Preparing For Your “First” Interview

Date: 26/02/2020

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Sorina Toltica: PhD Researcher based at University of Portsmouth, School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature; Researching the character of contemporary UK & US military engagement in West Africa; Previously worked for West Africa Network for Peacebuilding Senegal (WANEP), on the Early Warning and Early Response Network (WARN).



A PhD does not mean research exclusively. It comprises many other tasks such as: teaching, engagement, admin, and applying for internships or jobs.


This blog post is based on my recent experience of applying for a NERC Policy Internship. It was my first interview since starting my ESRC PhD, hence the title. You will see some references to a policy brief, which I was asked to prepare alongside a written application. However, I summarise below advice comprised of a mix between the general and our “industry”. Most of it was provided by South Coast DTP staff and researchers, to whom I am extremely thankful.


The application:


Pay attention to every aspect of your application and ask for feedback. All SCDTP staff and cohort have got extensive knowledge of these processes and sometimes of the institutions you intend to work for.


This is your chance to demonstrate how hard you have worked throughout your academic career and highlight skills relevant to the “candidate profile” they are looking for. The imposter syndrome always lurks in the background, so don’t see this as bragging about yourself. It is YOU who developed every skill on that list!


The interview:


If you are asked to prepare an extra task as part of your application, it is very likely that some of the questions will be based on it. For example:


  • Based on the policy brief you submitted, how would you order your recommendations in terms of their importance?
  • Why are you interested in this topic and how does it link with your research interests?
  • How can you make the recommendations ‘happen’? What resources would you need? Where do you start?
  • If you would work in any other area, what would you choose?


Keep in mind the relevant skills you included in your application and make sure to include them in your responses if you get questions such as:


  • What analytical skills do you have and what software would you say you are proficient in?
  • How comfortable are you attending meetings with different stakeholders? Presenting to diverse audiences?
  • What is your working style? Would you be happy to work independently and meet with a team once a week or so?
  • Can you give us an example of a situation when you demonstrated X skill?

(NB: Make sure you always have a second, backup one)


They may ask you completely different questions, but at least practising these will give you confidence.


And some lighter tips:


  • Try to pace yourself: Some people tend to speak quickly when they are nervous and this could be problematic in an interview (especially on the phone where they can’t follow your mouth).


  • If it is a phone interview: make sure you make useful notes and have them in front of you. Not too many, but enough to give you confidence.


  • You can gain some time by starting your answer with:

‘that’s a very important/ interesting question…’

‘I think the way I would try to approach that is the following…’

‘let me consider this question for a second…’

‘I was hoping you would ask me about this, because I think it is very important…’

(NB: these are good phrases to use in your final PhD VIVA too).


  • Make sure you say YES immediately if they ask you at the end: would you accept the role if offered?


  • They may ask you ‘do you have any questions for us?’ and a good question to ask always is ‘what kind of training opportunities could I make the most?’ because it shows that you want to learn.


Good luck and don’t forget that as a cohort, we are here to both give and receive support!

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