Separating the chaff from the wheat: PhD interviews

Appointing PhD student is not an easy task. For faculty members, a PhD student is an investment that it could last up to five years, where supervisors and students should share time and work together. For most of the announced  PhD position is usually the case that students send their grades, statement of intention, and recommendation letters to some determined committee for reviewing. The candidates that successfully pass all the filters imposed by the committee are usually invited for an interview. At that point, every candidate is worthy to pursue a PhD. The question is rather who is the best and more suitable person for the position.  This blog tries to give some tips based on my short experience interviewing PhD students for positions in Computer Science.

Nervers do mind It is natural and common that students are a bundle of nerves at the  interviews. The reasons for that could be several and diverse. For example, students could take planes from very remote countries just to have an interview with people that they do not know. Moreover, candidates do not usually have experience in how PhD interviews are carried out or what to expect. In this light, it is highly recommendable to break the ice before the interview. There could be several ways to do that: having lunch or dinner, going for drinks, or some informal activity between the candidates and some of the interviewers. The candidates would surely feel less nervous when seeing known faces.

Questions Asking the right questions is a key aspect for obtaining a good impression of  candidates’ intentions and capabilities. I hereby describe a few (non-exhaustive) questions that could lead to separate the chaff from the wheat in a 30 minutes interview.  These questions are taken from my short experience as an interviewer.

  • Do you have some ideas that you are proud of?
  • What is one of your favorite papers?
  • Why do you want to pursue a PhD?
  • What courses did you find exiting during your education?

There are many variables in play when performing an interview. Breaking the ice and carefully selecting the questions before hand could definitely help the candidates to give the change to show everything that they are capable of. Interviewers, on the other hand, could also get an honest impression of candidates’ skills and ambitions.


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