Retrospective: PhD Interview

September already? Really? Before I know it I’ll be back to teaching… I suppose it’s about time for a little more self-indulgent, reflexive babbling in that case. Following on quite neatly from my entry about the PhD application, I’m going to talk about my PhD interview.

The PhD Interview

At the end of July 2012 I received the email. The one I had been waiting for, frantically refreshing my inbox with unhealthily regular frequency. The one that had the attachment to end all attachments. The PhD interview letter. Standard date, time, formalities and so on, and a request for a 10 minute presentation on my research proposal. I was overjoyed! I don’t find speaking in front of others difficult, and could only see positives to putting together slides to talk about Internet memes – it was a chance for me to be enthusiastic, and to get across the little things I couldn’t quite fit into the original application proposal. Also, it’s quite a bit easier to explain what a meme is when you’re pointing at one.

The interview itself seemed to go very quickly, so much so that I don’t have particularly clear memories of it. I know that I turned up and gave my presentation. I was questioned by the panel – ethics, methodology, why memes? I questioned the panel – how fixed is my proposal, is there teaching with this position? A current PhD student showed me around – the library, the psychology department, our research labs, the PhD offices.

It was only when it was over that I realised how stressed out I actually was. I met my partner for lunch, equal measures of excitable and panicky. They’re psychologists. Of course I can’t read them. I’m going to go home and have a bath. On the way home I lost an earring – a beautiful, one off, very precious earring. Superstitious irrational Jess took over and bawled, convinced that it was a bad omen and that the world was ending and I was doomed. Or something like that.

It was another long wait… Well, it felt like it to me anyway, but I can be very impatient when I want to be. Two weeks passed before I got the voicemail message offering me the studentship. I distinctly remember listening to the message in the toilets at work, just as we were all leaving the office, trying to contain my desire to bounce off the walls squealing with glee. I wrote my acceptance and resignation letters that evening, though I sat on the resignation letter until after I’d been on holiday (Las Vegas, for those with even a passing interest). That was the most chilled out and satisfying holiday of my life – I resigned within minutes of entering the office, and haven’t looked back since. Perhaps that lost earring wasn’t a bad omen after all.

What did I learn from this experience?

It seems that a lot of interviews (be it a PhD interview or a job interview) require you to give some form of presentation, which can seem a little daunting at first. It goes without saying that you should proofread your slides, and practise timing yourself if you’ve been given a time limit to work to. Make sure you have backup plans in place should your USB stick fail on the day – I hate portable media with a passion, so for me these backup plans are usually a copy of the presentation in Google Drive, a copy in Dropbox, a copy in SkyDrive and a copy in my emails. I’m a little over the top with backups. Keep it clear and focused, take a deep breath and go for it. Remember, nobody wants you to fail.

Don’t be scared of questions from the panel. I tried to think a little beforehand about the sorts of questions they would ask, and prepared some vague answers to have up my sleeve (figuratively speaking) just in case. Try not to rush headlong into a panicked answer – give yourself a second to think about the question, perhaps rephrase it back at them to make sure you’ve understood and buy yourself more time. I really believe that interviews work both ways too – if you have burning questions about the department, what their working environment is like, etc. just ask!

I worried a little bit about what to wear, before settling on something comfortable, smart(ish) and still me. I imagine this differs depending on the department/subject you’re being interviewed for, but a corset and tropical floral print pencil skirt seemed to work for me! I think it helps with any interview to have something that stands out a little, so you’re easy to remember, so you don’t blend into the other 30 or so identical, slightly ill-fitting suits. I don’t tend to struggle on that front – I’m often “the girl with the purple fringe” (or bangs, for those outside the UK). It has good points and bad points, but overall I think it’s useful… and I think there may be a separate post in there somewhere…

Lastly, I found it helpful to spy on the staff who may be interviewing you beforehand . Try to second guess the panel (if you don’t know who they are already) and get a feel for their research interests. I’d already sort of done this for my initial application, and it made me feel a little more comfortable and prepared going in to the interview. I think I also creeped out (my future supervisor) Bridgette in the process, with my enthusiastic “Oh yeah, I’ve been looking at you on the Internet” – I’m too embarrassing for words at times.

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