A few weeks back, my graduate group had its prospective student weekend, where all the top ranked applicants get to come and meet professors and current students. Meeting and greeting all these hopeful students got me and a few others thinking about the process of choosing a graduate adviser. STS wrote a bit about how to find and contact prospective PIs in the past, but that post doesn’t touch on how to make a decision once you have a few professors interested in working with you. In many academic fields, your relationship with your major professor is the most important professional relationship you will have for many, many years. Even when you earn your degree, a prospective employer will still want to know what your mentor thought of you. So, it’s crucial to choose a person who you feel will not only aid your academic growth, but who you are generally compatible with on a personal level. You don’t need to be BFFs, but things like having drastically mismatched communication styles, academic expectations, or assumptions about levels of involvement can make the road to degree completion much more hazardous. And, on a broader scale, it’s really not worth it to work with Bigshot-Publishes-Yearly-In-Nature if they are unkind, unhelpful, or unavailable.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of pretty well every question I have ever asked, been asked, or wished I’d asked during the process of choosing a graduate mentor. I’ve divided it into three main groups: questions to ask the professor, questions to ask graduate students in their lab, and questions to ask any graduate student in the program. You certainly don’t have to ask all these things, but do a little soul searching beforehand and think about what really matters to you. You are making a commitment to work with someone regularly for the next several years. Sure, they are interviewing you, but you are also interviewing them.
Despite the fact that this list is long, it’s obviously not exhaustive. Give more suggestions in the comments below!
Questions to Ask the Professor
Okay, it’s time to put your big-person pants on and get serious. Asking thoughtful questions will make you more memorable, and nothing is worse than getting to that point in the interview when they ask, “Do you have any questions for me?” and coming up dry. Plus, this is going to be one of the most important people in your life for the next 4-6 years. When I was having these talks before choosing a PhD program, I compared it to going on lots of first dates.
What can I expect from you/the program as far as funding and support?
I know it’s awkward, but it's very important and it shows you mean business when you ask about money, so just do it. Make sure and think long term. Don’t just worry about year one, ask how you might expect to be funded for the entire duration of your degree. Answers like, “I expect my students to apply for external fellowships.” are normal, but it’s good to know that sort of thing up front.
What can I expect as far as lab or field support? Do they employ technicians or undergraduates? Are these employees tied to certain projects exclusively?
It’s nice to know if there is a lab manager who knows where all the equipment is kept and what sort of condition it’s in currently. You also want to feel out the availability of undergraduate employees and volunteers.
How would you describe your mentoring style?
Are they hands on; are they hands off; do they view themselves as more of a boss or someone who is working with other (albeit young) professionals? You can compare how they describe themselves with how their students describe them.
How many students do you plan on concurrently mentoring?
Code for, “How much time will you have to support me when I need you?” or “How many other people do I have to fight for your money?”
What are your day-to-day expectations?
Some advisers want to meet once a week, some once a month, some only when you need them. Some people expect to see your face everyday and to know where to find you from 9-5 at the least. Others will be fine with you working from home. This is another chance to see if your personal style matches with this professor’s.
What type of skills do you expect me to come in knowing or expect me to learn during my time in your lab?
If they expect you to know R, SAS, ArcGIS, or a set of field skills and lab techniques before you begin, that’s important information. It’s likely they would have weeded you out via some of these things, but if not you need to be aware. Also, if you didn't already know what they expect during your degree, you can see if those expectations align with your interest and goals. Bonus points if you ask what resources are available in the lab/program/University for acquiring these skills.
How often and when in their graduate careers do students in the lab publish papers? What are your views about authorship on papers with students?
Are they first author on everything to come out of the lab? Are there big lab projects that everyone is involved in and get’s to be part of writing up? This is also another good gauge of the PI’s expectations of you as a student.
Thank you for meeting with me. What are the next steps I can expect?
So, you liked them. It’s fair to ask when you might hear something, or what contingencies acceptance of your application might depends on, such as departmental funding or pending grant applications.
Questions to Ask Graduate Students in the Lab:
This is equally as important as talking to the professor themselves. A few pro-tips. Talk on the phone or in person. People are more likely to be honest and candid when they don’t have to write it down. If you can, try to talk to students who have graduated; they have nothing to lose by keeping it real. Just like PIs, graduate students will ask you what you're interested in and what your experience is. Have something intelligent prepared to say (remember, your expressed interests are not a binding contract!); sometimes professors ask members of their labs for opinions about you later.
|Don't be this Rob Lowe.|
Can you describe your research? How do you feel fits in with the PI's research program?
