Questions for advisors

There are plenty of aspects to a PhD that aren’t obvious to outsiders. This guide gives you a list of questions you probably want to know the answer to.

Some of these questions are answered on the advisor’s website already, and other answers can be deduced from publicly available information, such as lists of recent publications. Make sure to spend some time looking up this information before asking questions, or you risk looking foolish if the answer is obvious.

You could ask these questions before even applying, for instance if you are already in contact with a potential advisor. Even if you are not already talking to a potential advisor, it is acceptable to email a professor expressing your interest. You can typically ask them during an “open house” visit, which will have one-on-one chats between prospective students and advisors, as well as chats with existing students. If possible, talk to students on their own, without their advisor, so that you can get their point of view as well.

There are mostly no “right” answers to these questions, it’s all about matching expectations. For instance, some students prefer weekly meetings with their advisor to talk about exactly what to do, whereas others would rather meet once every few months for high-level guidance. Before meeting your potential advisor, it is a good idea to think about your desired working style, what you’re looking for socially and professionally from a lab, and what you would like from a research relationship with an advisor. This will help you gauge if the answers you receive fit an advising relationship that will work for you over many years.

Does the advisor have tenure?

How is the group organized?

What does the advisor expect from students?

What’s the group culture like?

What funding would you be on?

Is the advisor open to co-advising?

What tasks are there besides research?

How often do students attend conferences?

What kind of collaborations does the group do?

What happens when students struggle?

Where do students go after they graduate?

What will the group look like in 5 years?

How does the university compare to [other university who made you an offer]?

Ask questions about recent work if you’re interested.

This page was partly inspired by a guide written by Andrew Kuznetsov.