When applying for graduate school, your “why do you want to do a PhD?” answer to this common question will be something you want to prepare in advance: doctorate admissions can be pretty competitive, which is why acing your interview is key to securing that acceptance. If you are wondering how to get into grad school, preparing yourself early can allow for enough time to perfect all aspects of your application.
This article includes helpful samples of answers to this notorious interview question, explores why it is asked, and provides some tips for planning out your future response. We also cover the benefits of graduate school interview preparation for improving your chances of getting into your dream PhD program and achieving your goals.
>>Want us to help you get accepted? Schedule a free strategy call here.<<
Listen to the blog!
“Why Do You Want to Do a PhD?” Sample Answers
Sample Answer 1 (academic/career/literary research focus)
I am interested in a PhD at your institution because I wish to further my literary research and become a professor at the university level. My plan is to be a top scholar of 19th-century and Victorian literature. I first became acquainted with the period during my bachelor’s degree when one of my favorite professors encouraged me to study the portrayal of gender and sexuality in works of that period, specifically through the writings of the Brontë sisters. I became fascinated with how concepts of masculinity, femininity, and androgyny interact in their writing and how they subvert conventions of the gothic genre to represent female rage against oppression by men. That interest led to the completion of my master’s degree at McGill University, where I wrote a major research paper on the subject. Something I want to further discuss in my published work is how this concept transforms as it appears in novels of the 20th-century and contemporary literature. The ultimate goal is to further ingratiate myself within current scholarship in the field. I also know the value of a good teacher, and I want to be able to inspire a future generation of students, just as my professors inspired me.
Want to learn top tips for your grad school interview? Watch this video:
Sample Answer 2 (personal growth/curiosity focus)
Planning out my future was not always easy for me. Growing up, I did not have a clue where to start. I was a few semesters into my undergraduate degree before I figured out what I actually wanted to study. I then left my economics and finance majors behind and started a psychology program, which is when I originally became interested in the impact of social media on mental health, whether it be positive or negative. Social media was steadily growing in popularity at the time and is now a staple in our personal and professional lives. It has been an interesting experience to watch this shift occur right in front of my eyes as I completed my bachelor’s and eventually my master’s degree. I never had to look very hard to find what to focus my attention on because there were always new studies coming out about the effects of smartphones and social media apps. This is a field that is frequently changing and presenting new developments. For me, there is something really fascinating about that aspect of our digital world. I want to do this doctorate degree as a culmination of my education in this area now that it feels like I have finally found my calling.
What Is the Purpose of Asking This Question?
This question, like the “tell me about yourself” PhD interview question, may be frustrating to encounter, as it can be considered broad or redundant. However, when a graduate program director asks this question, they want to get down to the nitty-gritty of who you are and why you are here in front of them. Another way of wording this question would be: What is your motivation for applying to graduate school? Not many people wake up one day and randomly apply to a PhD program on a whim. Therefore, the department you are applying to wants to find out more aspects of your personality and reasoning beyond the contents of your graduate school resume or grad school career goals statement. They want to see what kind of student, instructor, professor, scholar, or colleague you will be. Graduate programs are usually not very large, so they want a sense of who they will be working with for the next few years.
Of course, you can touch upon your past experiences studying or otherwise if it is relevant to what you are currently pursuing, but the overall purpose of your interview is to give them more information about you than what they already know. Answering this question illustrates how concise you can be and how you speak about yourself or your interests. It tests your self-awareness as you are planning to take on an advanced degree at the doctorate level. Your response will also depend on whatever program or field you are applying to. Someone applying for a doctoral program in the sciences may have different components to bring up in their answer than a psychology or humanities applicant.
If you submitted a graduate school statement of purpose, this question may seem related to whatever you wrote in that document. It may seem superfluous to repeat some of your goals once again in this response, but an interview is a completely different medium. Graduate programs will want to assess your writing ability before they interview you and compare your responses in written vs verbal form. Your statement of purpose summarizes your motivation and goals and introduces program directors to you and your application. There will be some overlap between a statement of purpose and your answer to “Why do you want to do a PhD?” but both need a proper amount of preparation to effectively respond.
