Top 10 Common Questions in PhD Interviews

On the road to getting a PhD, especially in fully-funded PhD programs, some factors come into play. One major factor is the PhD interviews which call for proper preparation as you do not know the exact questions in PhD interviews. The interview itself serves as an extended evaluation of a candidate’s potential and fit for the program and can be the ultimate deciding factor in whether or not the candidate will be accepted.

The process of applying to and interviewing for a PhD program is a complicated and long-drawn-out process. Once all the application documents have been processed, whether or not a candidate lands an interview can depend on many factors including the school and department to which one has applied, the availability of professors in the department, and the number of PhD positions in the department.

Since these interviews can be fairly competitive, it is often in your best interest to prepare ahead of time regarding the types of questions in PhD interviews to expect and the best way to respond to certain questions. These questions vary in most cases depending on the institution, examination/interview committee and type of sponsorship. The particular type of research that an applicant will embark upon can also determine the type of interview process and questions that the applicant will receive.

As you know, at, we ensure that PhD students and potential PhD candidates do not have challenges in the pursuit of their academic goals. Hence we have crafted these “top 10 Common Questions in PhD Interviews to guide those preparing for doctoral interviews.

Why Prepare for PhD Interview?

Planning for a PhD study and have been scheduled for an interview which you wish to smash? Preparation is the key to a successful interview. A chance to spend 3-4 years of your life as a PhD student is not a small decision. Getting yourself prepared would certainly yield rich dividends when it is time for you to face the interview board. In other words, the more you prepare – the luckier you get.

The ‘hot seat’ in an interview can make even the greatest of academic minds go blank. Therefore, it is advisable to practice answering likely questions on your research, your approach to teaching, and your general suitability to the post. Engage your friends to act as interviewers and ask for constructive feedback.

10 Most Commonly Asked Questions in PhD Interviews.

Top 10 Common Questions in PhD Interviews
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Top 10 Common Questions in PhD Interviews

Most of the students aspiring to do a PhD in the sciences or technology are asked to attend an interview before they are accepted. The nature of this PhD interview varies from institution to institution and in most cases, physical attendance is not necessary as interviews can also be conducted over the phone via Zoom, Google Meet, Skype and so on.

To make the PhD interview process less tiring, we will provide some answers to common questions asked during the PhD interview. So, given below are some frequently asked questions in a PhD interview. You do not need to attempt to memorize answers to all these questions. Just have a general idea in your mind.

#1. Why Do You Want to Pursue a PhD?

Whilst there are many positive reasons to pursue a PhD, there are negative factors to consider too. In a research work by Robin Wollast et al, in the International Journal of Higher Education, the studentship is typically 3-4 years in duration and the completion rate is under 50% in some European countries. Students are often paid a low wage in comparison with their counterparts who have entered a profession following an undergraduate degree, and living costs can be high in some areas.

With this in mind, it is clear that you should not pursue a PhD simply because it is the ‘done thing’, rather the decision should be well-thought-out and reflect your desire to remain in academia for a long time. You are expected to demonstrate specific research interests and academic goals and align your aspirations with long-term career plans. Finally, you should emphasize the passion for knowledge creation and field contribution.

#2. What Led You to Choose This Particular Research Topic?

Now this is the pertinent question in PhD interview, “What led you to choose this particular research topic?” The motivation for the research is paramount. Doing a PhD is demanding, and many will at some point ask themselves why they are torturing themselves, and if they are not satisfied with the answer, many will quit.

So an interest in a research topic is a good sign. But where did this interest come from? This is an interesting question and one which you should ask yourself. To effectively answer this question, you are expected to discuss relevant experiences, coursework, or projects that sparked interest. Also, do not forget to highlight how your research fills gaps in existing literature and equally showcase your commitment to advancing knowledge in the field.

#3. Can You Explain Your Research Proposal?

Ensure you have a clear and succinct explanation for your chosen project, running through the reasons why it is a good project and the steps you went through to develop the idea. Specifically, state your role in developing the project. Often supervisors are keen to entice the best candidates into their group for the best projects. This is an excellent strategy and something that you should be exploiting.

If the interview is a physical one, take a copy of your project proposal with you into the interview to hand to the interview panel. This is an excellent resource for the interview panel and is something that could be a great starting point for any subsequent studentship. Always ensure the project proposal is well-written and developed because a well-written project proposal can often be a great selling point for your project and be the difference between securing that PhD position or not.

You should clearly outline research objectives, methodology, and potential impact and as well, provide evidence and logical reasoning to defend your proposal. Then anticipate follow-up questions and be prepared to elaborate. Always remember that your project is the reason why you are to be employed, always ensure it is well defined, well explained and well written.

#4. How Do You Plan to Approach Challenges in Your Research?

This question aims to get you to talk about a time when things didn’t go right in your research and what you did to overcome it. The best-practice target answer involves discussing a specific problematic event or situation, your response and the result of that response. The answer should also entail what was learned and how you have adapted your research methods as a result. This question is extremely common in doctoral interviews with all types of research-centred organisations and the best approach is to have a real-life example ready to explain.

In this question also, your adaptability is being tested. Sometimes this will be asked in a one-liner version and other times the interviewer will ask you to discuss a specific challenging scenario. The idea here is to see if you can adjust to sudden or unforeseen changes and your willingness to seek guidance and collaborate with others.

