The “tell me about yourself” PhD interview question seems like something you do not need to prepare for or think about. But ignoring the importance of this interview question imperils your candidacy, since admissions committees scrutinize this part of the interview as much as other elements of your application, like your , , or . The “tell me about yourself” PhD interview question is among the most but the right prep will help you start the interview and set the tone for the rest of your conversation.
This article will detail the purpose behind this tough interview question, show you ways to build a response, and provide you with expert sample answers to inspire you.
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“Tell me about yourself” is not a trick question. We promise. Graduate school interviews are designed to learn more about you, beyond the grades, test scores, and academic achievements listed on your . The point of the “tell me about yourself” PhD interview question is to get at the heart of what defines you as a person, student, instructor, and scholar. In short, this question is truly your chance to stand out.
But the “tell me about yourself” PhD interview question is also an exercise in conciseness and self-awareness. The way you answer matters as much as the content, and it reflects a lot about how you express yourself, how you see yourself, and what about your personality, intellect, and past experiences motivates you to pursue such an advanced degree.
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Areas to Cover
PhD admissions officers are interested in your background, so you should start your answer with personal details like your name, where you were born, etc., and then mention more specific details, like your school, the degree you just finished, and what you’re doing currently, academically or professionally. You can also talk about other things unique to you, like if you’ve changed cities or countries to pursue your degree, and whether you are a parent.
2. Personal Story
You can use the introduction as a springboard to talk about the “inciting incident” of your story; the moment or event that made you realize you wanted to pursue art, engineering, or medicine. It is unique to you, obviously, but you should also be mindful of not spending too much time on describing the incident but rather, using it as a way to transition to the next section.
You can talk about the lead-up to the story, and the aftermath. Did your perspective change? Were you motivated to find answers to a problem or remedy some injustice? Talk about your motivations, feelings, and emotions in detail to make your story authentic and personable, while not devolving your story into parody or self-seriousness.
3. Academic and/or Professional Achievements
This section is where you demonstrate how you translated your early interests into academic excellence. You can first talk about the reasons you chose your undergrad major, the courses that interested you the most, and professors who stood out for their teaching and lecturing style, but then mention occasions when you went above and beyond in your studies.
You can mention the high mark you got in a particularly difficult humanities course, the spot on a research team you won, or contributing to research that was published and well received. But don’t lose sight of the fact that you still have other things to talk about, like why you want to pursue your PhD at this school and program.
The goal should always be to keep the story moving and not to overwhelm your audience with too many unnecessary details. You can also mention non-academic instances, in which you showed initiative, leadership, or tried to build community through volunteer work, paid work experience, or participation in a social or political organization.
4. Why This Program and/or Future Goals
The last part of your answer should tie together all the previous elements (background, academic achievements) to present someone who has the requisite experience, intellectual curiosity, and determination to pursue a PhD successfully, within this particular program. Here, you should detail why you would be a good addition to this program, campus, and culture.
I think my passion for the fine arts started in my childhood church. Every Sunday I would stare at the murals depicting scenes from the Bible, mostly because of how different they were from traditional interpretations of religious imagery. The artist who designed these murals chose a more modern style to depict them. He used faceless figures and elongated shapes for their bodies instead of typical line drawings or classical imagery.
I was puzzled. But, at the same time, I thought it was bold. I realized how art can be freeing, in both style and subject. I saw how an artist expresses themselves through their choices and how those choices reflect their ideas, worldview, and state of mind. It was these possibilities that got me sketching. But that phase lasted only a few years, mostly because I had no talent for drawing.
However, my interest in the fine arts never went away. I knew that even if I could never be an artist, I could still have a career in research, restoration, and exploration of art history. I entered an undergrad in Art History with an emphasis on ancient art, which I buttressed with a part-time job working in the Winters Sculpture Gallery at Downtown University. It was working in the gallery that let me see how people truly interact with art. I was touched by the time and contemplation people put into an image or sculpture, regardless of the style or subject, the way people in churches sit, in silence, surrounded by what they consider holy and beautiful.
