I want to pursue a PhD at an institution in Japan that I don't know first hand. As lab websites or personal webpages don't really reveal the personalities of professors, it isn't easy to know in advance which professor's working style and personality could match my own.

Are there ways to determine whether a professor will be a good match for me?

  • I've rewritten your question in an attempt to make it on topic. I don't understand what you mean by "pleasant," so perhaps edit that aspect. Also, I'm a little unclear as to your precise question, so perhaps edit to address. (I vote to reopen.) – user2768 Feb 11 '20 at 13:08
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    This is one of the best and most important questions here. – user111388 Feb 11 '20 at 13:13
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    This may be relevant: academia.stackexchange.com/q/30285/72855 – Solar Mike Feb 11 '20 at 13:30
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    I would be quite surprised if any students or postdocs would "betray" their advisor, in Japan. – paul garrett Feb 11 '20 at 22:19
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    Only way is to talk to their students. I for example become very unpleasant if you are not performing. – Prof. Santa Claus Feb 12 '20 at 1:53

I would note that when you ask the students, you need to read between the lines to a certain extent. Just as letters of recommendation are always positive, but supervisors will look out for what is not said in them, you should apply the same principles when you are assessing a supervisor.

Let me give an example: I was interviewing for a postdoc in the US, and the supervisor had the students and postdocs take me out for lunch. Over lunch I asked how hard people worked, and were they well looked after. The answers were the expected - they were well looked after, the boss had high expectations, but supported them well to meet these expectations, they worked long hours, but they wanted to. Then I asked them what they liked to do outside the lab. Silence. Apparently noone had any hobbies. Eventaully one of them ventured that they drummed in a band, but later came up to me and asked me not to share this with the supervisor. Perhaps it was a joke that went over my head. Perhaps it there were other things going on. But I wasn't going to take the risk of ending up somewhere where people didn't want their supervisor knowing they had a life outside work.


Asking current PhD students as Azor Ahai recommends is a good source. Another source I like are the PhD thesis of former students. These usually contain extensive acknowledgements and thankyous to the supervisor. Various information about the style of supervision can be gotten there. Note that only positive things are mentioned, so also look out for things supervisors are not thanked for.


In the US, typically, you would speak to current graduate students about their working style. In general, a cold email usually acceptable, but don't pester.

However, you might run into very different cultural expectations if you aren't yourself Japanese, so I would take their perspectives with a grain of salt.

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    Have you experience with writing cold emails on that matter? For myself, I would probably not write much to a person I do not know(I might depend on the prof's goodwill my whole life!) and definely no negatives on them. – user111388 Feb 12 '20 at 6:25
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    The best supervisors will volunteer a mechanism by which you can contact existing or former mentees. I would not work with someone who reacted negatively when asked the supervisor to put you in touch with some. But I should point out, this is UK/US. Cultural expectations might well be different in Japan. – Ian Sudbery Feb 12 '20 at 10:33
  • True, I would definitely be very cautious of putting anything in writing if I were disgruntled. Ask if they have time for a skype, and chat with them to build trust first. Also, in a really good lab, people will tend to be effusive and straight out recommend you to come. If they don't do that, I would be wary. As Azor mentions though, culture is also an important factor here. – Steve Heim Feb 12 '20 at 16:22

Like with so many things in academia, the key is knowing the right people. Do any of your current or previous supervisors know someone at that institute? Or have even met the professors you are talking about at a conference or somewhere else? If this is not the case, they might know someone who does, and so on. These connections are important, especially since applying for a PhD with connections is most definitely beneficial.

Don't be afraid to ask people you know for help, they will understand your situation and will most likely want to help you.


If you can, try to find out who was the most disgruntled member to leave the lab, and ask that person. If that student says things were okay, or you get the impression this person might have be the source of difficulty, it's a good sign.

  • What? Do you have experience with this? It is hard to believe that a stranger would hand you a name instead of just ignoring this strange question. – user111388 Feb 13 '20 at 6:14
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    Yes, I do. And, some people will, some people won’t. – Steve Heim Feb 14 '20 at 3:12
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    So have you asked someone who the most disgruntled member was or have you given out the name of this member to someone? – user111388 Feb 14 '20 at 10:50

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