Obviously, I will mostly speak about my experience performing research at an undergraduate level and in internships and how I wish to undertake a PhD to improve my lab technical skills and contribute to known scientific research.

However, is it appropriate to briefly mention my reason for choosing the University in particular, not merely the research group? For instance, my pet hobby is the piano and I have found a couple Universities, that produce world leading research in my field, that have various performance opportunities for pianists.

  • I don't understand what you mean by "performance opportunities for pianists that produce world leading research"? Do you mean opportunities for great researchers who also play piano or opportunities for pianists who do research into pianology? (lol) – Azor Ahai Jul 18 '18 at 15:25
  • Hi @AzorAhai. Thanks for your reply. I apologize for the ambiguity in my original long-winded question and have edited it appropriately in order to clarify my query. I meant neither option. I merely wanted to enquire whether it would make sense to say that not only do I want to do research within life science in A topic with B group for C and D reasons and am suitable for E, F, G reasons but that I am attracted to the University because of H, I and J reasons including the fact that it affords me the opportunity to play, as a pianist, a habit I find to be a good stress reliever. – Keron Jul 19 '18 at 11:10
  • "I am curious" seems a better answer than your suggestion. Sorry. – Oleg Lobachev Jul 19 '18 at 12:59

When I ask the question "why do you want to study towards a PhD?", the very last thing I want to hear is something entirely unrelated to studying towards a PhD. Not because I fear that you get sidetracked (I don't necessarily worry much about that), and certainly not because I have some inherent bias against piano players, but because I worry that you actually don't know why you want to do a PhD. This is true for a surprisingly large percentage of applicants, and typically a fairly bad sign.

Consequently, if you get this question, I suggest that you explain why you want to do a PhD, and nothing else. If the question is why you want to do a PhD at exactly this university, this can be part of your answer, but it should not be the only, or even the main, answer to that question either. Quite frankly I would imagine this to be largely ignored - playing piano is not memorable enough to make you stick out from the applicant pool, and unrelated enough to virtually all fields of research that I won't count particularly positively either.


It is very unlikely that mentioning possible performance opportunities is a good answer.

(a) The question is why you want to do a PhD, not why you want to join that particular research group/university. This part would not change even if the reason was aligned to academics - answering 'why do you want to do a PhD?' with 'because this university routinely produces Nobel laureates' is still incorrect, because there is a missing link, i.e. your motivation to do research. That is in fact the crux of the question.

(b) Coming to the piano bit, that may itself detract. It could indicate that you will spend significant time honing your piano skills and not have enough time/energy for your research projects. It's a no-brainer that hobbies are not a bad thing; but interviewers have very little information to base their choice upon, so they would typically play it safe and not give you the benefit of doubt, especially if it's a very competitive programme.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer @user153812 I find the (a) part interesting, as I thought it would make sense to speak about the impact of the group. I provisionally planned to perhaps state that as a personal ambition is to produce high quality research, I'm attracted as I've seen the records of past students and it's something that I want to replicate. As for (b), I see your point. And I suppose I won't mention it. Thank you. Admissions are competitive enough and I would not want to jeopardize a potential offer. I had naively thought it'd make me seem mo – Keron Jul 19 '18 at 11:21
  • For future readers you might want to change your first sentence a bit. It isn't clear what "this" refers to. I was initially wondering if it meant your answer here or the OP's proposed answer. A clarification might help. It is clear with a full reading, of course, but some people react before they've read it all. – Buffy Jul 19 '18 at 13:14
  • @Buffy - Thank you, I missed that. Quite hilarious actually.:) – user153812 Jul 19 '18 at 14:41
  • To be honest, I've found myself doing the same thing and have to edit. Who knew that "this" and "that" could be such loaded words? Now that we have had a good laugh, deposit 3 bitcoin in .... no, actually not. – Buffy Jul 19 '18 at 14:44
  • Mm hilarious is the word :) – mathreadler Jul 20 '18 at 16:40

It seems like a red-herring. That is, unnecessary and possibly misleading. Whether it helps you or not depends too much on personalities. If the faculty happens to include pianists (fairly common in Mathematics, actually) it might speak to your well roundedness. But most of the decisions made will be focused on narrow evaluations of your likelihood of success in the program.

I would focus more on what you want to do in the major field, and what future you see for yourself as a researcher.

Mentioning that you find piano as an excellent stress reducer (it can be) won't hurt you. But if they get the idea that you are more interested in performance of music than the "science-bit" then it would.

Sail carefully in these waters. Here there be dragons.

I'll note, for the record, that it is possible to get a doctorate, even a PhD, in music, focused, perhaps, on history or theory. A friend holds one from a top university. Her interest was history, but she is also an excellent harpsichordist. That would put you closer to the performance aspect and give you an "in" with performers and teachers around the world. Decide on what you really want to do before you jump.


It is certainly sensible to talk about why you want to do your PhD at the particular university, but that should focus on issues that are relevant for your PhD. For example, you may be excited by ideas of a particular research group, or you think that the university is particularly strong on some topic, or that it has excellent collaboration between group A and group B and you want the opportunity to gain that broader perspective, or ...

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