Applications from the other side

We are currently looking for a PhD student and because my boss wanted to weigh in my opinion, I’ve been involved throughout the application process. Which is quite an interesting experience, for someone who has thus far only been at the other side of the table. And I was pretty surprised by some mistakes people make – including myself! After 3 interviews, I had no clue how to judge these people and had to conclude that my interviewing skills definitely need to improve. Before talking about that however, I’d like to share some insights from these interviews with you.

One of the candidates asked me pretty straightforward what we deem most important in a successful candidate. I had to chew on that question and replied that there is no fail-proof recipe to get the job. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter much what kind of project people worked on during their master’s (for US/UK readers: in principle, it’s only possible to pursue a PhD after completing a 2-year research master first). This is because the way we do things, is probably slightly different from the way “they” did things, meaning that one has to learn the practical side anew anyway. It is important that you can explain to me what you did during your master’s and why. Convince me that you learned to think and didn’t merely just execute your supervisor’s orders. Because we are working in really small research field, previous knowledge on the topic is utopian. Considering all of this, there is only one thing important to me: convince me you are motivated. Why did you choose our lab? Why this topic, even if you know little about it? Are you sure you want to pursue a PhD anyway?

Some reply to the questions above by telling me they applied because their mommy thinks a PhD is part of their education and doing it here would be easiest, so they won’t have to move. And by the way – how long will it take? Ehh yeah, next candidate please. For me, it’s not easy to distinguish between candidates who seem OK. Who to take when 2 bring really similar backgrounds and seem about equally motivated? If anyone has any tips on that, feel free to drop a comment!

For the applicants, there’s a few things you can do:
– to get that interview, make sure your motivation letter is a motivation letter. I’ve read too many that seem to merely sum up their CV. Start with a reference to the job you’re applying for and make sure it’s the right one… Then, explain why you REALLY want this job (motivation!). Next, explain why you would be the right candidate and highlight some of the key features of your CV that support this. Close with some statement that you’re available for questions, interview etc and thank people for their time.
– during the interview, know where you are, look up as much about them as you possibly can. Why did you choose this department and not the neighbors? And please come up with something better than “this was the most convenient”…
read up the stuff this lab is working on. We got candidates who didn’t even bother to read up on the project they said they wanted to work on. Since the job opening had listed 2 reviews as background information, I’d expect genuinely interested people to read at least that if not more.
– think of some smart questions to ask. I always give people the chance to ask questions, because I remember I had quite a few of them during my application, to make sure this really is the place I want to go to. Some of the candidates couldn’t come up with anything better than how long a typical day in the lab is (8 hours, that much?!), how long finishing a PhD would take etc. Show some real interest in the lab and in the project instead!

That should help to get you pretty far I think!

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