If you are invited for an interview, try using our handy questions toolkit to practise a wide range of common interview questions and suggested responses. This will help you prepare in advance and be equipped to answer a wide range of competency, motivation and biographical questions, whether the interview is for an academic or professional role.
When have you had to solve a particularly complex or challenging problem? How did you go about it?
Try to use a workplace example rather than selecting an academic or theoretical problem you solved (unless you are being given a technical interview e.g. for a PhD). It is best to discuss a problem which is similar to one you might be asked to solve in the target job. Explain why the problem was challenging, what factors made it so, what options you had and why you decided on the solution you chose as well as the positive outcome.
Describe a creative idea you have had that significantly contributed to an activity or project.
This is about the ability to be innovative and to think laterally. Explain briefly the problem you were trying to solve, how you came up with your creative idea and what impact it had. If you are struggling for examples of creativity, think about ways in which you have improved processes at work or ideas you have applied in your leisure pursuits or personal life.
Provide an example of when you had a task to achieve but you lacked the necessary information or skills to complete it. How did you handle this?
This is about your ability to deal with ambiguity/ limited resources and an opportunity to show where you have used initiative to fill a gap. Start by briefly explaining the task and what key elements were missing. Show how you achieved a successful outcome despite this by, for example, networking to find answers informally, teaching yourself how to do something or being resourceful in hunting out information. The interviewer will be looking for evidence of proactively and the ability to do what you can with the resources you have rather than waiting for the perfect conditions to prevail.
Describe how you have successfully built and maintained a relationship with a key client or stakeholder?
A key question often used to probe your interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. Focus on an individual who is/was critical to your role and explain step by step how you gained their trust, established credibility, anticipated their needs, sought and responded to feedback. Although you can talk in general terms about the ways in which you engage with key stakeholders generally (such as the student body, customer departments or colleagues) it is vital that you relate this to a particular individual to illustrate how you built a specific relationship.
How do you plan and prioritise your work?
This is probing your organisation, time management and project management skills. Try to show a systematic approach but with the flexibility to cope with the unexpected. The interviewer will be looking at the criteria you use to prioritise work and allocate your time. Use a specific example of a recent activity or project to demonstrate how it works in practice.
When have you had to deal with a difficult individual at work?
This is about interpersonal skills, empathy and influencing skills. If the interview is for a management post it may also be used to see how robustly you manage performance. Try not to be critical when describing the individual and the situation, show empathy by explaining the perspective of the other person and explain why their behaviour caused you or the organisation problems. Be specific about what actions you took and what you said to the individual to resolve the situation. If possible, choose an example where your actions prompted a change in behaviour.
Tell me about a time when you contributed significantly to a team?
A common trap here is to talk about a team where everyone worked really well together and where the team achieved a great deal , without specifying what you personally contributed (Try to use ‘I’ as well as ‘we’ in your answer). Choose an example of a successful team where you had a specific role (given or assumed). Explain how you helped organise and support other team members. It is not necessary to use an example of a team you led; good examples might include ones where you were a junior member of the team but still played a positive role.
When have you shown that you have leadership abilities?
This can cover both formal and informal leadership positions so don’t worry if you don’t have line management experience. In fact, if you lacked a formal leadership position but still had to get things done; this can be an opportunity to demonstrate your influencing skills. Don’t forget that leadership can encompass leading activities as well as people. The important thing is to show initiative and the ability to make things happen.
Have you ever been working on an activity or project when the goalposts moved? How did you deal with it?
This is about your ability to be flexible and to react positively to changing circumstances. Explain why circumstances changed (try not to be critical here) and how you went about reconfiguring resources or amending your work plan to compensate. This is a great opportunity to demonstrate your problem solving skills.
How do you handle stress?
The interviewer is interested to discover what you consider to be stressful, how self aware you are and what techniques you use to deal with stressful situations such as heavy workloads, changing organisational priorities, difficult clients and so on. Although you can use examples from outside work to illustrate your answer, it is better to steer the conversation to workplace rather than personal issues.
Why do you want this role? / To work for this organisation?
This is an opportunity to show you have carefully considered and researched this particular opportunity and reflected on its suitability in terms of your interests, experience and skills. It is important to show clear career focus. Avoid implying that it is a natural progression, an obvious move or that someone else recommended you apply as that can give the impression that any job will do as long as it’s a promotion. Try to convey genuine enthusiasm and be honest in your answer. This question is also an opportunity to remind the interviewers why you are so well suited to the role.
What are you looking for in a job?