An effective method to answer this question is to have a couple of good examples ready, where a beneficial change of plan has been made in response to new information. This could be anything from an improved way of carrying out a study to a completely new research angle. An important point to get across is that the quality or result of the research as a whole was not compromised by the change.

#5. What Are Your Skills for the PhD Program?

If you are asked this question, then the interviewer is probing to ascertain how you will interact with your colleagues, professors, and possible contributors to your research. It is an open question to see what you have planned to work in a research environment.

In this discussion, you are expected to highlight your academic achievements, research experience, and technical skills. You can equally discuss publications, presentations, or other contributions to the field. You will need to show that you can get along with people but at the same time can work independently.

The skills that you demonstrate in the PhD application, and the skills that are valued in the PhD interview, are the following:

Research – Ability to design, plan and undertake research. This involves the ability to identify a topic or issue that is worth investigating and to answer a question about it. This skill underpins all PhDs, regardless of discipline.

Intelligence – The ability to really understand and answer a question. This might sound simplistic, but it is surprising how many applicants struggle with this. The ability to understand a question or an issue, and to be able to explain it to others, is central to PhD level work.

#6. How Will Your Research Impact the Academic Community?

This is the most important reason for a PhD research and because so many scholars and researchers go into research just to complete their papers for promotion, they don’t care if they solve any problem with their research.

The question “How will your research impact the academic community” expects you to discuss potential applications, implications, and avenues for dissemination, showcase commitment to knowledge dissemination and societal impact and also highlight willingness to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration.

Your research will essentially become a part of the academic legacy of your field, so you need to convey how it is a substantial contribution to your field. This can be done by explaining how your research can resolve a current problem in your field, build on continuing research or create new research, which is often linked to resolving a problem in some way. A PhD is a long time so you should convey the stability of your proposal, which is achieved by clarifying the aims of your research and showing it is structured around these aims.

#7. Can You Discuss a Recent Development or Debate in Your Field?

The question “Can you discuss a recent development or debate in your field?” is a crucial question posed during PhD interviews. The objective of the question is to ascertain your familiarity with contemporary patterns and your capacity to actively participate in intellectual conversations. Interviewers aim to get insights into a candidate’s level of knowledge, intellectual curiosity, and ability to engage in academic analysis by inquiring about their acquaintance with current breakthroughs or disputed problems within their area.

Candidates are required to effectively communicate their comprehension of pertinent advancements, exhibit their capacity to evaluate diverse viewpoints, and exhibit their potential to make valuable contributions to continuing scholarly exchanges. Offering a well-considered reply to this inquiry not only demonstrates the candidate’s proficiency but also underscores their capacity to excel as a researcher capable of making significant contributions to their selected area of study.

#8. How Will You Manage Research, Coursework and Other Duties?

This is particularly important for PhD students as they need to manage research, coursework, and many other duties. If you fail at this stage, it will be certain that you will either drop out or fail. Your time management skill is something that can make or break you as a student. A PhD can be a very insular experience, and it is all too easy to procrastinate or feel that you have all the time in the world to finish.

Combining both research and coursework in a PhD calls for meticulous adherence to your specific schedules and timing. Never allow any external distraction, as doing your research and coursework with other duties such as menial jobs can be a handful already. You are expected to outline strategies for prioritizing tasks and setting goals. In this case, some time management tools can come in handy. In answering this question, also emphasize your commitment to self-discipline and time management.

#9. Any Example of Your Collaboration Skills?

This as one of the questions in PhD interviews is asked to know if you have the experience of being a team player. An interviewer may ask about your collaboration with individuals in the achievement of certain goals, and in these situations, they would like to know your role in that team and what you did in that situation.

Any situation that is an example of leadership will be of interest to the interviewer. A leader is what they are hoping to train you to become by the end of your studies, and they need some evidence that you are capable. This is no different from the effort for leadership in an academic environment to leadership anywhere else, and therefore should expect to be asked generic interview questions.

#10. What is Your Motivation and Focus for the PhD Journey?

Your motivation and focus level for the PhD journey is a crucial question in PhD interview. The interviewers want to assess your commitment levels. PhD is quite demanding and it requires a strong will and passion to complete successfully in a stipulated time frame. There are always some reasons behind any decision. The panel expects you to have a clear vision for your future.

The question may be posed in different ways, but the aim is to get at your current motivation for undertaking a PhD. They will also want to find out what your career aspirations are and whether you have actually thought about what doing a PhD entails. If your motivation is rooted in unclear aspirations and a fuzzy understanding of a PhD, you risk being perceived as a poor candidate. Make sure your motivation is well-grounded.

A clear understanding of the reasons for your interest in a PhD can be a source of strength at difficult times. The motivations for performing a PhD are highly individual. You can discuss a passion for your subject, a desire to become an academic, to advance your current career or to open up new employment opportunities. An honest expression of what is motivating you to do a PhD is the best answer.


Having discussed these 10 most commonly asked questions in PhD interviews, remember that this is in no way a comprehensive or perfect sample answer, but just to provide some form of direction in how one might answer these questions. Remember that all interviews are different, so if you don’t get asked these questions it doesn’t mean you won’t get in, or that you answered other questions poorly. Also, remember that an interview result can hinge more on the quality of your thoughts than the immediate quality of your answers.

So, even if you think that you answered some questions poorly, it doesn’t mean that you won’t get in. If you do have more interviews or are worried about the last one, always seek out feedback from the interviewers and learn from it. There is no bad experience if you learn from it. Always remember too that “deconstructing” questions and answers at interviews is an important practice for an academic argument.


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