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I've been invited for a chat for a potential PhD position by a professor I'm interested in working with. He also wants me to give a short presentation on some experiments I've done in the past that I'm proud of. What am I supposed to expect from this? Is it going to be a real interview? My master's dissertation has essentially been on a similar field of study. Am I supposed to explain everything from the basics in the presentation or just talk about the experiments that he asked for and assume the professor knows/understands stuff? What am I going to be judged on? What are the right questions for me to ask?

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    I would say it is an interview. I would use it to judge your English, technical background and your character... and try to assess whether you'll be successful in my research areas. – Prof. Santa Claus Aug 28 at 4:42
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    Thank you so much, I will definitely keep those things in my head during the call, thanks again :) – SPT Aug 28 at 8:29
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    It might also be that the "presentation" is not a real presentation, but he just wants you to prepare some slides as a guide for the discussion (especially if this is done online, and it is one on one). In that case, it can't hurt to have a few more slides and ask him to tell you if you should go faster/slower. – user151413 Aug 28 at 15:25
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    When you're talking with people who can impact your career, it's always an interview. – Scott Seidman Aug 28 at 18:51
  • You've put the most irrelevant of your questions into the title. – Karl Aug 29 at 19:41
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If I were the professor, I'd prefer to chat with you, rather than do some formal thing. If I'm looking for a student, I want to put them in the least stressful situation possible, because I'm more interested in him/her when they are at their best. In my lab, I don't like useless stress. Creativity manifests itself in stressful situations, but the coolest stuff happens when people aren't afraid and are driven by the passion for exploration. There is enough time in a PhD life to be put on the spot, and you can be trained for that to a great extent.

Slides are a great aid, and will be helpful in explaining your research. There is probably a lot of stuff a prospective PhD candidate doesn't know about and is unsure of, and a formal interview is great at revealing it, but is not so great at revealing what the candidate does know.

I remember my best student, how nervous was when we met first. I think I underestimated him then because he simply couldn't talk about his research work freely. Two years later I understood how good he really was, and three years later, had his own publications. Now he is better than I ever was.

I also want to add that the "chat" might mean that is up to you if you feel comfortable giving a talk in front of more people than the potential advisor.

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Yes, this is an interview. Or at least a part of an interview - depending on your location, there may be a more formal one later. As a rule of thumb, both for academia and industry, whenever you meet with a prospective employer, be it for a coffee or lunch, a "chat" or something else, it is part of the interview.

As for the chat itself. If he asked you to give a short presentation, you should prepare to give a rather thorough one; ie. be prepared to explain basic stuff as well. If you have no idea about the format (time, place, equipment, audience (eg. is it just him?)), ask him. In my field it would be common to prepare some slides for such a presentation, but for others you would do without. It is always nice to know roughly how long time you have when preparing. Important: If the prof. says that you have, say, 20 minutes, then prepare to stick to that.

You can ask about details of the research, what is expected of PhD students wrt. teaching, possibilities for traveling and other things you are curious about.

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    Thank you so much! This is incredibly helpful. – SPT Aug 28 at 8:28
  • Solid answer!!! – user111388 Aug 28 at 8:37
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    Good answer. To be clear, everything is always an interview: if doing it poorly would mess up the opportunity, it is an interview (or at least, indistinguishable from one). – Tiercelet Aug 28 at 14:12
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    The informal chat was the only interview I had for my PhD too. It can be much more about exploring ideas than a formal interview would suggest. One tip, if possible, take a printed copy of your slides. It may turn out to be a meeting away from a PC (even outdoors at the moment, preferred at my uni for face-to-face meetings due to COVID) but you may still want to refer to figures. And yes, prepare thorough material, but you might need to skip to the details pretty quickly - your preparation should be versatile – Chris H Aug 28 at 15:50
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    @Tiercelet "everything is always an interview" -- I think the uncertainty is more in the other direction -- would doing well result in materially advancing the opportunity, i.e., is the other party both capable of hiring OP and seriously considering doing so? In that sense, not everything is an interview. It is rational to put more time and effort into a meeting that is one. How much formality the other side puts forward is a sign of their interest/commitment. – nanoman Aug 28 at 20:50
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Yes this is very much an interview, although you might find it less formal than some because in many ways a PhD supervisor really wants to know whether the two of you can work effectively together. Take it seriously, be friendly and professional - don't try to do everything in the presentation (concise and clever, not over-burdened with detail or obscure). Make an impression of enthusiasm and willingness to throw yourself into the project, even if you don't quite know where it will go. But show that you've thought at least about potential timelines and plans.

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If it was just a chat, I would say it's more like a get to know you. He would want to see how you present yourself, make sure you aren't crazy, not an arrogant person, etc. But because he wants to see you present some of your work, I would absolutely treat it like an interview.

If I was him, I would say "Chat" just to keep things informal, casual, and keep the pressure off both you and him. There's lots of reasons he might not want to start a formal process like an official interview, but sounds like you are in a good position. I wouldn't over dress, but look nice. Create a PowerPoint with 4 or 5 slides for each experiment you want to talk about. Prepare for the normal interview questions, and STAR questions.

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    What are "STAR questions"? I am not familiar with this abbreviation – Richard Telford Aug 29 at 10:09
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    Situation, Task, Action, Result => STAR, basically show how you use your skills with real work-life examples. – llrs Aug 29 at 11:05
  • Exactly what LLRS said. A lot of these STAR questions are along the lines of "Tell me about a time you had a disagreement with a coworker". Or "Tell me about a project you led". And you'd outline the Situation, describe the specific task at hand. How you handled it (Action), and how it turned out (Result). – Issel Aug 31 at 4:57

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