This is probing the criteria you use when applying for jobs. Strong answers might refer to the scope to use your experience and skills, exciting developments within the department and the scope for personal and career development. This is not the time to talk about hygiene factors such as good working hours or pay levels (even if these are attractive).
What do you enjoy most and least about your present job?
Potential employers want to be confident that you will genuinely enjoy the job (and not leave a few months later). They are looking for evidence of what motivates and frustrates you to check how good a fit this job might be. Try to focus on elements you enjoy which are also a key feature of this new role. Select for discussion elements of your job you don’t enjoy which are absent from or incidental to the new job. Avoid being critical of management or your present employer.
What drew you to a career as a ………. lecturer/academic/HE administrator etc?
This question is most likely to be asked early in your career (unless you have had a career change). As a mature candidate, you might be asked instead what you most enjoy about being a lecturer/academic/ HE administrator etc. This is an open question designed to give the interviewers an insight into what motivates you and to check that this new role can meet your expectations in terms of job role and work environment. Mention elements that you genuinely enjoy and which you know are critical components of this job.
How does this job fit into your career plans?
This question tests your career focus and assesses how clear and realistic your career goals are. Aim to show that you have given some thought to potential career paths beyond this role but that you are flexible enough to see how things develop.
Where do you see yourself 2 years / 5 / 10 years time?
The trick here is to sound ambitious but realistic. Show you are aware of typical career paths taken by people in similar roles and what kind of training/skills you would need to acquire. It is best to discuss career paths within the organisation primarily; now is not the time to mention that business you always wanted to set up or the fact that you always fancied retraining as a florist/teacher. Try to be specific about the kinds of career options you are considering over the next 2/3 years but longer term it is fine to talk more generally about the kind of role and level of seniority to which you aspire.
In what kind of environment do you work best?
This is partly about self awareness, so show that you have given this some thought. Try to give one or two brief examples to illustrate the kinds of environment where you perform well. Make sure you mention factors which you are confident are features of the recruiting organisation.
What motivates you to achieve your best at work/ go the extra mile?
This is about your personal and career values. Make sure you mention factors which chime with the employer’s mission and ethos but always be genuine. Factors you might mention include delivering excellent service, feeling like you have made a difference to a cause which is important to you or about delivering quality work. Prepare a couple of brief examples to demonstrate how being motivated in this way has led to high performance.
What do you like to do outside work?
Partly, this is an opportunity for the interviewers to get a sense of you as a person and not just an employee. But this is also an opportunity to demonstrate personal qualities and skills which are relevant to your target job. So be strategic and think about what this leisure interest says about you. For a job with a high level of team working, you might mention the cricket team you play with but not the fact that you like reading and playing computer games. When drafting your CV or application, bear in mind that interviewers might probe your Interests section at interview. Never make up or exaggerate hobbies (the interviewer might be an expert!) and try to choose activities where you can show a real commitment.
Do you have any questions for us?
Never say that they have already answered all your questions. This is your opportunity to show that you have researched the organisation and role and have intelligent and genuine questions to ask. Avoid asking about the pay and conditions (you can negotiate these later) or about anything which you could easily have found out beforehand. Suitable topics might include opportunities for progression and training, what developments within and outside the organisation are expected to affect the role, key priorities and opportunities to use particular skills you possess. You can also ask about the interviewers’ experiences of the organisation. If the interview is running late just be succinct in the number of questions you ask. See the article on questions to ask an employer.
Tell me about yourself
Often used as an opening question, it is difficult to know where to start here. Although you can give some very brief biographical information, the interviewers are really interested in your professional profile. This is an opportunity to give a brief summary of your career so far (concentrating on the aspects most relevant to this job) and what you have to offer. Keep it fairly brief and end by offering to give more information about any aspect where they would like to know more. The fluency and confidence of your answer to this question will create a powerful first impression.
Why are you suited to this role?
The aim here is to discover how much you really understand the role as well as being an opportunity to point out the ways in which you meet the person specification. Rather than give long lists of skills and qualities, or giving a blow-by-blow recap of your CV, you should mention three or four key ways in which you fill the essential and desirable criteria for the role and offer to illustrate with examples.
What has been your greatest achievement?
It is best to stick to professional achievements (unless this is your first permanent job). You may mention a major personal achievement is it is impressive and also evidences key skills or qualities which would be useful to the role. Otherwise, select an achievement at work which demonstrates one of the core competencies of the post. Explain why it was challenging and the impact of your achievement for the organisation. Steer clear of mentioning academic achievements, especially if they were some time ago, unless you are applying for an academic role.
What did you learn at (previous organisation / role)?
