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I am interviewing over Skype, for a research position at German university. So far my interviewer and I communicated via email, and he sounded formal but pleasant.

I have no clue how interviews are conducted at German universities. Is it subject-based or do they just want to know the student's skills and motivations?

Also, since i am interviewing for a position in machine learning, should i expect questions about the current trends and research?

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    All of these things are completely up to the interviewer. Especially in Germany, where the selection process is usually run directly by the professor hiring you. – xLeitix Apr 19 '14 at 19:37
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I currently work in Germany, and have exactly the situation xLeitix mentions in his comments: I have positions which I am able to choose directly who I want to hire, independent of any admissions committee.

In such interviews, I want to have a sense of the student's technical prowess, as well as a sense of their motivation and interest in the position itself. Since such positions are usually directly associated with particular projects, I want to make sure that the candidate is reasonably qualified to tackle the specific project (rather than just being generally competent in the field).

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    I am just curious: how long do such interviews typically last, and how many students will you interview to fill each position? – Pete L. Clark Apr 19 '14 at 21:44
  • Interviews with good candidates typically run 30 to 45 minutes, but can last up to an hour. When the candidate doesn't match up to the printed record, it can be much shorter (which is obviously not a good thing). In previous rounds of interviews, I've interviewed four to seven finalists, out of maybe 50 applicants. – aeismail Apr 19 '14 at 21:48
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I would say there is no general rule. You should ask the interviewer if you can prepare something - so you will get more information in which direction the interview will go. You can also directly ask about the length of the talk.

Typically I would except a talk about your past projects, i.e. your Master's thesis. Since this is a research PhD position in Germany it is very likely that it is part of a externally funded project. So questions about the project can be expected.

The main reason for the interview is that the interviewer wants to get a picture of you - on a scientific but also on a personal level. Typically there wont be a hiring committee, but you have to convince the professor that you are the right person for this position.

  • "So questions about the project can be expected." - this sounds a little misleading (or at least I am not sure how it is meant). I would have said that if anyone, the applicant would be expected ask questions about the project, as typically, the applicant has no information about the project yet (more realistically, the applicant is, at their entrance to the PhD stage, only just learning that such a thing as "projects that fund positions" exists), while the interviewer has all the information. Or did you mean the interviewer might ask questions related to the project topic? – O. R. Mapper Aug 13 '15 at 13:29
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To add to other ansers, an interview in Germany is often only a opptortunity for the applicant for becoming asked to finally visit the group a half/full day and for the employer to filter out interesting students, when too much good ones apply. In my field, physics, >100 applicants for good PhD positions will be normal. Maybe 3-4 will be invited to visit the group actually and then the professor or a committee makes the decision. If you're living in Germany, they will often simply invite you to make a presentation at the face.

It's a fast and important opportunity to check if you can fluently speak the language (at least English) or rule out eventual contradictions/gaps in your CV or ask some informal questions (scientific/engineering family, hobbies,...). But, from my experience phone interviews are not very common in Germany for STEM PhD positions, also not in non-academia job world.

I don't have so much experience how overseas applicants are treated here as we don't have many and master degree is often necessary (you didn't say how far away you're from this group), if interesting candidates are even invited to visit groups and traveling costs are paid (at least partly). But traveling within Europe via train to visit the group is common and costs paid. Mostly after 1-2 mails without a pre-phone-interview, because a well written CV is often enough to invite then 3-4 good applicants and fill the position. If you are applying for a very specialized topic from overseas where it's unlikely that there are many good candidates, then I would take this much more seriously and prepare really some text to present your master work in a short and pregnant way. Some interviewer will expect this or tell you explicitly, but in any case it is your fault to be not prepared :)

So I would check and was checked myself language proficiency, short descprition of master's work, relation/motivation to/for this PhD work and country, other applications I filed and what I plan to do after finishing PhD. You will maybe also face some hidden questions. There was one position I was interested in where it became known to me after interview and visiting the group (but finally not offered) that the professor searched somebody spending also some post-doc years at this group (a small young group that was just build up) and not ruling this out completely. Such questions some professors will ask you explicitly, some indirect, as it is hard nowadays to forecast your life 5-10 years. But showing the professor that I just wanted to do PhD in his group and city and then move on finally cost me this position.

Formally it's an interview of you, nonetheless you should also ask some questions at the end of the interview that are not mentioned in the job description (salary, teaching duties (language demands, master students), advisor, overall time frame, attending conferences, vacation...). It's not a good strategy to bombard employer in mails with such questions before it is not clear that they are really interested in you. Show that you're are thinking determined self-confident curious guy, a bit like a good flirt ;)

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