Your PhD Interview: How to Prepare and Not Stress

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you probably have an interview for a PhD Program. Even if you don’t, maybe you’re just trying to get prepared for when you do. Either way, PhD interviews can feel like a big deal. If you want to nail your PhD interview, here are some tips of things you should do and things you shouldn’t do for your interview to have smooth sailing.

Things to Do

There is no one hundred percent sure fire method to make sure you have the perfect interview. After all, each institution and each interviewer are different and have different goals for incoming students. While one hundred percent is not possible, there are many things you can do to get pretty darn close. (If you find this blog post helpful, you should check out this one on what does getting an interview mean for your PhD). Here is a list of Interview Dos.

You should check out this video on the number one question you will be asked in a PhD Interview:

Get to Know Your Interviewer

This step is only possible if you’ve been notified ahead of time, but most institutions will let you know who is going to be interviewing you. If you know your interviewer, learn what their current research is on and read some of the papers they have published. It would be good to be familiar with the research or ideas they are famous for. Read enough so you can generally understand them in terms of interest and what they’re looking for.

One purpose of doing background research is so you can build a connection with your interviewer. Learning their interests will make it easier for you to start conversations and build good rapport. The interviewer might also find it flattering if you mention it. Showing interest also shows that you are serious about pursuing your higher education and suggests that you would fit in well with their current string of research. Check out this video on the best interview tip to do well:

Reading the work of your interviewer will also help you know if the institution would be a good fit for you research wise. If their papers do not interest you, it can give you an idea if the program would be able to accommodate your academic interests.

Engage Your Interviewer

Everyone likes to feel appreciated and be flattered. If there are topics you can discuss that will make your researcher feel good about themselves, then the interviewer will feel more at ease with you. However, be careful with praising and flattering them because too much flattery can be a turn off. Try to bring up topics that shows them that you can help them look progressive in the research field.

You can also engage the interviewer by bringing questions related to the program and asking them about them. Bringing questions not only shows that you are looking at the world and working to be a problem solver. It also lets your interviewer think and share opinions with you, which allows them to open up and makes it easier to build rapport. Giving them an opportunity to contribute to great research ideas will also help the interviewer to feel important, which makes them feel appreciated.

Dress Appropriately

When you’re interviewing for a PhD interview, you want to put your best foot forward, both with your resume and with your appearance. However, you also don’t want to go over the top. Aim for a business/professional appearance.

For males, this will typically be a full suit with a solid colored shirt and a tie. You’ll want to avoid a black suit because black suits are a bit overly formal. However, also avoid patterned suits that attract attention. While it’s great to have personality, the interview is also a place for you to show you understand the level of scholastic achievement you are pursuing. A bright purple shirt with a dark green suit is overly distracting and will distract the interviewer from what you have to say.

For females, it is best to dress in professional business attire, whether this be a pantsuit or a blouse, skirt combo or a business style dress. It is also important to wear clothing that is not overly revealing. Clothes with attention grabbing patterns or colors are also best to avoid. Again, you want the attention of the interviewer to be on what you are saying, not on what you are wearing.

Overall, it is best to dress more conservatively. If you have tattoos, it is best to read you audience. It used to be good practice to cover up the tattoo, but a lot of interviewers don’t have strong opinions regarding them nowadays. However, if you have a tattoo that people typically find distracting, it would be best to cover it up.

In regard to footwear, make sure your shoes are comfortable to walk in. Some interviews might include a campus tour. For men, wearing appropriate shoes should be relatively easy. For women, it is either best to wear flats or make sure you know the itinerary for the interview if you’re going to wear heels.

Proper Technology Etiquette

When you are in the interview, make sure that your phone is tucked away in a place that you won’t have access to it while you are interviewing. Using your phone in an interview is bad decorum and most interviewers will find it plain rude.

In the age of Skype and Zoom interviews, proper etiquette can look a little bit different. There is a greater tendency to slack off on some of the important interview etiquette that is less noticeable. When you are interviewing virtually, you should still be properly dressed for the interview. Be wearing pants or bottom apparel to avoid any awkward situations where your underwear is shown. Wearing a complete outfit also shows the interview committee that you are serious about the interview and about their school.

The same standard as your dress code applies to the background for your virtual interview. Avoid backgrounds that are flashy and/or distracting. Stick to a more conservative background that will allow the interviewer to focus on you. If possible, get a background that will not cause your face to blur in the middle of the interview.

Try to keep any distracting personal items out of the camera’s view. If you’ve got a really funny but slightly inappropriate picture of you and your friends from spring break on your desk, remove the picture for the interview process. Also, such as is the proper etiquette with your phone, don’t look at other applications on your computer during your interview. Such action is rather rude and sure to make your interviewer feel ignored. The one exception might be note taking applications if you want to take notes.

If you have Zoom interviews, you should really watch this useful video on Zoom interview tips:

Be Nice to Everyone

It is best to avoid rude behavior in general. When you are interviewing, you should be on your best behavior and be as kind as possible to everyone. Sometimes, people that might seem unrelated to the interview are actually tasked with checking your behavior. For example, someone who might take you on a tour of the school or the city might be reporting back to the school on your behavior. In order to avoid any awkward assumptions about your personality, just strive to be kind to everyone you meet.

Here is a great video on how to deal with the “tell me about yourself question.”

Take Notes

If the interviewers or related parties take you on tours or share a lot of information with you, consider bringing pen and paper with you to take notes. Laptops can be used too, but make sure you don’t access anything other than note taking programs. Many interviewers will find an attempt to take notes a plus. It also leads the interview committee to see you are studious.