This is partly to test how reflective you are and also that you can apply your learning. Select an aspect of your job which was quite challenging if possible and explain how the skills you learnt could be helpful in this new job.
Why did you move from x job to y job?
It is important that you present each job move in a positive way. Explain how you sought the new role as an opportunity to learn skills in x, y and z or to gain exposure to a particular type of role or organisation. Focus on aspects of the role which reinforce your suitability for the job. If a move was a promotion, say so. Even if the move was not originally planned (for example, a redundancy or re-organisation) explain what you gained from the move and that, in hindsight, it allowed you to improve your skills or experience in a particular way.
Why did you study…. at University?
This is often asked of new graduates, but can also be asked of mature professionals whose current career is unrelated to their first degree. It aims to test out your motivation and career focus. Explain what you genuinely found interesting about the subject and point out any skills you gained which have been helpful in your career (My history degree taught me analytical and communication skills, which have helpful to me in my career in IT). On no account say that you fell into studying the subject or that your grades did not allow you to do your original choice.
What has influenced your career choices?
This is an opportunity to summarise your career moves, reminding your interviewers of the relevant skills and experience you picked up along the way, and to highlight the criteria which are important to you in your work. Present your career path as a series of conscious moves or recognition of great opportunities rather than as a passive process of taking what was offered or taking the obvious career route.
What are your strengths?
It is important to select those professional strengths which would be particularly helpful in this job. Don’t be shy – this is not boasting but rather helping the panel make a good selection decision. Be prepared to offer examples and to give evidence of achievements and/or feedback to back up your assertions. You can mention non-work activities if they evidence strengths which are particularly relevant to the job. But don’t waste time telling the panel what a great cook/swimmer you are.
This question evaluates your level of self awareness, perception and humility. Be honest, but make sure you choose a genuine weakness that is not critical to the job. Ideally, choose something where it would be easy to improve through training (such as IT skills) rather than a personal characteristic (nervousness meeting new people) that is more difficult to tackle. Show how you have improved your performance over time or have managed to compensate for it. Show enthusiasm for any training or development activities which would help you improve. Please don’t say that you are a perfectionist as interviewers get very tired of hearing that one!
How would your manager/ colleagues describe you?
Use words which, whilst genuine, mirror the person specification. Try to give evidence of these views, such as performance appraisal ratings or feedback given. Be prepared to be probed for evidence that you do indeed possess these qualities. Under no circumstances should you comment negatively on the quality of the relationship with your manager/colleagues or imply that their judgement is in any way suspect.
What do you know about the department?
This tests how much research you have done for your application and, by implication, how badly you want the job. Show that you have taken the initiative in finding out about the department by, for example, speaking to current and past employees as well as looking at obvious places like the internet. Mention any experience you have had with the department in your current job. As well as demonstrating that you have done your homework, this is an excellent opportunity to flag up factors which are currently important to the department, and remind them of where you have relevant experience “(I understand that the department has an increasing number of PhD students, which is where my experience as a research project manager would be really helpful”)
What do you know about our Institution?
This is a question for external candidates. Be specific about what attracts you to the Institution and where you see its competitive advantage. Avoid talking in vague terms, such as referring to its ‘excellent academic reputation’. Talk about current and future developments and try to highlight areas where your experience would be helpful.
What do you see as the key developments in Higher Education in this country (over the next 5 / 10 years)?
This is not difficult to research (try looking at the Times Higher Education Supplement if in doubt). Pick a few key developments that you think will have a particular impact on this Institution and reflect on how you think this will impact on the role you are targeting. Think about both positive and negative implications of each development.
How do you think the introduction of increased student fees is affecting Higher Education? (for jobs in the UK). How will this affect what we do?
You might talk about how fees are affecting different groups of prospective students, the impact of fees on recruitment levels and the changing expectations of students and their parents. Think about the additional pressures this might place on the department and any benefits it might bring. If you are able to find any national or institutional statistics to illustrate what is happening, even better. Do not be drawn into commenting on the desirability or fairness of fees.
What is the impact of internationalisation of Higher Education – and what experience do you have in this field?
The implications of the globalisation of Higher Education will vary by Institution but might include an increasing proportion of international students, closer collaboration with overseas Institutions and the aspirations of students for global careers. Think about what this means for the recruiting department in terms of day to day activities. Be prepared to comment on both the pressures and opportunities this presents and how the Department may need to adapt. Mention any experience of working with international students or staff, working with overseas partner institutions or dealing with global issues in your organisation. If you have personal experience of working or studying internationally, or speak a foreign language, make this clear.
