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?
- Typically, advisors who don’t have tenure yet will be more hands-on while those who have tenure can afford to be more hands-off.
How is the group organized?
- How many students are there? Do students work on individual projects, or do they work together on larger projects?
- Do students have individual offices? Offices with a few students? Large open spaces?
- Do students work with the advisor directly, or is there a hierarchy of postdocs, senior scientists, and such?
What does the advisor expect from students?
- Are students expected to come up with research ideas? Does the advisor already have projects for upcoming students?
- How often are students expected to submit a paper?
- How often do students meet with the advisor? What is the purpose of these meetings?
- Does the advisor work with the students? Are they involved in writing papers?
- “What distinguishes a great student from a good one?” and “What are you looking for in a student?” are good questions to ask a potential advisor
What’s the group culture like?
- How often does the group meet for formal meetings? What is the purpose of these meetings?
- Do students often have lunch, breaks, or drinks together? Do the advisor and other group members join in?
- Does the group have outings together?
- Do people come early to work? Stay late? Do they often work remotely? When are they expected to be reachable and by what means?
What funding would you be on?
- Is the funding guaranteed to last for the entire duration of your PhD?
- What if the funding runs out?
- Does the funding imply any obligations, such as working on a specific topic or going to specific events?
Is the advisor open to co-advising?
- If so, with who? Under what arrangements for desk space, supervision, and so on?
- Has the advisor co-advised students already?
What tasks are there besides research?
- Do students TA the advisor’s courses? If so, what roles do they have? Can they take on greater roles, such as lecturing, if they want to?
- Are students expected to help run the group, such as doing some IT work?
- Does the group have software engineers, sysadmins, statisticians, or other full-time employees that are not researchers?
How often do students attend conferences?
- Do students attend conferences they do not have papers in? Under which conditions?
What kind of collaborations does the group do?
- Do students do internships? What kind?
- Does the advisor have specific contacts for collaborations and internships?
- Does the advisor frequently collaborate with specific people?
What happens when students struggle?
- Have any previous students in the group dropped out? Why?
- What does the advisor expect from struggling students?
- What support is there for students struggling with either research or personal life?
Where do students go after they graduate?
- Academia? Industry? Startups? Specific companies?
What will the group look like in 5 years?
- Is the advisor planning a sabbatical? A startup?
- Is the advisor actively hiring more students? Planning a hiring freeze?
How does the university compare to [other university who made you an offer]?
- Do the research or internship opportunities differ?
- Is the environment significantly different in terms of everyday life?
Ask questions about recent work if you’re interested.
- If you have genuine and specific questions about the advisor’s recent work, ask them, this is a great way to show interest.
This page was partly inspired by a guide written by Andrew Kuznetsov.