Ask Questions

While it might seem a little intimidating to ask your interviewer questions, most interviewers actually welcome them. Asking questions gives you two benefits. Firstly, asking questions shows the interviewer that you are interested in either the program or their personal points of view, which shows that you are truly interested in pursuing a PhD at their school. Secondly, asking question will give the interviewer an opportunity to open up more, which will make them easier to talk to. (Are you interested in the knowing what the average PhD Program acceptance rate is? Check this blog post out.)

Don’t Dos

Just like there are several things you can do to have a good interview, there are also many things you should avoid doing that will make your interview go more smoothly.

Avoid the Deadpan Look

Sometimes you might ask a question that the interviewer is not interested in. You also might just get an interviewer that is not very engaged in the interviewing process. If you’re getting a deadpan look from what you’re talking about, change the topic. Don’t pursue a topic that the interviewer isn’t interested in.

Business Cards

Business cards are not needed for grad school interviews. While the corporate world likes to share business cards, the academic sector is a little bit different. You are usually connected to an institution, so finding you isn’t hard. If you give a business card to your interviewer, it is more likely to end up in the trash than their wallet.


No one likes someone with attitude. If you come off as condescending or arrogant, the interviewers will feel put off from your interview. Even if you are really smart, you’re probably being interviewed by someone just as smart if not smarter than you. Also, most of the interviewers are well known in their field and they will expect the respect their station in life deserves. If your friends and/or family have told you that you have a certain character weakness, try to keep it in check.

Don’t Talk About Consulting In The Future

If you are planning to do something else besides being dedicated to research with your degree, don’t talk about that with your interviewer. Your interviewers are almost obsessed with their research and knowing that you aren’t very interested in research and are looking to go into consulting or some other line of work after your degree can be a bit of a turn off.

Don’t Oversell Yourself

There is such a thing as too much self-promotion. While it’s important that you show your good points, no one wants to sit and listen to someone they barely met talk about themselves for the whole interview time. Having a conversation in what the interviewer is currently researching or interested in is a better use of your interview time than talking about your accomplishments endlessly.

Along with not overselling yourself, it’s important to not act like you know what the interviewer is talking about when you don’t. It’s okay to ask questions about what the interviewer is talking about if you don’t understand. Most interviewers are happy to educate you during the interview.

Don’t Be A Robot

Your emotional expression during your interview can be a tricky business. However, don’t try to hide all of your emotions during the interview. Try your best just to be yourself. No one really wants to work with a robot. However, if you are an extremely emotional person that cries at the drop of a hat, then consider holding a little bit back.

There is a slight need to maintain balance with your emotional level, but the interviewers invited you to interview because they want to get to know you. If you aren’t showing the true version of you, or at least a mostly accurate version, the interviewer will probably be able to tell you’re holding back, which could make them feel awkward. Aim to put your best foot forward, but make sure it’s still your foot and not a robot’s.

Mental Preparedness

One of the most important things you can do when preparing for an interview is making sure you are mentally prepared. Most people get extremely nervous or anxious when they are getting ready for an interview. The biggest point you should take away from this article is THAT’S OKAY. There is nothing wrong with being nervous, anxious, or scared before your big interview. It is a natural bodily response, and you should see it as such.

Don’t see your emotional stress as something to be ashamed of or concerned about. The more you recognize that these feelings will pass, the easier it will be to prepare for your interview. There are multiple things you can do to help calm your nerves and be mentally prepared for your interview.

Think Big Picture

You might have a dream PhD program you’re trying to get into. Or maybe you’ve only had one call back and are worried that this is your one shot to go to grad school. Even if you’re in such a situation, try to remember the big picture. The worst case scenario is that your interview doesn’t go well, and you don’t get into the program. However, that’s just this year at this school at this particular time. Life will go on.

Try living in the present and not in the future. Think instead, wow, I got an interview! That already is an amazing accomplishment. And, even if you don’t get into the program this year, there are still other years you can apply. Many great and accomplished people did not succeed the first time they tried something. Thomas Edison had to try hundreds of times before inventing the lightbulb. If you think about the big picture and how there’s always going to be another kind of opportunity, you won’t be as stressed.

Check out this amazing blog post about not losing faith in yourself.

Look on The Bright Side

Even if you don’t get accepted to the PhD program, every interview is an opportunity to build relationships. In the academic community, it is quite common to build relationships from one time meetings. These relationships often lead to working relationships later on. So, even if you don’t necessarily get accepted from your interview, you’re quite likely to meet someone or even a few people that you’ll be able to work with or possibly work for later on.

Interviews Aren’t Game Changers

For the most part, most institutions have looked through the applications for their programs and have chosen who they think is going to be a good fit. The interview serves more as a screening procedure to make sure you would fit into the program. Most of the hard work came before the interview. Do, viewing the interview less as a game changer and more as a procedure of applying will allow you to be more relaxed.

The Interview Does Not Define You

Often people feel like the interview is going to define them. Having one bad interview can cause people to give up on grad school altogether. Realize that your interview DOES NOT DEFINE YOU. Plenty of people don’t have great PhD interviews but still end up attending great universities and go on to have illustrious careers in their chosen fields. If you are struggling with interviews, check out this blog post on dealing with rejection in academia.

This point relates somewhat back to thinking big picture. One interview should not ruin the rest of your life, so don’t let it. Think instead, I’ll try my best, and if it doesn’t work out, oh well. I’m still me and I’m still awesome and I can always try again. You can also see it as an opportunity to go forth and show the institution what they missed out on.

In Conclusion

Having an interview for a PhD program is a big deal. It might even feel like a once in a lifetime opportunity. While it is important to be diligent and prepare for the interview as much as possible, it’s also important to remember that a PhD interview is just one step in your process of getting higher education. Do not let the interview pull you down emotionally or mentally. Remain calm and remember how awesome you are and let them see it too.

This post was written by grad student on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

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