PhD Interviews

Feb 7, 2016

I realised the other day that it’s been a whole year since I went through the rather stressful experience of PhD interviews (and the even more stressful experience of filling out the forms to apply for the positions). I’ve noticed a few other people around the internet have been recounting their experiences, and since mine are still quite fresh in my memory I thought I would too.

I ended-up applying for five different positions at four universities: some of them were for gravitational wave astrophysics (spoiler: I ended up being accepted for one of those positions), and some were for other types of astronomy. One was for a rather esoteric general relativity theory position, and I’m not sure how to classify it.

I think my best experience out of all of the interviews came from Jodrell Bank (at the University of Manchester), where I got to talk a lot about pulsars (which are astrophysical objects I find really rather exciting, but which I don’t work with at the moment). It was an especially odd experience, since I was clean-shaven (an event only recorded twice throughout the last year) but I got to see a new place, and look around a very nice, modern building, which was nothing like the building where I’d studied during my undergraduate degree. I came out of that interview feeling I’d done quite well. I’d been chatty and enthusiastic, I think I’d given sensible answers to the questions, and I’d felt (surprisingly) relaxed throughout it. Manchester made me an offer, which I sat on for a very long time (until their deadline, in fact), so it must have gone fairly well.

That experience was in fairly stark contrast to my worst interview. Now it’s possible that the offer I was sitting on from Manchester had affected my approach to the whole business, but that interview (at an institution which shall remain nameless) was rather unpleasant. It had started out quite well: I was given a tour of the buildings, and then they sent each of us (there was a group of six people at that interview session) to go off and speak to the academics we thought best suited our interests. Which is probably where things started to go wrong for me.

I went off to speak to a cosmologist (who I later found out has something of a reputation for not putting people at ease) about their project. I still don’t know what their project was about, as they spent the entirety of the interview barraging me with detailed questions about cosmology. Now my knowledge of cosmology isn’t as good as it should be (I’m working on it, honestly), and I cracked under the pressure, and decided there and then, before the formal interview had even happened, that this place was not for me.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say with this, but I think my advice to anyone going through interviews over the next couple of weeks is to make sure that you know your masters project fairly thoroughly, and have read as much as you can around it (I had done a lot of pulsar-based reading, which was what my project was related to, and which is what the project I was applying for was all about). Oh, and I ended up staying at Glasgow in the end, in the Institute for Gravitational Research. I have no regrets.

The cover photo is by Daniel Nisbet from Manchester, United Kingdom - Manchester from the Sky, [[Source][https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchester#/media/File:Manchester_from_the_Sky,_2008.jpg]]