How can we improve the student experience at this institution/ in this department?
In the UK, the inclusion of student satisfaction data in league tables is leading to a greater focus on improving the student experience. Do your homework and find out the student satisfaction ratings for your target Institution and Department if relevant (find it at www.hefce.ac.uk)? Focus on any known problem areas and think about what could be done to improve things, as well as the contribution that could be made by this job. A great answer would mention improvements you yourself have made to the student experience, along with positive feedback as well as innovations that competitor Institutions have introduced which might work here.
What can we do to improve our performance as an Institution/Department and how can we evaluate how well we are doing?
Think about the ways that your employer uses to evaluate performance, including internal and external measures. How does it get feedback from stakeholders and how does it measure success? Look at the Institution’s and Department’s strategy to find out what it believes it needs to improve.
What can the Higher Education / Research sector learn from industry and commerce?
You are especially likely to be asked this if you have previous work experience in industry or business. Try not to be judgemental but mention specific approaches or techniques used by the private sector with which you are familiar and which you think might translate across. Be careful though to point out any ways in which the sectors differ and which might make a straight application of ideas difficult.
How can we improve our Institution’s national and world rankings?
To answer this question, you need to have researched the criteria used in the rankings as well as understanding which rankings are important to the recruiter. Consider the practicality of any ideas for improvement and costs involved, taking into account both short and long term aspirations.
Who are this institution’s main stakeholders and how can we engage them?
This will vary widely depending on the type of Institution and the job role. You can tell which stakeholders are most important to the employer by looking at its external website. Who is it trying to attract? With whom is it trying to communicate? Who is supplying its funding? Who influences its reputation? As well as direct stakeholders such as students, staff and government think about indirect stakeholders, such as employers, parents of students, the wider academic community and inspection bodies.
What are the key achievements of your research?
This will clearly be more critical in research-focused institutions. As well as your research profile (major publications, citations, awards etc) you should mention the impact of your research within and outside the academic community and how you plan to develop your research further. Positive results from formal ranking exercises (such as the RAE) should also be mentioned. Bear in mind that the panel may include non-academics so ensure that you explanation can be followed by a non-specialist.
How do your research interests fit with our dept research profile?
This should be straightforward to research in advance. As well as mentioning what you could contribute to particular research groups, you can mention any areas where you could contribute to interdisciplinary research with other departments at this institution.
What courses are you able to offer?
As well as courses you have previously delivered, think about areas where you have the competence and interest but where there may be a gap in their current offering. Make it clear at what level you are able to offer modules: undergraduate, masters, part time open courses and so on as well as PhD supervision.
What experience do you have of curriculum design?
Mention any involvement in curriculum reviews and in developing new modules and methods of assessment (including online delivery and VLEs). You might discuss the rationale for any changes and the practical issues that have to be addressed. Be prepared for questions on ways in which you think the curriculum could be developed further at your present place of work and in the new department.
What experience do you have with Masters/ PhD students?
Research the student profile of your target employer so you know the groups of students most likely to be of interest. As well as lecturing or designing master’s modules and formal PhD supervision, you can mention additional responsibilities with this group, such as personal tutoring and involvement in relevant student bodies. If you supervise PhD students, be prepared for questions on how you have helped students keep their research on track and any particularly difficult students you have supervised.
How much experience do you have with international / part time students / students from a Widening Participation background?
The questions here will reflect the particular student profile of the institution and department. As well as explaining any formal involvement with these groups, it is important to show you understand the needs and perspectives of these groups as well as the challenges presented. Think about ways in which teaching and support services might have to be adapted and try to illustrate with examples of how you have achieved this in your own work and the positive outcomes which resulted. You might also be asked how the institution can attract more students from these backgrounds.
What particular challenges do lecturers face when teaching these students?
A little prior research should reveal which systems are currently in use by your target department. Mention any involvement you have had with these or similar systems, both as a user and as in developing and testing new resources. This could include in-house and commercial VLEs, intranets and external departmental websites. You could also discuss any involvement in online communication with current and prospective students, such as the use of social media.
How do you support students who are struggling with their work?
Interviewers will be looking for evidence that you can spot when this is happening and that you have an effective approach for dealing with it. It is important to display empathy and an understanding of what might be causing student problems in their personal life. Give examples of where you have intervened and where there has been a positive outcome. You might also mention other student services to which you refer students.
How do you measure your success as a lecturer?
This is about your focus on quality and your desire for continuous improvement. As well as the usual departmental and institutional metrics, and external rankings, think about the qualitative factors which motivate you as a lecturer and how you might measure them. It is important to convey a sense that you want to measure and improve your own performance rather than wait to be evaluated by others.