Exploring themes of worship and idolatry during my undergrad made me recall my own early childhood experiences. It was then that I decided that I wanted to go further in examining the never-ending relationship between art and religion. I had my mind set on going to Europe – Florence or Turin specifically – and going into depth on the exchange between art and religion throughout the Renaissance up to the present. I even started learning Italian.
However, it was around this time when news broke of the discovery of thousands of remains at residential schools, which, made me question what I was doing in a significant way. The Catholic Church was largely responsible, along with many others, for these horrors. After learning about this terrible news, I could not reconcile the fact that I was about to devote my life to the study of religious art based in Catholicism, while the same Catholic church actively participated in cultural genocide. It was a wake-up call. I realized that too much time and effort has been put into classical and Renaissance art, and I didn’t want to be part of that tradition.
I began researching how Indigenous cultures in Canada represent, interpret, and express their spirituality in ways that are far removed from Judeo-Christian spiritual practices. While doing this research, I felt in myself a desire to right the wrongs of the past. Rather than reinforcing the supremacy of one tradition, I wanted to learn about another so that I could help in preserving and disseminating it. Many had fought for centuries to preserve and pass down the rich, cultural legacy of Indigenous spirituality, despite the unyielding forces opposed to it and I wanted to participate in understanding it as much as I could.
When I entered the Master of Fine Arts program at Waterloo University, I sought out Dr. Patrick Bouvier, who identifies as Metis and researches storytelling practices unique to Indigenous cultures. Dr. Bouvier was kind enough to help me define my research interests, given my art history background, and it was through him that I found out that the boundaries between Christian and native spirituality are fluid and that many Metis incorporate Christian practices into their ceremonies.
I also became aware that Indigenous spirituality, by its nature, escapes definition and contextualization. It is less about holy texts, churches, and congregations and more a way of life, a way of understanding your relationships with nature, people, and the past. Even the term, “Indigenous spirituality” is problematic, given the poor job it does of relaying the complex beliefs of First Nations peoples.
Through Dr. Bouvier’s mentorship and guidance, I became acquainted with this school’s Indigenous Studies program. One of the aspects of this graduate program that stood out for me was that it was the first of its kind in North America, created with the input and guidance of First Nations representatives. The immersive aspect also intrigued me, as the program embraces the central role played by the environment and hands-on learning in Indigenous culture. I am eager to experience these traditional knowledge concepts and bond with the Elders who make themselves available to students in the tradition of Indigenous pedagogy. The fact that there are almost no programs or fields that marry traditional art history studies with Indigenous culture means that there is a dire need for further exploration, which is what I hope to achieve when I complete my PhD.
I recently graduated from the Autonomous University of Sinaloa with a master’s degree in Astronomy and Astrophysics, where I presented a thesis on the life of stars (their birth, existence, and death) that questioned formation theories and examined the role of the cold dark matter model in classifying new stars.
The stars and universe have always fascinated me, ever since I was a boy growing up in Mexico City. In the capital, you don’t see a lot of stars. It’s for the same reasons that people living in large cities cannot see more than a few stars at a time: light and air pollution. I could never imagine that one day I would see a night sky blanketed with stars – as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand on a beach. But it happened one night.
I remember when I was ten – I remember very clearly how old I was because this experience shaped me forever – I left the city to go visit my relatives in Oaxaca, which is very far from the Distrito Federal. It was the first time I left the city, and it was a long journey. But during the last few hours of the trip, we drove through the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range.
I was mesmerized. At such a high elevation, so far from the city, the sky lit up with stars. That beautiful sight sparked more than just awe; it made me ponder my relation to time as well. That’s why I remember how old I was because, in that moment, I said to myself, “I am ten years old now, but will I remember this when I am twenty, thirty.
I don’t know why those thoughts suddenly occurred to me, but I found myself asking more and more questions afterward, like, “what is powering the light in those stars?” and “how far away are they?”. When I got back to Mexico City, I begged my parents for an amateur telescope. They obliged, and I soon set about finding the ideal gazing spots in and around the city.
