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After a long and nerve-racking application season, I have finally managed to get into one of my top-choice PhD programs. As luck would have it, one of the recent alumnae of the same PhD program happens to be an assistant professor at my current university (though our research areas are slightly different, and she had a different advisor in that program).

Following the advice of my current MA advisor, I have set up a meeting with this alumna to get information from her about the program. I have tried to think of some basic questions to ask her, such as how much flexibility is allowed to the students with regard to taking courses, choosing co-advisors, as well as about how the PhD process works, what the most important milestones are and what particular challenges one should be wary of, etc.

But I understand that there may be many other questions that are hiding in plain sight for me, simply because I am a "greenhorn" graduate student. I believe that there are more experienced PhD students (as well as PhD degree holders) on this website, and I was wondering, after all those years you have spent as a PhD student, what would you wish you had asked a former alumnus/alumna before starting your program? I am especially interested in knowing which questions you think are "the important questions that almost nobody thinks of asking."

Thank you!

P.S. I have already accepted the admission offer, so I will be asking this alumna for advice on how to be successful in that program, not on whether I should choose this program or a different one.

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    Are you trying to evaluate the program (you may choose another one) or position yourself for success, given you will attend the program? – Dawn Mar 4 '18 at 12:55
  • Thank you for asking this! I should have clarified this point. I have already accepted the admission offer, so yes, I am looking for tips that will help me become successful in that program. – Freya Mar 4 '18 at 13:00
  • Any internal politics in the department or between another department. – mkennedy Mar 4 '18 at 16:36
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You have a good start (how much flexibility is allowed to the students with regard to taking courses, choosing co-advisors, as well as about how the PhD process works, what the most important milestones are and what particular challenges one should be wary of). Note that how the PhD process works is something you might want to leave out because the department materials should already lay that out, and it might take up a lot of valuable time for her to explain that in your interview. But do make sure to read all the department materials before you meet with her.

I'll propose some questions to add to your list, but there are probably some things I'm not thinking of, and also you'll want to select a subset of these ideas, since it might be overwhelming to ask all of them.

  • Write a list of the key members of the cast of characters. Give her a copy of the list when you meet with her, and take your own notes about what she says. Ask her which of the names will likely be the most helpful for you over the years, and which ones have pet peeves to watch out for (and what the pet peeves are, of course). Also ask her what other people might be important to know about, that you left off your list.

  • Advice for preparing for your qualifying exams.

  • Advice about course load (two courses vs. three).

  • Advice about work-life balance.

  • What do you wish you had known before you started at X University?

  • Tips for surviving TAing.

  • How to stay safe while working late and on the weekend on campus.

  • Suggestions for creating a support network.

  • What to do between now and then to prepare.

  • Fun things to do on campus and nearby (this will get your interviewee comfortable, taking a pleasurable walk down memory lane -- so it might be a good one to ask at the one-third point).

The more questions one asks, the more one might convey an attitude of anxiety. But I personally think it's only sensible to ask questions. Therefore I suggest that you try to keep the conversation light with plenty of humor, to counteract the possible anxious impression.

  • Wow, this is brilliant advice! I'll follow your tips when I meet her. Thank you very much for taking the time to write this! – Freya Mar 4 '18 at 16:48

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