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PhD at a German Graduate School: The Personal Interview

By Christian Wilbers

It is the final hurdle before a German graduate school will accept a candidate: The personal interview. However, not unlike the private sector, there is no one strategy that helps you master every interview. Nonetheless, if you prepare well and know the expectations of the selection committee you have every chance to excel.

The Personal Interview © endopack - iStockphoto.com The personal interview is the last obstacle to overcome in the application process at a German graduate school
For roughly 90 percent of all German graduate schools, the personal interview is a necessary requirement before applicants are ultimately accepted as PhD candidates. Usually, these interviews are conducted at the school in Germany, though some institutions offer phone interviews via Skype, telephone or in some cases even at education fairs across the globe. For candidates, these short conversations are an extreme situation: After months of research, the careful crafting of an application and the long wait for a response, it all comes down to this one moment. But an invitation to interview also means that the application materials were impressive enough to consider the candidate. Applicants should translate this knowledge into the necessary self-confidence it takes to succeed in the interview - in combination, of course, with a good preparation. After all, selection committees are looking for competent, well-prepared candidates who know details about the respective graduate school, convince professionally and fit into one of the current research teams.

What happens in an interview at a German graduate school?

Even though not every interview follows the same routine, there are some commonalities that all graduate schools share. Generally, the candidate is initially given the opportunity to present their prospective dissertation project - sometimes in the form of an academic presentation that can last up to 30 minutes. Afterwards, the candidate will answer the committee's questions. What do you hope to achieve with your dissertation at this graduate school? Which area of research do you seek to participate in and what will be your particular contribution? To answer such questions, candidates need to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of their field such as the current state of research, as well as detailed knowledge of the graduate school's research objectives. Candidates who present competently and communicate effectively will be received favorably by the selection committee. So prepare your presentation well, adhere to time limits and answer questions as briefly and precisely as possible. Most importantly, however, you need to demonstrate your academic motivation authentically. The selection committee is already interested in your work - otherwise you would not have been invited in the first place. Now you need to explain to the members of the committee why the PhD is right for you and why you cannot wait to get started.

What German graduate schools look for in an interview

  • Motivation
  • Detailed expertise of the field
  • Comprehensive knowledge of the school and its specialties
  • Introduction of the dissertation project
  • Presentation and communication skills
  • Professionalism
  • Language skills

Network, network, network

In order to better prepare for the interview, talk to those who have already gone through the process: Try establishing contact with older PhD students at the graduate school that you are applying to and learn about their experiences and the daily routine at the institution. This will help you gauge the atmosphere and allow you to ask more specific questions. Also try to find out as much as possible about the procedure: Will the interview be held in German or English? How long will it take? And who will be sitting across the table from you? Your preparation will help you anticipate the situation, avoid any unsettling surprises and allow you to focus entirely on thematic aspects, which, of course, are still the priority. International applicants to German graduate schools should not let direct criticism discourage them. Intense debating is part of academic culture in Germany, even a sign of respect. Look at it this way: critical questions are better than no questions. And: You are not only encouraged to ask your own questions, it is expected that you do so. German graduate schools look for self-confident young scholars who have clear goals in mind with their application. Feel free to ask about academic supervision at the school, transferable skills training or financial support for conference travel abroad. Note that even though many German graduate schools cover travel costs within the country, they do not have the financial means to do so for international travel. Make sure to ask about potential reimbursements before you go.

A question of style: what to wear for the interview?

Many German graduate schools maintain a rather relaxed dress code; professors may even appear for seminars in jeans and a t-shirt. This is not to say, of course, that applicants should completely neglect the question of how to dress for the interview. A good place to start and get an idea of what to wear is the graduate school's homepage or a conversation with a PhD student already working at the institution. Unlike the private sector, you may feel out of place if you show up in a suit and tie - nice jeans, a collared shirt and a coat may be enough. But there is no general rule that applies everywhere. The most important piece of advice is to ensure that you feel comfortable in whatever it is you are wearing. Feeling at ease and confident in your clothing will help you to relax during the interview and get one step closer to reaching your goal: a PhD position at a German graduate school.

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academics :: January 2014

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