Interview Questions

Hi Ninjas, as you may or may not have noticed yet, this week’s posts are all about preparing for interviews and presenting yourself. As part of this I’ll be talking about the types of questions you might get asked in an interview and why you’ll be asked them and giving you a few tips on how to respond.


Unfortunately there’s no way you can ever prepare for every possible question you might get asked, but practising on similar style questions will make it much easier to interpret and answer such questions in your interview. So my advice to all of you is to find a friend you’re comfortable with and practise asking and answering interview questions with each other; even if it’s really informal and degenerates into silly answers and giggling, if it gets you thinking about the questions then it is all good practice! Also, if any of you have any examples of super-tough interview questions, or want to share your own interview stories, then please go ahead and comment. We’d love to hear them and your fellow ninjas may find it useful.


Interview questions can often sound very challenging but most of the time each question will have a specific aim that can be identified by simply breaking it down and considering exactly what qualities that question is trying to assess. Take the classic example: “What is your greatest weakness?” This is a tricky question to answer as you will probably feel as though admitting to a fatal flaw could jeopardise your chances of getting the position, but nobody is going to believe you if you say you don’t have any weaknesses.


What an interviewer wants to find out with this question is whether you can honestly and accurately assess your own abilities AND also to take steps to reduce the impact of any weaknesses on your work. An ideal answer to this question would be to identify a real weakness of yours and either talk about what you do to overcome it, or how you have turned it into a strength (or both!).

Broadly speaking there are five main types of questions you will get asked during an interview:

  • Questions to assess your academic knowledge/skills. These will depend on the PhD you are applying for, so make sure you swot up on the main topics and methods in your area beforehand. It is also worth bearing in mind that, depending on who is conducting the interview, your interviewer may not be as familiar with the topic as you are, or they could be an expert in the field. So try to pitch your answers at the right level; avoid using lots of jargon as it may not be understood by a non-expert, but also don’t skim over important or difficult concepts as an expert may think that you don’t really know your stuff.
  • Questions about why you want this specific PhD, or why you want to work in that specific department. These questions are designed to assess both your passion and your knowledge, so again make sure you do your research about the course and the department. They want to know that you’re interested in them and their work, not just any PhD you can get your hands on. They may also want to know about how you plan to approach your research should you get the PhD, so make sure you’ve considered things like: the time course of your project and how you will complete it on schedule, some details of the methods you want to use, what you will do if you don’t find what you’re expecting, and what sort of resources you will need. This is where having to write those darn research proposals will come in handy!
  • Questions all about YOU. (For example, about your personality, work ethic, experience, academic/research skills, ambitions for the future etc.) Think ahead about the qualities you want to portray and some instances when you have displayed those qualities or skills. While it can be ok to use examples from your personal life, they are likely to be more interested in examples from a university or work setting as they will want to assess how you will deal with the challenges of a professional, academic environment. Having said that, interviewers will of course want to get a sense of your personality during the interview as well, so some personal touches wouldn’t go amiss as long as they are appropriate for the context.
  • Scenario-based questions. (Such as: ethical dilemmas, problem solving, dealing with challenging work situations etc.) This type of question will almost definitely come up if you are applying for a PhD that involves working with a clinical or vulnerable population or one that will include some teaching duties. For the former, I would recommend familiarising yourself with general ethical guidelines for the type of work you would be doing as this will help you to give a more informed answer if you are presented with a scenario involving an ethical dilemma. For the latter, try to think ahead about: how you would approach teaching and motivating students, what sort of teaching strategies you find effective as a student, or whether you have had any experience teaching others and how you approached it. For example, if you have worked as a tutor before or even just helped your friends when they have had trouble understanding a topic, think about what sort of methods you found most effective and how you could apply them in a classroom situation.
  • Oddball questions. These tend to be more common in job interviews than PhD interviews but you might still get a couple, so it is worth being as prepared as you can for them (luckily these ones tend to be the most fun to practise with friends!) Some of these sorts of questions may sound strange but there is usually a reason the interviewer is asking them. A good example I heard recently was: “Explain your undergraduate research project as though you were talking to your grandmother”.  For an interviewer this is a great question as it allows them to assess your ability to think on your feet and your ability to present relevant information in a way that is accessible to everyone, whilst also giving them some insight into your previous research experience.

The key points to take from the above list are: researching your topic, course and department is vital for an interview; and learning to break down questions (and practising doing this) will help you to give the best possible answers in an interview.

A few other quick tips:

  • Dress appropriately!
  • Prepare key qualities and skills you want to mention along with examples of times you have shown them.
  • Try to build a rapport with your interviewer, but remember to take the lead from them. If your interviewer is being very formal then cracking jokes may not be a good idea, but if they are treating more like a friendly chat then you should treat it the same way.
  • Avoid just saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a question as it doesn’t demonstrate any further knowledge, thought or skill and it won’t help the conversation to flow smoothly.
  • It’s ok to disagree with your interviewer. They will want know you have your own opinions and can back them up with facts and research and they may welcome a certain amount of friendly debate about a topic. Just remember to keep it as a FRIENDLY debate; getting into a fight with the interviewer is not the best strategy…
  • Come with your own questions about the course or the university (though preferably not questions you could have easily found out yourself!)

To help you get practising I’ve listed some example questions below along with some links to other articles on preparing for interviews. I hope you have fun practising with your friends and I wish you all the best of luck for your future interviews!

-Dr L


Example Questions:

Give an example of a time when you showed initiative.

Give an example of a time when you showed resilience.

Why this course?

What are your greatest strengths?

What makes you different from any other candidate?

How do you cope with failure?

How would your undergraduate/masters supervisor describe you?

How would you handle a disagreement with your supervisor?

Describe the statistical analyses you used for your undergraduate research project.

Is there a place for social media in academia?

How would you approach teaching statistics to an undergraduate class?

How do you cope with time pressure?

Where do you hope to be in 5 years?

Are you applying for other PhD courses?

What do you think you would find most difficult about this PhD?

Some useful/interesting links:

Also, when saying “I don’t know” in an interview can be useful:


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