Career Advice

The best answers to “Why do you want to do a PhD?”

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?”

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
  • societal or environmental ambitions
  • self-development
  • (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!

Example

“During my undergraduate studies in Media and Psychology, I got introduced to the topic of pathological technology addictions. I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on the prevalence of pathological technology use in teenagers, which is arguably increasing. As part of my research, I interviewed health care providers. I found these interviews fascinating! My interviewees’ notions of what constitutes a pathological technology addiction differed a lot. Now I am really curious to find out how the views of individual healthcare providers influence the diagnosis and treatment options for teenagers. So much remains to be learned about technology addictions, which is why I want to do a PhD in this area.”

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?

Example

“I have always been interested in sustainability, but watching the documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’ really impacted me. I don’t know if you have seen this documentary, but it discusses the effects of plastic pollution in our oceans. The effects are shocking, as you know… but what I liked about this documentary is that it also features possible solutions in terms of technologies to address this problem. The documentary introduced me to these technologies and I have used the last two years to learn more about them. I believe that we need to ramp up our efforts for ocean cleanups, and this PhD position is a great opportunity for me to contribute to the enhancement of these technologies.”

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.

Example

“I always enjoyed doing research. During my undergraduate studies, I enjoyed writing essays and papers that involved primary data collection and I decided to follow a research-based master’s degree, which allowed me to complete a more extensive independent research project. However, I always struggled with the short-term nature of the research that I was conducting. I think that to really explore a topic in-depth, you need more than a few months. So the idea of pursuing a PhD over three years sounds very appealing to me. I think doing a PhD would help me to become a better researcher. I could develop my research skills, learn more about quantitative data collection, learn how to manage a long-term project and become a better academic writer.”

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.

Example

“I want to do a PhD because ultimately, I want to work as a university professor. I had a few great professors during my own studies. They were able to give engaging lectures, and share so much knowledge while being approachable and supportive. That really inspired me. I also like to conduct research, especially in collaborative projects. So I think doing a PhD is the right course of action for me.”

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