In my department, we typically have many more applications for MS/PhD students than we have open positions, so it is a "buyer's market" from the professor's point of view. Each student submits a relatively standard application package of grades, a resume, any awards or trophies from various academic contests, papers or patents they've published, and recommendation letters. Based on this, a short list of students are invited for short (<20 minutes) face-to-face interviews either in person or via teleconference.

My typical questions include:

  • what kind of career do you see for yourself after graduation?
  • what about my research interests you most?
  • explain your particular contribution to your undergrad research project

My problem is that many students look superficially the same, and in the interviews it is difficult to move them beyond standard responses that they know I want to hear. My belief is that this is my fault because I am not asking the right questions. While most of the students I have eventually accepted ended up working out just fine in my group, my error rate is still well above 0%, both in terms of gems I let go and those who were admitted but didn't excel.

In my perfect world I would be able to probe just that one level deeper to separate the wheat from the chaff. Are there any good tips for how, in a 10-20 minute interview, to get a deeper sense of a student beyond their "on paper" appearance?

  • 6
    Reducing the error rate to zero is probably impossible. People are people. Things happen.
    – Buffy
    Jul 22, 2020 at 14:17
  • @Buffy yes, and I also fully acknowledge that those gems who got away might very well NOT have excelled had they come to my group, i.e. they ended up exactly where they were supposed to be. Still my error rate is high enough that this is somewhere I think I can improve. Jul 22, 2020 at 14:25
  • 1
    Every prospective PhD student we interview has to give a presentation about their last research project. Afterwards we have a short discussion about the project and ask them scientific questions. Finally, we ask some traditional interview questions. All of this takes about 45 minutes per applicant but I would rather have a better interview with fewer short-listed applicants than useless interviews. Still, it's not that much of a "buyer's market" for us. Excellent applications by students who haven't worked with us before (e.g., during their masters thesis) are rare.
    – user9482
    Jul 22, 2020 at 15:00
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    I think something you can probe students on is their weaknesses and willingness to reflect on them - the idea being you are hunting for resilient students in a sea of qualified people. “Can you tell me a time during your research where you were able to push past a limit you didn’t think that you could?”, “Tell me about a time that you failed at something, what did that experience mean for you?”, “How would you advise somebody who has hit a road block in their learning to get past that blockage?” I think questions akin to these can elicit authenticity and character for your purposes. Jul 22, 2020 at 15:05
  • Roland, GrayLiterature -- good insights; please consider converting your comments into proper answers
    – cag51
    Jul 23, 2020 at 20:42

4 Answers 4


There are some excellent answers here. I'll add my approach.

I select a research paper that is relevant to the project/area I'm looking a PhD candidate for. Relatively entry level difficulty. I give the candidates a week to read the paper and during the interview I ask a few questions:

  • What problem is discussed in the paper?
  • Why is it important?
  • What solution did they propose and why was it better than the past ones?

It reveals to me a lot of things about the way they think, knowledge in the area, critical abilities, etc.

  • agree that there are many great answers. I think the "final answer" blends this approach, with asking detailed questions about their research projects, and preparing a short presentation. But I'm selecting this as "the answer" because I feel like testing critical thinking is the biggest missing component in my current approach, and I like this way to test their ability to think critically about technical problems. Jul 24, 2020 at 1:03
  • This was the exact method that I have undergone during my graduate application, so from the student's perspective, I would like to add some points. First of all, you have to recognize that the interview process (and actually whole graduate application process itself) is a stressful time, so even when the student can understand the paper and even have the ability to build on it, it might harder for them to show this during the interview. For example, if you give me a paper and ask me to explain it in a written format beforehand, it is not a problem at all, but ...
    – Our
    Jul 24, 2020 at 16:31
  • when it comes to explaining the same stuff during an interview, my mind goes blank. So, it is always good to ask specific questions about the paper during the interview, because it helps a lot about "going blank".
    – Our
    Jul 24, 2020 at 16:33
  • To add some additional points: I think it is important to understand the flaws, unanswered questions in a paper, so I would also ask those.
    – Our
    Jul 24, 2020 at 20:50

When interviewing candidates for industry jobs, I concentrated on two issues:

  1. Is the resume accurate, or if inflated how much? A resume is a sales document, and candidates do try to present themselves as favorably as possible, but it should be fundamentally truthful.

