Confessions of an Admissions Tutor

By Hilary Weller

I am a postgraduate admissions tutor, so I see a lot of applications for PhD positions and I do a lot of interviewing. I would like to share some tips for applicants for PhD and post-doc positions and also some tips for interviewers. I have also done lots of interviewing for post-doc positions.

Your CV
If you are applying for a PhD position in a similar topic to your Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, then I really want to know how well you did in your degree – all the details – all the courses you did and the marks that you got in them. What did you do for your project? What mark did you get for your project? Did you do any relevant summer work? Include any other summer jobs or part time jobs – they tell me if you are hard working.

A CV for any position should document all periods of employment, unemployment and career breaks – even if you don’t want to tell me what the career break was for! I have two periods of maternity leave on my CV 🙂 which prompted positive comments from reviewers for my application for a fellowship. If you try to hide a career break I would be suspicious, but if you said “Jan 2014-Jul 2014: career break”, I would certainly be curious but I would be wary that I might be treading in a sensitive area. If you have had periods of unemployment, think of something useful that you did while unemployed. For example, did you read any relevant books, do any computer programming, spend time on any relevant hobbies or volunteering?

If you are asked for a personal statement I have some advice – tailor it to the job or PhD position that you are applying for, considering your aspirations as well as your experience, stick to the length limit, proof read it, then get someone else to proof read it.

Some very obvious interview questions to prepare for

  • Why are you interested in doing _THIS_ job/PhD?
  • What makes you well suited for _THIS_ job/PhD?
  • Tell us about a project that you have done?
  • Do you have any questions for us?

Some less obvious interview questions and tips for interviewers
For post-doc and PhD positions, it is important for interviewer and interviewee to find common ground. The obvious question “tell us about a project you have done” can leave the interviewer feeling uncritically impressed by the candidate. Conversely, questions along the lines of “what do you know about this aspect of my specific research area” can be unfair – a weak applicant with experience in the area could shine brighter than a strong applicant. So it is important to find areas of common interest. This requires preparation by the interviewer – you have their application and their academic transcripts – pick on a topic that you know about. Also, pick up on topics that the interviewee brings up and ask follow-up questions that you know the answer to. And interviewees – expect to be able to talk about anything mentioned in your application or transcripts! If you think that you did a relevant degree, you should be able to remember lots of what you learned.

An essential question for interviewing for a post-doc position – describe a paper that you have read recently.

Finally, remember that interviews are about candidates assessing the positions as well as vice-versa. So interviewers should be friendly and encouraging and offer plenty of information. Don’t spend too long on questions that the applicant is struggling with, move on with a smile rather than a shrug.

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