What is your teaching philosophy?
You need to have given this some thought and sound clear and confident in your beliefs. You could talk in general terms about your views on the role of the lecturer and how he or she can help learners to engage and then follow this up with concrete examples of how you do this in your own work and the positive outcomes you have seen. Check out the institution’s mission and teaching philosophy beforehand so you can point out ways in which your approach mirrors that of your employers.
Explain your current research to me.
It is important that you are succinct and explain the purpose of the research as well as its methodology. If your panel includes a non-specialist (such as someone from HR) make sure your explanation is not too technical. This question tests your communication skills as well as the fit between your research and this role. An ability to communicate your research clearly is a real benefit when making funding applications. If you are unused to explaining your research verbally, you can practise on a friend.
How do your research interests fit with our department/ institute’s research programme?
Make sure you know all about the research profile of your target department (this is, in itself, a test of your research abilities!). Don’t just rely on the internet – try to speak to current researchers within the department before your interview.
What can you bring to the department/ institute?
Think in terms of your research interests and track record as well as your research skills, personal skills and qualities. Things like strong team working skills, the fact that you have been successful in grant applications or the ability to collaborate and network with colleagues in other institutions can give you an edge.
What are the potential applications of your research?
This question tests your ability to articulate your ideas, communicate the value of your research and evaluates your powers of persuasion. Explain how your research could be developed in future and about potential beneficiaries. Your answer will depend on your research subject but might include commercial applications, public benefit or quality of life issues.
What are the major developments in your field and who are the key researchers?
This is an opportunity to demonstrate deep and cutting edge knowledge in your field. Be specific and be prepared to discuss one or two recent developments in depth. You may be asked to name several leading publications, recent papers or researchers in your field.
What experience do you have of teaching and supervision?
Explain any formal roles you have held delivering seminars, supervising lab work and any PhD supervision. Point out any responsibility you have had for designing sessions or writing course materials as well as marking and assessment. You might also refer to informal roles such as one to one tutoring.
When have you had to solve a problem in relation to your research?
The interviewers may expect you to mention a technical problem in completing your research but you may also mention problems caused by, for example, insufficient resources or a problem with your supervisor. Explain what caused the problem (being careful not to criticise your previous employer), explain how you tackled the problem step by step and stress the positive outcome. Finish by reflecting on what you have learnt from the experience, and anything you would do differently in future.
What resources are available at this and other institutions that you might want to exploit?
Find out how your target institution supports researchers and think about how you might use these services (such as grant writing or training). As well as formal support mechanisms, think about opportunities for joint research and networking within and outside the institution, including with any partner institutions.
How have you worked effectively with others to complete your research?
Team working and the ability to collaborate are important skills for researchers. Have some concrete examples ready of how you have been proactive in working with others and how this has helped your research. Mention how you have supported colleagues and more junior researchers.
What have you learnt from other researchers?
This is partly about your ability to learn and the self awareness to realise that you are not perfect. As well as specific research techniques and methodologies, you might mention the different approaches you have seen to the research process. Show that you have reflected on how you can implement improvements to your own work and the results of your efforts.
What can you bring to the department/ institution?
Focus on what you feel you can offer which differentiates you from other candidates (you have already proved that you meet the essentials of the person specification.) As well as a strong research and teaching profile, you might have experience in particular research area which represents a gap in their offering or which is growing in importance for the department. You might have substantial experience with relevant student groups or particular skills in departmental management. Consider what your career history says about you and what you might be able to translate across from previous institutions and posts.
How do you think your research interests will fit with what we are doing here?
Thorough research into the research profile of the department will pay dividends here, including speaking to senior staff in the department before the interview. Think about which research group(s) you might join and how you might contribute. Consider any links between your research and other academics and research bodies within/linked with the institution. Make sure you are aware of the institution’s and department’s strategic plan (an increased emphasis on improving world rankings, industry links or attracting more postgraduate researchers, for example) and are aware of ways in which your own work might help them achieve it.
What is your publications strategy?
A straightforward question where you can discuss scheduled publications as well as publications you plan to approach with work in progress. Be prepared to talk generally about the leading publications in your field and how you intend to increase your contribution to these and improve your international profile.
How do you propose to fund the next stage of your research?
As well as grant applications already made and bids in progress, you can mention awarding bodies you intend to target and how you will go about this as well as any ideas for research consortia. Be prepared to talk about what you have done previously to ensure funding applications are successful and any experience with gaining funding from European or international bodies. Where relevant, you might mention other sources of income generation such as funding from industry, government and institutional benefactors. Ensure you are aware of any research funding support services offered by your target employer.