Potential Reasons to Do a PhD
Even after applying to graduate school, you may still be wondering should you pursue a master’s or PhD, but this could be because you have not yet narrowed down your reasons for doing one. When constructing your response, you will need to reflect on your personal reasons for going forward with a PhD. You want your answers in your interview to be genuine and truly reflective of your interests in their program. It is possible that your reasoning stems from a combination of multiple different places. Here are some of the more common reasons that PhD applicants pursue further education that may resonate with your story:
1. Boosting Academic and Career Prospects
You may have an interest in further developing your career opportunities, whether they are inside or outside of academia. To become a lecturer or a professor at the university level, a doctoral degree is usually required for most disciplines. Many people want to take that extra step to build upon their master’s degree and become a notable expert in their field. Completing a PhD can be the catalyst for learning how to find a job in academia. Feeling the desire to explore that possibility or strive toward that path is a perfectly acceptable reason for completing a PhD. Even if you do not have aspirations to become a professor, a PhD could lead to viable options outside of academia. A doctorate degree could simply be about opening as many doors as possible, which is necessary to succeed in any job market.
2. Achieving Personal Development
Many potential PhD applicants want to fulfill a personal goal when completing their degree. It is your degree after all, so it is normal for your reasons to lead back to you and your wishes. Nobody is expecting you to be completing this degree for anyone else. It may be a life-changing experience for you as a whole, even if it is not directly linked to your studies. There are other aspects to going to school that are not immediately apparent. A PhD program is also a way to learn new skills, meet new people, and move to a new place, perhaps. You will have the opportunity to expand your network and give yourself every opportunity to succeed. Ask yourself: what can you accomplish personally with this PhD that you cannot without it? Your eventual response in an interview could mention specific resolutions that come with acquiring your doctorate degree. A PhD can act as validation for the years of study you have behind you or can give you a greater sense of pride in your academic abilities.
3. Fulfilling Curiosity
When you apply to a doctoral program, you have probably thought about specific subjects you want to consider. While you can wait to figure out exactly how to find a PhD topic until after you get accepted, you should already have a basic idea of what you want to pursue and be ready to discuss it when asked about it in an interview. When you apply to an advanced degree, you are not expected to know everything, even though it may seem so. Where you find inspiration to learn is key to your motivations as you embark on this new journey. Each individual applicant comes in the door with their own story and rationale for pursuing a PhD. You could be inspired by a particular scholar, era, or world issue. Give your interviewer the larger picture as to why a PhD is necessary for you. Whatever you are curious about will make you stand out from other applicants who have similar backgrounds. Making sure to explain that these objectives require a PhD is also very important to proving your candidacy to a program director.
4. Advancing Research
Springboarding off of curiosity, research is how scientific innovation is published to the masses. It is the physical manifestation of your curiosity and transforms an idea into reality. Students often use graduate education as a means to publicize their work. Many ground-breaking studies begin within university walls. A PhD could be the vehicle that helps you pursue worthwhile research that can ultimately have a greater impact on your field of study as well as the world at large. Before you apply, you should ideally jot down some research questions or objectives you plan to explore, either during or after completing your PhD. Writing a research interest statement could also help in this regard. These interests could wholly motivate you to pursue a PhD first and foremost. For instance, if your wish is to positively effect the environment and develop research that could combat climate change, the resources of an academic institution can help further develop that goal.
5. Training Before Further Education
In certain cases, a PhD could add layers to a student’s training before attempting another educational pursuit, such as medical school. For instance, prospective medical students often ask themselves, “Do I need a graduate degree to gain admission to medical school?” because they want to strengthen their application with a doctorate degree in the sciences or another relevant field. A PhD before medical school could also result in an impressive research resume for the applicant and provide them further motivation for becoming a doctor. There are also programs that combine both degrees, such as MD-PhD programs, that focus primarily on research and scientific innovation rather than clinical work. Many prospective medical students apply to PhD programs to explore every option at their disposal and create a solid foundation of research before officially applying to medical school.
How to Prepare Your Answer
Interview questions may need the most thought in terms of how you respond to them. Some of the most common and difficult graduate school interview questions are often the simplest in scope. Here are a few tips for how to structure and create a proper answer as to why you want to do a PhD:
1. Research, Research, Research
Research is not only what your PhD will lead to but also a crucial portion of preparing for it. Learn everything you can about the programs you are applying to, what academic opportunities they might lead to, and what careers they lend themselves to. It is also never too early to look into some thesis writing services for when you may eventually need them. Researching programs will give you a better grasp on why you are applying to a specific school when you are eventually asked the question. With less information about the school or its program, there is less of a chance you will be able to fully articulate why you should further your studies there.
