Based in London

I did really well in my undergrad but ok in my master's in physics (average was around 66 with my lit review being 67 but 2 modules were below 60 so it was a pass).

In my last year of master's I received a PhD offer for my first one. But due to personal circumstances I could not take it and went into work.

It has been 6 years now since I applied. Almost every year I have applied for PhDs and almost always get interviews (I think only once I never heard back on an application) but I always fail.

I'm rarely given feedback. In a couple they said it was close but preference was given elsewhere. In one they said my interests seemed different.

I understand in a lot of them where I didn't get feedback I was just bad at answering questions or not what they were looking for in terms of skills and experience, and this is probably my struggle.

Last year I really prepared hard. I was to give a 5 mins presentation on a topic, followed by being questioned on that topic, followed by being questioned on a research project I did. The presentation went really well even though presenting is a weak point for me. But I got grilled hard after. I felt it was unfair because they only let me know the nature of the interview a few days before (bear in mind I work and have a family to take care of). I don't think any amount of preparation would have prepared me, they seemed to want to much info. The presentation was on anything we wanted to pick related to a quantum technology - it could be as broad as we wanted or as specific. Additionally it's a 4 year cdt, I'd expect to be learning a lot of the stuff they asked in the first year, hence the extra year. The research project questioning also went bad but it had been 8 years since I had done it and honestly the questions I got stuck on were just because pretty minor in hindsight, it was take seconds to refresh myself or Google it. I still gave a good overview of what the project was, what I did, and what I found etc.

It sounds like I am not accepting any responsibility but really did feel the interview was unfair. Anyways, they didn't give me feedback either. I did email them the above points just to try and understand but they ignored that as well.

I really enjoyed both undergrad and grad research projects (grad was just a lit review with a little new stuff). My undergrad project where I really got to own it, I felt like there was still so much more to do - I could totally see myself doing a PhD and the time flying by quickly. And I'm super bored of working, it is just not intellectually challenging in the slightest.

I learn a lot better by doing. I find interview prep difficult since I am learning just for the sake of an interview, and feel if I don't already know the background, the learned knowledge is obvious (I don't lie on my applications in any way so sometimes I find it odd when im accepted).

Anyways enough ranting. What can I do better to prepare? Or is it not for me? Please be nice 🙂

Another issue I'm having is references. A lot of my supervisors/lecturers have stopped responding. I've started using work references. My master's supervisor said they can't give me a reference because they are too busy - that was super demoralising. I wonder if work references will be much weaker even though I have no choice but to use them now.

  • A lot of this is about seeking funding. Contact a supervisor you might want to work with, and try to arrange to do a PhD with them. Hopefully money will follow, but if not at least you can start the PhD and self-fund. That, and basically just keep applying until you get one, can require a lot of attempts I think. But most of the difficulty is competing for funding, not getting accepted on a PhD program with a supervisor.
    – apg
    Commented May 12 at 22:20
  • Hmm not a bad idea and interesting to know about the findings, I guess it makes sense. I couldn't afford to do this though. Commented May 12 at 22:47
  • 1
    (1) Could your master's supervisor just give you one more reference, to you, which is not kept secret from you? That might be better than no reference from them, if it was possible. (2) Do you know anyone who could give you a practice interview? (3) If a person is rejected and then sends an email about why they found the interview hard, I think there is almost zero chance that the interviewers will seriously reconsider the decision, even if they have some sympathy. (4) Could you apply for a one-year masters instead and plan to do a PhD after that?
    – toby544
    Commented May 13 at 8:24
  • (1) My master's supervisor has never given me a reference. I relied on my undergrad supervisor and a lecturer but they've gone silent (even tried contacted the uni to see if they were still around but no response! (2) I don't know anyone who could unfortunately but it's a good idea, will have a look (3) I would never expect a decision reversal and purely wanted to understand the interview process so I could be better prepared (4) I have thought about it but I am conflicted. I've usually been applying for 4 year PhDs where the first year is essentially a masters. And costs, unless a bursary Commented May 13 at 8:32
  • In my country, it is common for people to work as a researcher (typically with a research grant) before going into PhD - sometimes they even do the PhD as part of their research work because research grants are much easier to get than PhD funding. Is that not an option in the USA? Commented May 14 at 22:40

1 Answer 1


I think it is hard to say whether the problem really was interviews. Usually there is competition and you may have run against competition that was better also in other respects (like better MSc, having produced a published paper out of it etc.). Of course your concern is legitimate, however avoid getting too obsessed about the interview issue - there is a random element regarding how good your competitors are and you may fail or even at some point succeed regardless of the interview (assuming you show a certain minimum degree of competence there even if there are issues).

That said, I don't think that it is "unfair" that you don't get more information about the interview in advance. I'd think that they want to check how competent you are handling issues on a day to day basis when doing a PhD. They don't want to see the results of a specific preparation for a specific interview; this would not be very informative about how you'd be as a PhD student. Of course I don't know how exactly these interviews ran, but you should also be able, when you present something, to anticipate what kind of questions this will raise. Even if you don't know the correct answer to all questions, you can still handle questions competently by putting them into perspective and for example saying what you think you'd still need to do in order to address a question properly. They may also specifically be interested in your handling of questions for which they may not even expect you to know the answers, so that they see whether you have good strategies for how to learn and improve.

I remember once having been member of an admission committee and we had a candidate who said a few really silly things in the interview, but we got the impression that they had probably been nervous about the interview, and from some other information we were quite confident that they would understand, outside the interview situation, that these answers were not good. They showed some openness and interest and gave some promising answers to other questions, so we decided that there is potential and they won the position (and it turned out to be a good choice).

  • Thanks for this. I felt it was unfair that they only gave me a few days to prepare is all. I do understand your point about addressing a question. I remember they were getting annoyed when I would say I have no idea - definitely something I've picked up at work where they would rather you just say you don't know. Commented May 13 at 17:14

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