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I am looking to start a PhD project soon and I have almost decided on the group in which I will apply. But I know that I am a very sensitive person when it comes to any work atmosphere. I have to feel comfortable where I don't work alone in the corner of a room for 4 years.

What are telltale signs of the academic work atmosphere? When I visit the group with the professor, will he let me ask questions to students already there? What should I ask and to whom?

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    I would probably be a bad sign if the professor does not let you talk to your possibly future co-workers. As to what to ask them, identify the conditions that allow you to feel right while working and try to see if these conditions are met. Finally, do not forget that a PhD is also a human experience and try to figure out if some of the people there share your hobbies or interests. – PatW Sep 4 '13 at 8:10
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    Do the groups have regular seminars? Perhaps see if you could sit in and gauge the atmosphere there. – user7130 Sep 4 '13 at 8:44
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    Don't work for this guy: lettersofnote.com/2011/03/… – Anonymous Sep 4 '13 at 11:42
  • @Anonymous Unless you are a workaholic yourself. Also, my wife is a medical person and the attitude that you shouldn't leave your workplace until all today's tasks are completed even if it results in your coming home around 2 AM is not unusual there. You can say that the difference is that the treatment of patients is something that cannot wait, but not everyone lives in this world only and considers humans as the only things worth making sacrifices for. – fedja Sep 5 '13 at 2:50
  • Considering the increased mistake rate when you're tired combined with the high risk to humans those ridiculous working times in medicine are even more irresponsible than those in most other professions. – CodesInChaos Sep 5 '13 at 17:48
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  1. First off, if the professor is reluctant to have you talk to members of the group, this is a huge red flag.

  2. When you visit, ask if you can sit in on lab meetings or seminars (some group setting) and observe the dynamic. Does everyone seem engaged and happy to be there? Is the mood collaborative and friendly, or authoritarian? Basically, put yourself there and ask yourself if you'd be comfortable.

  3. Ask the professor about their advising style and philosophy. Some like to be very involved, some want their students to be independent. Make sure their answer works for you.

  4. Most important one, in my opinion: contact a few of the other students independently, tell them you are coming to visit, and offer to take them out for a coffee or beer. This is an opportunity to ask them, in a relaxed non-work setting, about what they like and don't like about working in the lab. Do not tell the professor what the students are thinking, in any case.

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    Ask the supervisor to speak to the student without the supervisor present; any response other than an immediate "Oh, of course!" is a red flag. Also be sure to talk with the supervisor's secretary/assistant (if they have one). – JeffE Sep 5 '13 at 2:32
  • @JeffE what would you ask the supervisor's assistant? I have no idea – Jim Sep 5 '13 at 10:05
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    "Thanks for arranging my travel! How do you like working here? Are people generally happy? What do you think of your boss?" – JeffE Sep 5 '13 at 14:35
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Contact the people who left the group, either by graduating with a PhD, finishing their post-docs, or through getting tired of it, and find out about their experiences. You can find their names on the group/professor website either explicitly under "students" / "post-docs", or by looking through the list of co-authors/publications. In all likelihood, they will be more independent in their judgments than the current members of the group who are financially dependent on the leader -- at least those doing their PhDs and post-docs. There is no point whatsoever in asking grad students about how they feel in the group in the presence of their adviser -- you will get them in an awkward position, and the leader will definitely raise a brow about you. Besides, the grad students usually don't have any other experience, anyway, so they have no reference point to say whether their atmosphere is better or worse than the average across the field. The "graduates" of the group will have at least one more work group to relate to.

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  1. Did you decide on which project you will be working on? Did you propose it (freedom, at the cost of being on your own), did you get assigned to it (as a worker), or did you plan it with the professor (teamwork)? Chances are that whatever happened during this phase will carry on during the PhD.
  2. How central to the supervisor's own work is the question you are going to work on? This will massively influence how much support you get from him, especially when competing with other team members for resources.
  3. It is very important to find out how the team handles results that go against their main hypotheses/theories/assumptions. Do they pour in resources to discover whether they should abandon their preconceptions, do they assign you to another less threatening line of research, or do they put pressure on you until you give them the "right" result?
  4. Do people help each other to conduct their work, or do every person concentrate on their own work?
  5. Check the order of authors on their papers. Do the people who actually worked get first authorship, or do the most senior post-doc get first authorship, the head of the lab gets last, and everybody else gets authorship in order of seniority (BAD!)?
  6. On conferences and social occasions, does the team hang together (whether alone or mixing with other teams), or does the lab head leave the students aside and goes looking for "important people" to talk to?
  7. Do the team enjoy their own time together? Do past team members still nurture personal friendships with the lab head/team members? Do you know of closet skeletons, team mates turned enemies?
  8. The most important: Do people, including the professor, look happy? If they don't, run for your life!
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In our group, potential new starters are more than encouraged to talk to current postgrads - for example we normally take them out to lunch when they come to interview/present, without the academics in the group present. This works both ways - a group that works as a team will want members that fit into the team. If you are asked to present to the group at interview, that's inherently a good see (IMO), but the tone of a question session after that is a good gauge - not the supervisor's questions, but how the rest of the group ask questions in front of him/her.

You can get a feel for the dynamic of the group without asking directly - find out about whether they do stuff together out of work, for example.

Checking the order of authors as suggested by dmvianna is a good idea, but you need to do that in the context of the field - e.g. in my area of applied physics, postgrads generally do experiment+analysis+writing and are first author. My perception of particle physics is rather different.

Your worry about being isolated is certainly valid, I feel very lucky in the group and department I'm in, when talking to people elsewhere in the university they are often quite lonely in their work.

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    Note: the group doing stuff together out of work isn't necessarily a good sign... It can, for example, mean that they don't get enough time out of work to have any other friends. – Aesin Sep 4 '13 at 20:38
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    Definitely agree with Chris H about being perceptive of the context of the field when checking order of authors. But again, if you choose a field where you won't get first authorship during your PhD, be aware that you will have a hard time justifying that to future employers/funding agencies who are not savvy in that field. – dmvianna Sep 5 '13 at 1:28
  • @Aesin a good if pessimistic point! However in that case they may be too sick of each others' company to spend any more time together. But you also don't want too much pressure to join in - sometimes you just want to get on with your own stuff (work or otherwise). – Chris H Sep 5 '13 at 7:19
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You also need to realize that your behavior during the tour of the group is also a way for your potential advisor to see how you interact with other scientists. It will also be (if you take the position) your first contact with your future team mates! So be sure to show interest, take your time, ask questions… don't rush it!

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