I found other people who had the same fascination with stargazing, and we formed a club of amateur astronomers. By that time, I knew where my destiny lay. I majored in Physics at the Autonomous National University of Mexico and helped run the astronomy club. I was also fortunate to volunteer one summer at the National Astronomical Observatory in Baja, where I listened to pulsars spinning and witnessed the aftermath of a distant supernova.
By the time I entered my master’s program, I had logged hundreds of hours observing objects in space from planetary nebulae and bursting stars to blue stars and quasars. However, when I was doing my master’s, I realized that I had been so enthralled by modern astronomy that I had overlooked the feats in astronomy made by pre-Columbian astronomers.
Pre-Hispanic Mexico has a rich tradition of exploring and mapping the stars, a tradition I hope to uphold in applying to this program. I want to further explore the relationship pre-Columbian people had with astronomy as it related to their conceptions of religion, mythology, and agriculture.
But while plumbing the past, I also want to expand further into modernity, especially at this school, as it is a partner with the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics, which oversees the LMT or Large Millimeter Telescope in Puebla. I want to carry out more experiments focused on the development of giant stars and how their gravitational fields affect the other celestial bodies around them.
The “tell me about yourself” PhD interview question is nothing to fear, provided you prepare. Once you have your answer, your preparation should also involve mock interviews so that you can become comfortable with the format, time your answer, and make adjustments. You can reach out to s to help you practice because they have the most experience with the “tell me about yourself” PhD interview.
If you feel that you need some to guide you in the interview, or any part of the application process, don’t hesitate. But following the steps in this article can also help you in crafting an authentic response. When you do have an answer prepared, try rehearsing a few key points so that you know how to move your story along. You should practice reading it out loud to be comfortable with the material, but don’t go through the effort of memorizing lines, as this will make you seem inauthentic.
1. Why do interviewers ask, “tell me about yourself”?
Interviewers ask this question as an icebreaker to ease the pressure and put interviewees at ease. But it also serves the real purpose of getting a candidate to talk about themselves and how their experiences (both academic and non-academic) have shaped their academic interests.
2. How can I answer, “tell me about yourself?”
You can answer the “tell me about yourself” question by telling a personal story of how you ended up at this interview. You can also start by talking about your present if you’re a recent grad or about what you want to achieve. The key is to create an easy-to-follow narrative that showcases what prepared you for the program you’re applying to.
3. How long should my answer be?
You can practice beforehand and time yourself, keeping your answer to around the two-minute mark to avoid incoherence and rambling.
4. What should I NOT talk about?
Do not talk about personal stories unrelated to your academic pursuits. You can certainly incorporate hobbies, passion projects, or general interests outside of academia, but try to weave all these elements of your personality into a convincing portrait of you as a PhD candidate. Also, avoid mentioning anything you are uncomfortable talking about later in the interview. For example, if you are uncomfortable discussing your family background, do not bring it up in the ‘tell me about yourself’ answer because the admissions committee might ask follow-up questions about it.
5. What other questions are asked in a PhD interview?
PhD and can broach a number of topics, from asking about your professional ambitions to how you would apply for funding. Be prepared for personal and field-related questions; they will make up the bulk of your interview.
6. How will I know if my response to the “tell me about yourself” PhD interview question is any good?
You can practice your answer in front of a trusted colleague, mentor, or to get worthwhile feedback. We strongly encourage the use of mock interviews to get the best results. Your advisor, whoever they are, can provide tips and constructive criticism on how to improve your answer or where it excels.
7. Can someone else prepare my answer for me?
The answer is supposed to come from you and your personal experiences, so you should brainstorm and prepare your answer personally. While advisors and consultants can help you shape it and improve the delivery, only you can tell your own story.
8. What are the other requirements to get into graduate school?
Every graduate school and every program have their own program-specific requirements, but the average requirements include a specific GPA,, a specific GRE score, and supporting documentation like a and .