  2. Can the candidate discuss technical issues in the relevant field?

Everything else is covered by the paperwork.

Fortunately, there is one form of question that can help resolve both issues. Pick a topic, such a research project they claim to have done or a course they did well on, and ask about it. Do they know as much about the topic as the resume indicates, and can they discuss it?

As Buffy suggests in a comment, zero error rate may not be possible. Ultimately, you just have to do your best and accept you will make mistakes.

  • I would add something about judging their level of commitment and drive. In Spanish: "ganas"
    – Buffy
    Jul 22, 2020 at 14:44

Disclaimer: the following answer assumes that the prospect student will be working in a "collaborative" environment.

As stated in the comments, having the certainty that the chosen student will be the right one is impossible.

That being said, I think that the main purpose of these live interviews is not to assess the quality (in terms of skills, knowledge or expertise) of the potential candidates: evaluating the proficiency of the candidate is very difficult in such a short time; you should trust the CV and the reference letters.

On the contrary, your goal should be to understand if the prospect student is a good choice from a personal point of view. "Will I want to work with this person?", "Will this person be capable of blending in with the other people in my lab?", "Will the other people in the department be able to collaborate (if necessary) with this person?": it is questions such as these that you should try to answer with the live interview.

In order to do this, try to ask unusual questions that may induce the candidate to reveal his true self. You could even try putting some pressure on him (try asking some specific questions that you know in advance he will not be able to respond) and see how he reacts.

In summary, assuming a 20minutes interview, I would structure it like this:

  • First 5 minutes: I will discuss the background of the candidate. The objective is to get the general picture of the student, and put them at ease.
  • 5 to 15 minutes: I'll try to get to know their real persona. The candidate should be "warmed up", and this is the perfect time to evaluate their personal behavior and determine if they are fit or not for the role.
  • Last 5 minutes: I will ask for their career goals/research objectives and similar long-term plans. This is just to conclude the meeting in a more relaxed way for both parties.

By following a similar structure, the candidate should expect the first and last steps, but the middle (and most important) step will be unknown to him.

As for what questions to ask in the second phase -- they should be domain-specific questions which either fall directly into your area of expertise (and for which very few people know the right answer), or more open questions for which no real answer exists (yet). You can start with an "easy" question, and then elaborate a discussion that will end with one of the two options I provided. Remember: the goal here is not to determine the student's preparation, but gauge their ability to deal with unforeseen circumstances.

Finally, these answers in another site may be useful to you:

  • 1
    So, which questions for example?
    – user111388
    Jul 22, 2020 at 15:58
  • 4
    One possible problem with this: If PIs hire on the basis of whether a candidate will be able to “blend in”, and whether they as PIs feel an affinity towards them, it will be less likely (on average) that they will hire candidates from demographic & cultural groups other than their own. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether they think this is acceptable. Jul 23, 2020 at 12:22
  • "you should trust [...] the reference letters.": unless the student comes from a "proper" university in a developed country, I would advise against doing that, because not every academic environment has the same level of integrity and ethic values. I have seen lots of prof.s whom I've worked with who writes those letters for the purpose of just writing it, without caring how important it is for the student.
    – Our
    Jul 24, 2020 at 16:37

I think this problem is more or less insoluble. But here are some things I look out for:

  • I always ask candidates to give a 5 minute presentation about a research project they have done. While there is a risk that this bias' against students who have had fewer research opportunities, all accredited degrees in my field should include a capstone project with at least some research component. The key here is that you are not looking at the quality of the results, but the quality of the presentation - in particular, does the candidate understand what they were doing and why (or why the awful project their supervisor made them do made no sense :)). This weeds out about a third of student who either don't or can't communicate an understanding of what they did and why.
  • I ask them to describe a recent paper they read. You'll be surprised how many can't bring a paper to mind.
  • I ask them why me - this is telling because you get a feel for whether they have read your work and understood it - that is, are they actaully interested in working with you, or did they just send their CV to everyone and anyone.

Rather than allowing you to select the best student, these hopefully allow you to weed out the worst, which I think is probably the best you can do.

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