The other day I was chatting to a group of our 4th-year MPhys students about the process for applying (and hopefully being interviewed) for a PhD. This is the time when students in the UK have started to apply and are awaiting decisions on whether they have to go for an interview. Final decisions are usually made by the end of March so those with interviews have a busy couple of months coming up.
I actually quite enjoy doing PhD interviews, because that involves giving excellent young scientists their first step on the ladder towards a research career. I’m sure it’s not so pleasant for the candidates though. Nerves sometimes get the better of the students in these interviews, but experienced interviewers can calibrate for that. And if you’re nervous, it means that you care…
Anyone reading this who is nervous about doing a PhD interview (or has experienced nerves in one they’ve already had) might reflect on my experience when I was called to interview for a PhD place in Astronomy at the University of Manchester way back in 1985. I was very nervous before that, and arrived very early for my grilling. I was told to wait in a sort of ante-room as the previous interview had only just started. I started to read a textbook I had brought with me. About five minutes later, the door of the interview room opened and the interviewers, Franz Kahn and John Dyson, both of whom are sadly no longer with us, carried out the unconscious body of the previous candidate. It turned out that, after a couple of friendly preliminary questions, the two Professors had handed the candidate a piece of chalk and told him to go to the blackboard to work something out, at which point said candidate had fainted. When it was my turn to be handed the chalk I toyed with the idea of staging a mock swoon, but resisted the temptation.
The question, in case you’re interested, was to estimate the angle through which light is deflected by the Sun’s gravity. I hadn’t done any general relativity in my undergraduate degree, so just did it by dimensional analysis which is easy because an angle is dimensionless. That gets you within a factor of a two of the correct answer which, in those days, was pretty goood going for cosmology. That seemed to go down well and they offered me a place … which I turned down in favour of Sussex.
In those days, before detailed information about research in University departments was available online, the interview generally consisted of a discussion of the various projects available and a few odd questions about Physics (and possible Astronomy) to see if the candidate was able to think on their feet (i.e. without fainting).
Nowadays it’s a bit different. You can still expect a bit of questioning about undergraduate material but that is normally preceded by the chance to talk about your final-year project. One reason for that is that selectors are interested in project work because it can provide evidence of an aptitude for research. The other is simply that it gives the candidate a chance to get over any initial nerves by talking about something that they hopefully know well, as they will have been working on it for some time.
My first piece advice for students who have been offered an interview, therefore, is to prepare a short (~10 minute) verbal summary of your project work so you’re not wrong-footed if asked to talk about it.
Students nowadays are also expected to know a bit more about the thesis topic in advance, so my second tip is to read up a bit of background so you can talk reasonably intelligently about the proposed research. If, for example, you have decided to work on Dark Energy (as many seem to these days), you won’t come across very well if you don’t know what the main issues are. What’s the observational evidence? What kind of theories are there? What are the open questions? Same goes for other fields. It also will do no harm if you read a couple of recent papers by your prospective supervisor, for reasons of flattery if nothing else.
Anyway, I think those are the two main things. If anyone has other advice to offer prospective PhD students, please feel free to add via the comments box.