Apprentice yourself, part 2 (a professor’s perspective)

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We have a guest posting this week from Prof. Tim Skern of the Max F. Perutz Laboratories in Vienna, Austria. As well as providing a counterpart to TIR‘s earlier post on how to choose a PhD position, Tim also offers a number of recommendations for how to handle yourself in PhD interviews.

He writes:
Why do a PhD?
The first thing that a young scientist thinking about applying for a PhD should consider is herself or himself. Be very clear why you want to do a PhD. Many applicants answer this question from an interview panel by stating that they have a passion for science. But is this enough? Will your passion carry you through a phase when nothing works? Will it help when you are scooped by another group? For mentors, the quality of perseverance is just as vital as passion. Other qualities which you will need are self-reliance and responsibility for your project (i.e. you are doing it for yourself, for your own interest, and not because your supervisor told you to do it). Remember too that doing a PhD was only rarely a passport to an academic career and is even less so nowadays. The career path from postdoc to junior group leader to professor is still possible but you need a great deal of talent, skill, perseverance, and luck to make it happen in today’s world. The analytical and problem-solving skills that you should learn during your PhD will open up numerous career paths for you, so there are many reasons why you could do a PhD besides the desire to find answers to your scientific questions.

Choosing a research field
Once you have decided that you are hell-bent on doing a PhD, look at what’s out there. What interests you most? Is there a research area that’s pushing back the frontiers? Which recent papers did you find surprising or stimulating? It is crucial that you are really interested in the subject area of your PhD. This will aid you twice over in your search for a PhD position – first, it will allow you to be enthusiastic at the interview; second, it will sustain you in the hard slog when nothing seems to work and the writing of a manuscript or thesis seems a long way away.

The application
Almost all applications are online applications these days, so it is important that you stand out from the other candidates, of whom there are usually many. How can you best do this? When I grade applications, I look first at the reasons given for doing a PhD, and the way the applicant describes her/his interest in the research field. One very important factor is that the application conveys the impression that the candidate has not sent a general application, but has genuinely made a specific application for the program and/or position being advertised. Generic applications are usually eliminated before the group leaders ever see them. Another important aspect of an application are the referees’ comments. How detailed is the reference? Is it evident that the reviewer really knows the applicant? How did the applicant perform in the lab during the master’s thesis? Above all, was the applicant independent and resourceful?

The interview
You will be competing with other talented students so keep in mind that you should try your best to stand out. Prepare yourself by finding out all you can about the institute and the group leaders offering positions, both on their websites and in PubMed. If you are informed who will be in your interview panel, find out about their research areas. They will most probably ask questions in this area.

Practise your presentation. You should know beforehand what you have to present and how long you will have. In our institute, you have 15 minutes each to describe your master’s thesis and a publication from a top journal using a whiteboard. The times and subjects vary from institute to institute; for example, the time for presenting a paper can be as short as 5 min. Whatever the scheme, you must practise your presentations. Above all, you must stick to time. If you go over, you will be out.

For the presentation of both your master’s thesis and your publication, start with a three-sentence summary. The first sentence states the question or hypothesis (for example, “This paper examines the structure of DNA”). The second explains what the advance in knowledge is (“DNA has a double helical structure with the bases inside and the phosphate groups as backbone on the outside”). The third presents the implications for the field in the future (“The structure suggests a simple mechanism to ensure the fidelity of DNA replication”).

What is the point of this summary? Group leaders always want to hear the advance in knowledge first. They do not need a long introduction or a description of the methods; they know these already. They want to discover whether you have the insight to understand what the implications of the results are. In other words, why was your master’s thesis important? What is the significance of the manuscript?

Once you have given the summary, you can pick out one or two key experiments and describe how the authors reached their conclusion. If you find something in the manuscript which you think is flawed or which you think is lacking, then mention this as well to demonstrate your ability to think critically. If you would have done something differently, then this is also worth a mention.

If the interviewers ask you questions on the results or background, then answer them directly and succinctly. Long-winded answers will upset the interviewer. If you do not know the answer, say so. You cannot know everything. If you try and waffle your way through, it will become clear at some point anyway that you do not know the answer.

Once your presentations are over, the interviewers will ask about your commitment to science, why you find your selected field interesting, and who you would like to do your PhD with. If you say Dr. X. or Dr. Y, then you should be able to show the interviewers that you know which fields they work on, and what the current state of the field is. It surprises me how often a student will name a group leader and then have little idea of what she or he is actually doing. You can also practise answering these questions with a colleague beforehand, especially one who has been (successfully) through a PhD selection interview.

You are/are not offered a place
If you are not offered a place, then write to the institute when you return home and ask for feedback so you can improve your performance at the next interview. Do not give up! Competition is fierce, and if you really want to do a PhD, you will make it happen.

If you are offered a place, remember that at this stage of the selection process, you are in an excellent bargaining position. You have shown that you are a quality student and group leaders will want you in their group. Use your bargaining position. Talk at length to the group leaders who you are interested in joining. Find out about the projects offered. How detailed are the projects? Will a particular project be starting from scratch, or will the project be based on one that is already up and running? Will you be directly supervised by the group leader, or by someone else such as a postdoc? What is the size of the group? (the bigger the group, the less frequently you will see the group leader) How many PhD students has the supervisor previously mentored? Did they publish their work? What is the average duration of a PhD in the group? Where are the alumni of the group now? Did any PhD students leave before completion of their theses? Is the group leader promising you too much? For instance, beware of group leaders or institutes promising you a publication in Nature or Science by the end of your PhD.

You can find some answers to these questions after the interview by talking to the group leader and the people in the group, or from the homepage of the group leader and from PubMed. Talk to the other applicants about their impressions of the group leaders and what they have found out. Summarise your findings. If there are one or two particular points that disturb you (for example, the group size, an overambitious project, or one that’s too trivial), be prepared to reject the group leader.

In short, try and learn as much as you can before you make a decision and accept or reject an offer. Never forget the importance of this decision for your future! In my own search for a PhD, I took the first position offered to me (because I wasn’t sure I would have another offer) without any investigation about the project or the group leader. It was probably the worst decision of my scientific career.

My main ideas are summarised below. I hope you find these viewpoints of a group leader useful and wish you good luck in your search for a PhD position.


  • You will need passion, perseverance, self-reliance, responsibility, determination, and a goal.
  • The application should be specific, well-documented, and have personal recommendation letters.
  • Practise your presentations for the interview and summarise the advance in knowledge in three sentences.

Thanks to Brooke for discussions and the motivation to write this guest blog and Amelie Schoenenwald (a current PhD student in my lab) for comments and critique.


Tim Skern is a group leader at the Centre for Medical Biochemistry, Medical University of Vienna, and the Max F. Perutz Laboratories. His research focuses on the interactions of viruses with host cells. He is the author of “Writing Scientific English: A Workbook”. He can be contacted at

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