What strategies do you think are most effective in engaging students?
You can talk here from personal experience, reflecting on your own teaching philosophy as well as good practice you have seen used by elsewhere in your institution. Think beyond the classroom as well (online learning, for example) and consider how you will evaluate the level of student engagement and the effectiveness of the learning.
What will be your immediate priorities in your first academic year?
This question is testing the fit between your values and the institution’s values, as well as your level of focus, strategic thinking and project management skills. It is most likely to be asked for roles with significant responsibility for staff and resource management. You need to show you have a clear plan of action which is line with the department and institution’s strategy and that you have thought about what you will need to implement it. Make clear how you will seek and incorporate the views of important stakeholders in determining priorities.
What support do you require from the institution?
Ensure you can back up your proposals with ideas on the level of staffing, budgets and administrative support which will require in the new role, including support from elsewhere in the institution. Be prepared to justify your case, referring to your experience in previous roles and any new challenges you expect to face (such as rising student numbers or demands of external bodies).
How have you brought the results of your research to the attention of a wider audience?
This question is about your ability to market yourself, your research and, by implication, your department and institution. You need to show that you have a plan for improving your research profile and demonstrating the potential impact of your research, including to those outside the academic community. Any experience of dealing with the media, as well as successfully bidding for grants from non-academic bodies, are also worth mentioning.
When have you had to balance academic excellence with the limitations of finite resources?
This assesses your ability to create more with less. Prepare some examples of how you have increased operational efficiency or managed to deliver quality programmes despite reductions in headcount or funding. Mention any additional income you have been able to generate and any creative ideas for sharing resources or introducing lean processes you have introduced or supported. The panel may also be testing your ability to stay positive in the light of diminishing resources.
How would you improve the student experience here?
Ensure you are familiar with the most recent student experience survey at your target institution and department. Focus on areas which you know to be an issue for your employer. Show you appreciate the ways in which student expectations are changing. Ideally, give concrete examples of how you have improved the student experience in key areas at your current and previous institutions. You can also mention improvements that other institutions have introduced that you think might work here. Be prepared to be quizzed on the cost and other implications of any changes and how you might secure the necessary agreement and funding within the institution.
What made you decide to study for a PhD?
You must portray your decision as a considered choice – never imply that you were swayed by a tutor’s recommendation or that you preferred a PhD to other unappealing options (such as working in industry). Positive reasons might include that you have a passion for your subject and want to study it in more depth, that you enjoy the research process or that you have your heart set as a career as an academic/researcher where a PhD is an important first step. Show you understand what being a PhD student is like and explain how you feel you are suited to the role and what you could bring to the department.
Why do you want to do your PhD at this department / in this institution?
Focus on the match between your research interests and the research profile of the department. You can also mention why you wish to work with a particular supervisor and the specialist resources available. If you have studied in the department/institution as an undergraduate or master’s student, explain what you like about it (academically rather than socially). You can mention the academic reputation of the department but it is better to do this in concrete terms (Research Assessment ratings, a tutor’s recommendation or improving league table positions ) rather than making sweeping statements such as ‘This University has a great reputation’.
Explain your Undergraduate/ Masters Dissertation to me.
This is an opportunity to explain your research interests and demonstrate enthusiasm, and sets the scene for more probing technical questions. It is also a way of testing the quality of your communication skills, particularly your ability to explain a technical topic to a non-specialist audience (your panel may someone from outside the department). Try to keep your answer brief and test it out on someone you know with no background in your subject.
What do you see as the potential applications of your proposed research?
This tests your ability to think beyond the technical and to consider the wider impact of your research. Think about potential commercial or public interest applications and ways in which your research could link with other disciplines (this is something you can research in advance.) Think about potential future developments in your field as well as current applications. Try to sound persuasive – as an academic/researcher you will often need to persuade funding bodies of the critical nature and potential applications of your research.
How do you intend to carry out your research?
If you are applying for a funded PhD, you may already have been given some direction on how the department expects the research to be carried out. This is a chance to show how you will plan and organise your research. Mention what institutional and external resources you can exploit, how you might network or work alongside other researchers and whether you can involve outside industry or other organisations. It is helpful too to show you have thought about any potential problems you might face and how you might tackle them.
What experience do you have of teaching or supervising others?
You may be asked this if there is an element of undergraduate teaching or lab supervision expected of PhD students in your department. If you don’t have formal teaching experience, then you can mention informal tutoring you may have done or other relevant experience (such as supervising students during extra-curricular activities or having completed a presentation skills course).
