How to land a P.hD. interview

As many of you probably already know, I successfully graduated in November last year. After that, I have been working for four months in a laboratory in Graz on a scholarship (I will post all about that soon!) and I have also been religiously applying to various positions, both in academia and industry.

In March, when I started writing this post, I had two Ph.D. interviews for different projects, and both of these interviews were very different experiences, so I wanted to write about the whole process of applying, waiting, interviewing, waiting again.

Where and how I have been applying?

Honestly, all over Europe, including my homeland as well. Up until the moment of writing this, I have sent almost thirty applications (in Europe, you don’t have to pay an application fee), mostly to Universities in Northern Europe. Furthermore, there are different ways of applying, so some programs require that you find a mentor beforehand; I was thoroughly unsuccessful with those, as most of the potential mentors either didn’t have a placement or didn’t bother replying to my inquiries. I was not really deterred by this and continued searching for positions, mostly by searching the internet using a phrase such as “university of berlin neuroscience” and then trying to find open positions that I would find interesting. A couple of times a week I check various “open positions” pages that I previously bookmarked; I also set up searches for “Ph.D. neuroscience” on LinkedIn and ResearchGate, and I also signed up for a newsletter on the findaphd.com portal.

After finding a desirable program, I immediately check their requirements and deadline, of course. Most of them require a CV, motivational letter, transcripts of Master’s degree, and contact information for two of your reference letters writers. By now, I have most of that ready, as I only write a new motivational letter for each of those, and I tweak my CV a little bit. I have also attached reference letters that helped me land my BioTechMed-Graz scholarship.

After I got all my documents in order, I follow the application guidelines: some require you to merge all documents in one pdf (you can use adobe online merger) and send them directly to an email, and some have online forms on web pages that you are supposed to fill in.

What do my CV and motivational letter look like?

I found both templates on Canva and tweaked them to suit me better; that usually involves some changes in the general organization of the layout and changing the colours that I think represent me better. I also use the same colour scheme for both the CV and the letter, so they look uniform.

In the CV, I enter details about my current or latest employment status, education and thesis, and the most important presentations, publications, internships, and awards, as well as the most important activities I did (such as being editor-in-chief of In Vivo Journal or general secretary of Student Congress of Neuroscience – NeuRi). I also point out certain classes I took that I believe could be important for my application (Computational Biology, Neurophysiology), and I also mention that I am learning Python, doing online courses and I also mention my hobbies. Many people suggest leaving out the part about the hobbies, but I actually get asked about them, so I.

There are many ways in which you could make a CV, but I like to keep it neat and easy to the eyes, with larger fonts for main things and smaller fonts for details, so if someone would just glance at it, they would get a general impression of me.

Regarding my motivational letter, I like to keep them short, usually one page, two maximum. I always start by addressing the professor to whose program I am applying to, and then I introduce myself in the first paragraph, mentioning my name, when I graduated, what I am currently doing, and how I found the position in the first place.

In the second paragraph I talk a little bit about my interests and skills and compare them to the demands of the program: for example, if the program deals with rodent models, I write that I took a class handling them and that, despite not doing any substantial research on them, I am not afraid to handle them and would have no problem with carrying on the research. I also talk about my other qualities, which are more personality-based. I also openly admit not having experience with certain methods. This part can take two paragraphs, but both of those are focused on the same topic.

In the last paragraph, I thank them for their time and write that I am looking forward to hearing from them. I like to curtail each of my cover letters, from beginning to end, because I feel that is the best approach for me.

There is information that is repeated, but the cover letter does serve for you to elaborate on important things from the CV and is a really good opportunity to explain what you can offer and what you are willing to learn. The letter is also your opportunity to show how well are you using your English skills (if you are not a native speaker, that is).

How about the waiting part?

For me, waiting is not filled with anxiety, because I keep busy by finding and preparing applications for other programs. An acquittance who works in academia told me that I should consider myself lucky if I get an offer (an actual, satisfying offer) before I sent out fifty applications and that I should consider every interview as an opportunity to practice. I also made a spreadsheet where I keep track of my applications.

How to prepare for the interview?

After you finally received an email informing you that you have been selected for the interview, you will (mostly!) also get information about what you have to prepare. For the first interview, I had to prepare a ten-minute presentation about my Master’s thesis, and for the second, a ten-minute presentation about all of my current research I have been a part of so far.

I chose to do the presentations in Canva as well because when in full-screen mode, you can use that fancy cursor that is easy to follow.

In each presentation, I opened up with a slide of introducing myself, where I talked a little bit about my education and what I currently do. Then I explained my research, highlighting the most important parts, which include goals, methods, publications, results, and duration. I rehearsed both presentations beforehand, so I was confident I can present it in the allocated time.

How to do an actual interview?

I had both interviews online, over the Zoom platform, so I checked my audio, video, and sharing options before starting a meeting. For both, I was very nervous and anxious, but I suppose that’s just how stage fright works.

My first interview actually was several interviews that took almost a whole day, because I was not meeting just the supervisors, but all members of the lab, as the idea was to see if I were a good fit in the lab as a whole. I got asked a bunch of questions regarding my thesis; I could provide answers to some, but some were asking about part of the research that was just out of my scope, as my thesis is a part of a bigger Ph.D. project, as is common in Croatia. I also got asked personal questions about possible move and adaptation to the new environment.

In the end, I was told that they loved me personally, but couldn’t offer me a place due to fact that I didn’t have enough experience with the exact methods they needed, and they wanted to start the project as soon as possible, and I would need to learn all of it first. I thanked them for their feedback but was left a little bit confused as to why was I even asked to participate in the interview, as both my CV and the motivational letter indicated that I indeed don’t have the required skills.

The first part of my second interview was very similar, as I simply presented and then answered a couple of questions regarding my experience with certain methods. This project is focused more on Structural Biology, so I am honestly not sure where exactly I land here, as I never took any courses, and to be completely honest, I considered this program a long shot and only applied because it does deal in neurodegeneration.

However, what was interesting was the second part of the interview: a questionnaire. Basically, I was sent a word document where I had to answer a bunch of questions, and I mean a bunch. The first part consisted of reading four articles (all open access) and answering questions relating to them. The second part was what I would call a basic IQ and Math test (which number comes next, which symbol comes next), the only difference being that I also had to show my work. The third part was a social part, where I had to answer yes and no to questions such as “I prefer to work in a team”. I had two hours to fill it out and send it, and as of today, I still haven’t heard back from them, so I am assuming the answer is “no”, although I did expect to at least receive an email saying so.

Interview aftermath

I had completely different experiences with these two interviews, with the second one being more formal and the first one more easy-going. I am much grateful for both as I gained a lot of experience and met such accomplished scientists! Even before I started applying, I told to myself that I should not take anything personally and should just keep on applying until I find any kind of job, even if it’s only temporary. Moreover, I also wrote down the questions I was asked the most and I intend to add the answers directly in my future motivational letters (regarding my research experience and Master’s thesis), as it seems to be important for my future supervisor to know.

Conclusion

I think this is one of the longest posts I ever published, if not even the longest one. However, all of this was just a glance, and I could write a separate blog post for each of these paragraphs, and maybe even more about the interviews. Let me know if you liked my write-up and if you would like me to write a separate blog post about any of these! I was also asked by a follower if I talked about my health issues in the interview: I did, but I think that requires its own post, which I would like to publish if you are interested.


What are your top suggestions and advice for landing the Ph.D. interview, and the interview itself? Do you have more questions regarding the whole process? Let me know in the comments!

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