If you are interviewing for a PhD position, chances are high that you will be asked about your motivation to do a PhD. And sometimes, simple questions are the hardest to answer. Therefore, it is smart to prepare an excellent response to this question in advance.
- Creating your unique answer to “Why do you want to do a PhD?”
- Doing a PhD to satisfy your scientific curiosity
- Doing a PhD because of your societal or environmental ambitions
- Doing a PhD for self-development
- Doing a PhD to improve your (academic) career prospects
Creating your unique answer to “Why do you want to do a PhD?”
Reasons to do a PhD are as diverse as PhD topics and PhD programmes: there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
While this diversity is a good thing, the lack of clarity on what a good answer to the question “Why do you want to do a PhD?” constitutes, makes it particularly daunting.
And indeed, this question should not be taken lightly:
A convincing response during a PhD application interview increases your chance of securing the position: it clarifies your ambition and can leave a memorable impression.
To impress your interviewers with an answer, preparation is key. The first step is to reflect on your personal ‘why’:
Write down everything that comes to your mind. Your notes could include words like “curiosity”, and short sentences such as “to be able to become a professor in the future” but also honest reflections such as “I want to be able to call myself Dr”.
The next step is to sort your notes, select the answers you want to highlight, and frame your response.
The following categories are some of the best to frame your unique answer to the question:
- scientific curiosity
- ffsocietal or environmental ambitions
- (academic) career prospects.
Doing a PhD to satisfy your scientific curiosity
Curiosity is one of the key qualities of successful postgraduate students. Hence, answers to “Why do you want to do a PhD?” that centre around ambitions to satisfy your scientific curiosity are usually appreciated during PhD interviews.
There are different ways to emphasise your scientific curiosity. For instance, you could explain how a specific topic caught your interest. For example by reading the work of a specific scholar, following a course, or listening to a talk.
You could also mention previous research that you did (for instance in a bachelor’s or master’s thesis), which aroused your curiosity to dig deeper and find out more.
For all answers framed by scientific curiosity, make sure to highlight a lack of knowledge and open questions that you would like to answer by doing a PhD. And don’t just say “I find it interesting“. Be concrete!
Doing a PhD because of your societal or environmental ambitions
Many people connect their answers to “Why do you want to do a PhD?” to societal or environmental ambitions. And for a reason: These answers can be very powerful!
Societal ambitions could be, for instance, to eradicate a specific infectious disease, combat child poverty or increase female participation in the labour market. Environmental ambitions could be, for instance, to reduce CO2 emissions, tackle plastic pollution or protect an endangered species.
When you are preparing your unique response, and want to connect it to societal or environmental ambitions, make sure to provide some details and make it personal.
You can, for instance, tell a short personal story about why you find something important. Did you have a life-changing experience? Or do you maybe know someone who has been affected by a societal shortcoming?
Doing a PhD for self-development
If you are motivated to do a PhD because of societal or environmental ambitions, good for you. But if you don’t, there is also no need to worry!
You don’t need to have ambitions to save the world or win a Nobel prize as a prerequisite to doing a PhD. There is nothing wrong with answering the question “Why do you want to do a PhD?” by focusing on yourself.
On the contrary, openness and a drive to improve yourself and learn new skills are highly valued by PhD supervisors. Thus, self-development can be another good framework for your answer.
You can emphasise your ambition for self-development by mentioning specific things you want to learn, or skills you want to acquire or improve. Create a short backstory with a rationale. In that way, your interviewers will easily understand what you want to develop and why you think a PhD programme is a right place to do so.
Doing a PhD to improve your (academic) career prospects
Another legitimate reason for wanting to do a PhD is your professional goals. These goals can involve a career within academia, or outside of academia. (Both have valid advantages and disadvantages.)
Ambitions to work within academia are more straightforward to explain. For example, in most cases, you simply need a PhD to secure a lecturer position or professorship.
If you don’t have ambitions to climb the academic ladder, but still think that doing a PhD will improve your career prospects, please go ahead! Just make sure to sufficiently substantiate your reasons, as your interviewer may not be familiar with, for instance, certain job requirements outside of academia.
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