What have you gained from your work experience?
Consider how any part time or summer jobs you have held have improved your skills in relevant areas. This could include teamwork, leadership, time management or communication skills and you should explain how these skills will be useful to you during your PhD. If you have been employed in a relevant field, even better – mention any technical knowledge and skills you picked up. Where your PhD has industrial or commercial applications, it can also be helpful to show that you understand the perspective of people outside the academic environment.
Tell me about when you have to complete research as part of a team. What did you contribute?
You may well be expected to complete research as part of a team and you will certainly be expected to communicate well with others in your research group. Group projects during your undergraduate or master’s degree can often provide useful material here. Make sure you mention what you personally contributed to the group. If you haven’t been involved in group research, you could mention other team working experiences such as student societies and clubs.
How do you keep up to date with research in your field?
Mention particular publications you follow (be prepared to discuss recent items of particular interest), online research you have conducted, conferences attended and planned and networking you do – not only in connection with formal research projects but also activities you have undertaken purely from interest. Be prepared to give detailed examples of developments in your area of research and to comment on who the leading researchers and academics are in your field.
How do you intend to finance your studies?
This would normally be asked of self-funded candidates or those receiving only partial funding. You need to demonstrate that you have done your sums and are aware of the total costs of undertaking the PhD including incidentals (such as equipment, travel to conferences etc) and living costs. If you intend to fund your study through working, be specific about how you intend to find a job, your legal eligibility to work (where relevant) and, crucially, how you intend to juggle your hours with your academic commitments. If you have applied for any bursaries or formal financial assistance you should state this, including whether your acceptance of the PhD will be dependent on any award.
How should we respond to the current pressures faced by Higher Education institutions (e.g. in the UK?)
You might start by summarising what you believe current and emerging pressures to be, highlighting those which are particularly relevant to your target employer (e.g. more competition for students, government interest in widening participation, squeeze on funding etc). Be prepared to give concrete examples of how you have coped well with these pressures, particularly where you have been particularly creative or resourceful. You may then be asked a follow up question of how you would respond to these pressures if recruited to this job.
How has your work contributed to the Institution’s Strategy?
This is most likely to be asked in an internal interview. Make sure you have an in-depth understanding of the Institution’s and the department’s mission and long term plans. As well as reading strategy documents, ask insiders what they believe to be the Institution’s priorities. Have examples ready of specific activities which have helped you deliver the strategy, especially those you have initiated yourself. Mention any involvement you have in developing or evaluating strategy in your present job.
If you were the VC/ Registrar/ Head of Department here, what changes would you introduce and why?
This is a tricky balance between proving that you can be innovative whilst not challenging the status quo. It is best to pick one or two issues which the Institution already recognises need improvement. Prepare some specific ideas which you can discuss in some depth, including an estimation of the likely impact and resources required. It is particularly helpful to provide some evidence of where your current Institution/Department has implemented similar reforms successfully, particularly where you have been personally responsible for their introduction. It is also helpful to research what the Institution or Department’s close competitors are doing in these areas.
What will be your priorities in this role?
This question evaluates your strategic vision and planning skills. It is helpful to give an idea of timescales as well as which are the most important activities, along with the resources required. Your priorities clearly need to match the strategy and values of your organisation, so ensure that you are fully aware of these. Mention how you will seek the input of key stakeholders and how you will evaluate and review your progress. It can be helpful to show an understanding that priorities may need to shift over time to accommodate changes in the external environment.
What experience do you have of motivating staff through change?
It is important to show empathy with the needs and views of different staff groups, although recognising that organisational realities sometimes have to drive change. Explain what you think the role of a line manager is in helping staff to accept and adapt to change and give examples of specific initiatives you have implemented to ease the process. It can be helpful to give an example of how you have worked with a particularly recalcitrant individual in order to motivate them through a change programme.
What is your management style?
You need to show a clear management philosophy, with examples of how you have put this into practice. This could cover how you motivate, lead and develop others, as well as how you manage performance. You can back up your assertions with specific feedback from subordinates or other evidence, such as the promotion of members of your team, a successful downsizing initiative or low staff turnover and absence. This question also tests your self awareness and your understanding of the potential downsides, as well as benefits, of your approach.
What experience do you have of reducing costs? And of income generation?
Give evidence of any targets you have met and how you achieved them. More impressive still is to show how you have set your own stretching targets for operational efficiencies and income generation, particularly where these have involved creative ideas, sharing resources or learning from other managers and organisations.
