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I was accepted to a PhD program, and the two professors I mentioned in my application have reached out to me to discuss research. Now I am wondering what is the best way to gather information on them. Is it considered odd to cold email a recently graduated student from the program? Or current students? I'll likely be in the same community as these people for awhile so don't want to be considered strange ... Basically, almost all the PhD advice I've come across stresses the importance of talking to an advisor's students. But how do I contact these people? I will be visiting the school but am not sure I will have time to both meet with all of the faculty I'm interested in and their students.

  • At what point do you have to choose an advisor? – Bryan Krause Feb 7 at 18:49
  • The initial assignment seems to be made quite early (before matriculation), and then they must confirm it by the end of the year. – intern_xyz123 Feb 7 at 23:41
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This is an opinion and you may get opposite opinions, of course. If it is weird, it is only a little weird. I think it is something worth doing, actually. "How is Prof X to work with? Does s/he provide a lot of help or only a little. Any thing I should be aware of?"

There is very little worse in doctoral education than having a poor or abusive advisor. All you really need to know is that they treat students appropriately, even if they are (very) demanding.

You can find a lot of horror stories about advisors by searching/browsing around this site.

But just keep it informal.

I don't recommend cold calling professors, but would treat calling students differently.

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Is it considered odd to cold email a recently graduated student from the program?

This is sometimes encouraged by the professors themselves. When I was applying for a PhD, a professor told me to contact his current student should I have any question about the lab, the school, the city and so on.

Back to your question, I think it's good to contact former PhD student. If they had a very good or very bad experience, they would be very eager to tell (or complain to) you.

In many countries, e.g. US, UK, the PhD theses are publicly available for download. And you can have some information from the Acknowledgements in their theses.

  • Did they thank their advisor passionately?
  • Did they thank their advisor for "always being available for discussions" or "allow them the freedom to do their research", or just "introduce the problem". You know the implications.
  • Did they thank other people in the lab, in particular fellow PhD students?
  • ...

If there is no acknowledgement, that's the worst.

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    I doubt the details of the acknowledgements section of a thesis are all that informative. – Bryan Krause Feb 7 at 19:52
  • @Bryan, I actually think the exact opposite. I know students with poor advisors in my program typically thank the advisor in very cold and formal language. This is a great suggestion in my book. – Dawn Feb 7 at 21:16
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    @Dawn Interesting. I just wouldn't trust that people put that much thought into the message their acknowledgement conveys, especially when people who are afraid of their advisor are still dependent on letters of rec etc around the time they are writing their acknowledgment, and people who trust their advisor a lot aren't worried about brief praise being anything but genuine. I just think an informal conversation is much more likely to be fruitful. – Bryan Krause Feb 7 at 21:40
  • This is the only answer that doesn't imply that it is weird to contact former student. It is certainly NOT weird! I've been contacted and I've answered very honestly. The idea of looking at thanks is dissertation is interesting, but conversation/email is better. – Emilie Feb 8 at 14:04
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It's a little weird but understandable why you want to do it.

If you could sidle up to it a little, I advise that. Start with current students and do the discussions one on one (and not written, telephone or in person). Ask a set of general questions (field, department, university, town) and include the advisor relations question(s) as a subset.

If you contact previous students, I would send a general email (thinking about doing research in X subfield, like to get your perspective) and ask to have a conversation. [If you know there number, I would go direct to a phone call...leave a composed, short voicemail. If you get them direct, just ask for a time to talk to them (so it is not sprung on them to consume their time immediately.] Then same advice for current students as before applies. Ideally, you may have some point of contact with the old students (shared network, same undergrad, etc.) to make it a little less cold. But given you are not hitting them immediately with the questions, just the request to talk, I don't think a cold outreach is unreasonable.

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I feel the other answers are not stated strongly enough. Yes, it is weird, but you should absolutely do it. You can use this method of cold-emailing:

Subject: Your work with Prof. X

Dear Dr. ____,

I am contacting you because you were a student of Prof. X. I am considering joining the group of Prof. X at ___ University. I would like to get a PhD in (specialty) and pursue a career in (whatever industry). Do you have any advice for me?

I will keep your advice confidential.

Thank you in advance

Your name

Generally when I do this I get a prompt response telling me how wonderful Prof. X is. If you get other results, do not work with Prof. X. While you are doing your cold-emailing, take note of the jobs Prof. X's students have. Are those the jobs you want? If not, find an advisor who can help you get those jobs.

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