This is a polite question to ask, and it will help you gauge other questions this student might have specific insights about for you. It can also give you hints about lab structure. Does the PI only choose students who study things closely related to their own work, or are they more open?
What is the PI's advising style?
Are they hands on; are they hands off; do they view themselves as more of a boss or someone who is working with other (albeit young) professionals? You can compare how the students describe them to how they describe themselves.
How would you describe your working relationship with the PI? With other students in the lab?
You want to find out if people collaborate in the lab group, if the PI is active in providing feedback, and if that feedback is generally helpful and constructive. Similarly, in graduate school, you learn just as much, if not more, from your peers. So, do other students in the lab collaborate or work share? Do they give helpful feedback on your ideas and work?
Do you find the PI to be approachable?
True story. Four days before my QE exam I tapped on my mentors door and had an unannounced, mini- breakdown, minus the tears thank God. I think I might have actually exploded if I hadn’t felt I could go to him for reassurance and support. It doesn’t have to be that extreme, but you do want to know if students feel comfortable approaching their major professor. You need someone you aren’t afraid to feel stupid in front of, because feeling stupid is what grad school is all about (spoiler).
How does the major professor deal with conflict?
Are they direct and reasonable? Are they passive aggressive or bat shit? This is very, very important.
How often do students start in the lab and not complete their degrees (they choose not to continue in the program, change labs, change programs, etc.)?
If the last three PhD students have moved on without getting their degrees, it might not be a problem with the students.
What is the lab culture like? How often do you have lab meetings, and what are they like?
You want to know if students are competitive with one another, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you like. You want to find out how much lab members collaborate, hang out, or work share. Asking about lab meetings can be a good way to gauge how the lab interacts as a whole.
Did you TA/RA? How difficult is it to secure TA/RA positions?
This will depend on the answer the PI gives you about funding, but if you’re going to need to TA or RA, it’s good to know how difficult it is to get those positions. It’s also a good idea to ask about the application process, because you’ll generally have to do this for your first year before you even arrive on campus.
How often do members of the lab travel to workshops or conferences? Which ones do you generally attend? Is there lab/program/University support for travel?
Have I mentioned that knowing about money is important? Here is another example of that fact. Conferences are important to your professional development, so you want to know the conferences lab members are attending and how they pay to get there.
Questions to Ask Graduate Students from the Program at Large:
In my view, who you work for is the most important choice, and the reputation of the program is secondary. However, there are some things students outside of the lab you are applying with can tell you that can be very helpful in making a final decision.
Do you know students in Professor So-and-So’s lab? How do they seem to like it?
It’s unlikely that an outside student will be really honest with you concerning their views of other professors. But, they might give helpful feedback about the general mental state of students in that lab. I’ve heard this question answered as “They seem happy,” “It seems like that professor has really high expectations,” or “Students in that lab are very productive!”
How would they describe the culture of students within the program?
Are students within the program competitive with one another, or is the atmosphere collegial? My own opinion is that you want to come out of your graduate education with a bunch of smart colleagues, not a bunch of people you have been trying to outdo for 4-6 years.
How would you describe the attitude of professors toward students in the program?
Are professors within the program competitive with one another, or is the atmosphere collegial? This will obviously influence the attitude of the students in the program. You also want to gauge how easy it is to collaborate or meet with professors other than your major professor. Is there an open door policy? Do professors generally make time for students?
How would you describe the administrative and University support available to the program?
Is there a great office staffer who knows all about all the paperwork? Is the person who administers grants for your graduate group super helpful, or not? If students generally feel like they struggle to find answers for programmatic questions, that will be a pain you should be prepared to deal with if you choose that program.
Is there an active student group for the program or for graduate students at large on the campus?
Ideally, you want there to be a feedback mechanism between the students in the program and the faculty, staff, and administration. A good student group provides this. A situation where you have a voice is always a better situation.
What is the social scene within the program?
Sometimes, graduate school will make you feel like a cotton-headed ninny muggins. If students get together for happy hour, play intramural sports together, or love game nights, it will give you a chance to check in with other people who are sharing your experience. Because you are not a cotton-headed ninny muggins.