What are your views on how we communicate and market our work to stakeholders?
Whenever you are asked a question about your approach to something, always be prepared to back it up with examples. Outline who you think the key stakeholders are for this post and refer to any experience in successfully building relationships with these groups. Show you understand what is important to these stakeholders and what mechanisms you have found helpful to communicate with them, including both formal and informal means. You might end by explaining any ways in which the needs of these groups are changing and how you might respond.
How can central and academic departments work more effectively together?
Show you understand the different perspectives and priorities of both parties and point out the benefits of close working relationships. Give some examples of the issues that can arise and how you have successfully resolved these in the past, illustrating with concrete examples. If you are fortunate enough to have worked on both sides of the organisation, explain how this experience will help you in your work.
What are your learning and development needs in this role?
This is often asked in senior roles to ensure that the candidate is aware of the need for continuous improvement and professional development. It is fine to mention specific areas where you are a little weak or inexperienced related to the person specification, provided you have some ideas – and a commitment – to how you might remedy this. In fact, this can help dispel any reservations the panel has about your suitability. If your development plan requires specific resources, or external training, then ensure these are fully researched. You can also discuss how the job may be changing and the ways in which you will need to develop yourself to stay on top of its demands.
What do you think this role involves?
This question is designed to check how much research you have done into the job, and how realistic you are about the position. As well as summarising the purpose and key tasks of the job, this is a great opportunity to remind the interviewer how similar this role is to your current position. You can say something at the end like “I expect there will be a large element of xyz. Of course, I have a lot of experience of xyz. Would you like me to say more about that?”
What are your organisation skills like?
Although this is couched in general terms, it is really a competency question. It is asking for evidence that you have strong organisational skills and queries the kinds of things you have organised. Be specific. Mention a key activity or project you have organised recently (the more relevant to the new job the better) and explain how you went about planning it and keeping everything on track. If you had to organise other staff, liaise with other teams or acquire particular resources, then mention this too.
When have you gone beyond what was expected of you?
Normally you would use a work example to illustrate this, although you can also mention activities outside work if they illustrate well your ability to take the initiative. This question is also about your ability to deliver great service and set yourself high standards. Demonstrate that quality is important to you and give a specific example of when you have gone the extra mile (perhaps staying late to finish a job or thinking of a better way to perform an office task).
What IT skills do you have?
Do some research before the interview, if possible, to find out the IT systems used in this new job? Mention any experience of or training in these systems. Also mention general IT training and proficiency you have in e.g. Microsoft Office, web design and so on as well as any qualifications in computer science. Give examples of how you have used IT to deliver work or improve systems. If you use IT outside work (for example, if you have your own blog or have helped your grandparents understand the internet) then this can provide further evidence that you are IT literate. Always show an understanding of the importance of technology in organisations and enthusiasm for improving your skills in this area.
When have you delivered excellent service to customers or users?
You need to show that you understand the needs of customers or users and the purpose of the service you provide from their point of view. Give a couple of examples of where you have gone beyond the bare minimum to satisfy their needs and mention any positive feedback that you received.
How would your colleagues describe you?
This is all about how well you would fit into the new team, as well as your level of self-awareness. Think about your strengths as a colleague and team member and be prepared to give examples of these in action. Ideally, come up with three strong words to describe what you bring to your department. If you’re not sure then, as part of your interview preparation, ask a close friend or colleague for feedback about your good points.
What will be your training needs in this post?
Look at the job advert and person specification and be honest about your level of skill and experience in each area. Highlight any areas where extra training would help. This could include formal training courses (check out what is available) as well as learning on the job. Don’t be afraid to mention a couple of areas where you would benefit from a bit of extra training. You wouldn’t be at the interview unless the employer felt you met their basic requirements, and you will get credit for taking your personal development seriously. But make it clear that you have the competence already to perform the key tasks of the job, at least at a basic level.
What do you think is important in this job?
This question checks out that there is a good match between your values and priorities and those of the employer. Think about the main purpose of the job, what key stakeholders require of it and what skills and qualities you really need to do it well.
When have you shown great attention to detail?
This question is about your ability to deliver a quality service without close supervision. Explain why you think that detail is important and the consequences of inaccuracies. Give examples of how you ensure that your work is correct (for example, proofreading documents or building in extra time to check work).
Do you have any experience in supervising others?
Even if you don’t have direct line management experience, you may have had to supervise temporary staff, volunteers or students from time to time. You can also mention any areas where you have trained or inducted new staff. If this is an area where you have had limited exposure, then express an interest in gaining more experience in this area.
Share this article