imagine you are walking into the exact same scenario, you enter confidently, you make eye contact and shake hands with each of the interview panel, introducting yourself. The person who didn’t want to be there starts to take notice. You have brought a confident air into the room. You see that these interviewers have read your application or at least have it in front of them. One of the panel smiles at you, she’s on your side. How nice. You take in the panel and you remind yourself that these people must see potential in you. They must think that you are capable of doing a PhD and they are interested in you and your project. They want to know more about you, they want to ask as many questions as possible to gain evidence for their belief in you. Now, how does that feel? I can feel that my chest is more open, I can breathe a bit better, there is a little smile on my face, I feel more relaxed, my shoulders are back, I am taking up my space and I am sitting tall. I have a chance at this, I am capable of this and I can’t wait to prove it to this panel.

I’ve talked about perspective before, it really can make all the difference.

Difficult question or fun challenge?

I was asked what I think were some pretty blunt and difficult questions. I had told myself beforehand that these questions needed to be asked, they would help the panel make a distinction between those that had what it takes to do a PhD and those that may not. I was asked “So why should we pay you to do this PhD?” and “What is the point of your research?” Ouch! But all very good questions which allowed me to show my passion and my belief in myself to do the job, and to do it well. I was armed with all the things I had achieved in the past, and I had geared myself up beforehand about why my research was important. I was passionate about it and I needed the panel to know that. However, it is really important to show your passion in a clear, grounded and mature way. At one point, after the interview had been going well I had the “Why have you got what it takes to do a PhD?” question. It felt like everything was on the line and I delivered an answer that was totally in line with my values and my vision but I took a slight risk. You have to make the call. Hard questions are such a fantastic opportunity to show that you know your stuff and to deliver some really great answers that might just close the deal.

It is important to be prepared for difficult questions, and I have included some of the questions that I was asked at the bottom of this post. There is a wealth of information out there regarding PhD interviews, so I recommend looking into that, or getting in touch with someone who has applied for the same position or funding as you. Personally, I did little to prepare for my interview, I reread my proposal a few times but I wanted my answers to come from the heart in the moment rather than be rehearsed. But that is just the way I do things, you might have a different way. Experiment with ideas and practice interviews.

Have a plan

That is, have a plan for after the PhD. You might not know exactly what you want to do with it, so it might be useful to think about the skills you want to improve on or gain during the PhD and where those might take you. You don’t necessarily need to be able to say ‘I will do a two-year post doc and then get a lectureship’. It might be enough to say, ‘I’m really interested in the qualitative aspect of this project and I’d like to pursue that after the PhD, either through my own research, supervising other research or perhaps teaching’. Or maybe it is the teaching that you enjoy, and you could say something along the lines of ‘I enjoy teaching and I think the PhD will give me fantastic skills to do this in the future, I’d like to educate others about the topic/area/subject that I am so passionate about’. Maybe talk about those that inspire you, previous lecturers, your supervisors and old boss? Just have some sort of idea of where the PhD might take you, so that the interviewers know you aren’t just doing it for the sake of it.

Know your strengths, and your weaknesses

If it helps, write a list of all the reasons why you are fully capable of undertaking a PhD. Write down your skills, your strongest areas and what you know you are good at. Focus on these during the interview.

It is also important to know and acknowledge your weaknesses too. A PhD is basically a 3 year training in research, and it would not make sense for you to start a PhD with all the skills you need to complete them, otherwise, why do it? What would you learn? You may get asked directly about what you perceive your weaknesses to be. If you do, approach this question with optimism and a problem solving attitude. For example, my weakness? Stats (ugh!). But when asked I explained that statistics were not my strongest point (without the ugh) and that I thought the PhD would be a fantastic opportunity to improve these skills, either through auditing classes, speaking to lecturers who specialise in stats or simply through hands on experience. Your weaknesses don’t have to be a dead-end, there are always ways to improve a skill and it shows good insight, personal awareness and initiative if you not only know your weakness but also have an idea of how to improve it.

Superhero stance

Finally, this tip might sound a bit off the wall, but I learnt about it in a really interesting book and met the author at an event in London and I swear it worked. Standing in a superhero stance (think hands on hips, chest and shoulders open, feet grounded and legs strong – Wonder Woman pose!) for a few minutes before a big event can make you feel so much more confident and really helps with first impressions.

You have an interviewee come in, head down, a quiet hello and taking their seat. You have another interviewee come in, put down there things, greet and shake hands with each member of the panel and introduce themselves and then take their seat. Who do you feel most drawn to from that description?

There is some science behind this and I like a bit of science behind the more unusual claims or tips. Some scientists from Harvard conducted research that involved mock interviews. Participants were divided into two groups and told to either stand in the power pose before the mock interview, or to sit in a slumped, closed position. The ‘interviewers’ chose to employ nearly every person in the first group who assumed the power pose. You can read more about that study here. I also highly recommend checking out Amy Cuddy’s fantastic Ted Talk.

 

If you have an interview coming up – good luck! And if you are waiting to hear about an interview – hang in there!! Does anyone reading this have any other tips about interviewing, or any questions? I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time 🙂

Some of the questions I was asked:

  • Why should we pay you to do this project?
  • What is the point of doing this research?
  • Why have you got what it takes to do a PhD?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • What difficulties or challenges do you foresee? How will you plan for them?
  • What can you offer this University and the Psychology department?

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