2. Brainstorm Your Response
The first thing to do is to brainstorm all the reasons you want to complete a doctorate degree. Get a piece of paper or blank document and start to take note of everything that comes to mind. These can be specific reasons, potential research topics, programs you are interested in, the city you will move to, or anything else that could motivate you to complete your PhD. You could also use what you may have already written for a PhD motivation letter as a base for what you want to touch upon. Once complete, parse through what is most important for your response and discard the rest.
3. Have a Beginning, Middle, and End
In terms of structure, you will want to create a mini narrative that captures the interviewer’s interest. It should be detailed and unique to you without being overblown. Make sure that your answer flows, is concise, and does not go over two minutes, as you could risk losing the interviewer’s attention. You might want to mention your prior studies or academic research first, then what sparked your interest in doing a PhD, and then perhaps end with a little tidbit as to why you are attracted to that school’s program specifically.
4. Use Bullet Points
While you should always be thinking about how to structure your response to achieve the best result, it is important to avoid memorizing a script or simply listing the items on your CV for graduate school. This could wind up making you sound robotic and rehearsed, which may leave a lukewarm impression on an admissions officer or interviewer. It is a little tedious to consider, but you want the response to flow logically without seeming too prepared. Planning out your answer in bullet points will allow you to stick to what information you want to convey while still answering the question in a natural way.
Self-reflection is important when applying to any academic program. A question that requires you to dig deep, such as “Why do you want to do a PhD?” may cause anxiety. PhD interviews in particular can be intimidating if you are not ready or feel lost about where to start preparing. Thankfully, there are resources for you to receive aid should you need it. Reading tips for applying to graduate school will get you into the right mindset to begin preparing for your PhD. It could also inspire you to put more effort into perfecting your application.
Meanwhile, seeking graduate school application help from a professional is a sure-fire way to alleviate the stress associated with pursuing a doctoral degree. There is no shame in asking for a helping hand as you make important decisions about your academic future. You can only succeed if you give yourself the room to do so.
1. Why do interviewers ask, “Why do you want to do a PhD”?
Interviewers tend to ask this question to get to know more about your personality and motivations when applying to their program. It is also a way to further explore what your interests are and how you express yourself when talking about them.
2. What is most important when answering, “Why do you want to do a PhD?”
One of the most important things to remember when answering this question is to be genuine and focus on accurately articulating what your true motivations are. Surely, you applied to the PhD program for multiple reasons, so try and relay those to the interviewer as clearly as you can.
3. Should I differentiate my answer from what I included in my statement of purpose?
Yes and no. Your response to this question will be similar to what is already in your statement of purpose. Your statement is also an assessment of your writing skills, especially depending on the program you are applying to. Do not differentiate too much until it is a completely different answer. This could make your response come off as disingenuous.
4. How long should my answer be?
The answer to this question should ideally be about a minute or 90 seconds long. A response under a minute is probably a little too short. Two minutes is the absolute maximum length. You could risk losing the attention of the interviewer if it surpasses that timeframe. Moreover, this will not be the only question you will have to answer, so show respect for the interviewer’s time by keeping your responses brief and to the point.
5. Is there anything I should not talk about?
Be careful not to neglect your particular motivation for applying by going off topic. You also do not have to touch on every single accomplishment on your CV unless they are relevant. Mentioning your master’s degree or other larger accomplishments could be worthwhile, but be sure to think about the future and why specifically you want to complete a PhD.
6. What other questions are asked in a PhD interview?
PhD interview and postdoc interview questions can touch on many different topics. You will surely encounter both personal questions as well as field-related ones. These will make up a large chunk of what will be discussed during the interview.
7. Should I practice my response with friends and family?
You can, but unless they are well-versed in graduate school admissions, their feedback might not be as useful to you. To truly see an improvement in your interview skills, you should receive feedback that is tailored and personalized to you from someone who is aware of what graduate school interviewers are looking for, such as a grad school advisor.
8. Who can I get help from for interview prep?
Your best bet is a grad school advisor who is an admissions expert specifically trained to help students navigate the complex process of applying to graduate school programs. Advisors who are especially knowledgeable about doctorate programs can also be called PhD consultants. These individuals can help you with all aspects of graduate school applications, including interview preparation, editing application documents, and more.
Like our blog? Write for us! >>
Have a question? Ask our admissions experts below and we'll answer your questions!