19

I emailed a professor at a school I am applying to, outlining my research interests, two specific projects proposals, and how they align with his research. I let him know that I am applying and I'd be interested in working together and chatting if he's taking students. He said he is taking students and asked if I'd like to set up some time to talk.

What do I talk about?

Here are the main topics regarding his research I can think of:

  • How did you come to your line of research?
  • What topics do you feel are under-explored in our sub-area?
  • What projects are you most actively working on now?

Should I also ask for feedback on my proposals, or would that sound stupid?

To clarify, I closed my email with something like: If you are looking for graduate students and feel our interests align, I'd like to discuss opportunities for working together.

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  • 1
    These questions are more likely to be asked by the advisor to a potential candidate but I like "What topics do you feel are under-explored in our sub-area?" also as a question to the advisor. (Be sure to have a good answer ready since you will probably will be asked yourself.) I will give some advice which is not quite an answer to the question. Find out who the professors former students were. Look at their publication record. Do they write whatever is considered a sufficient amount of papers in your field (with the professor)? Do they stay in academia?
    – Kvothe
    Nov 18 '20 at 16:41
  • "How many students have you supervised and where are they now?" Nov 20 '20 at 1:49

10 Answers 10

32

Actually, your questions sounds like you are trying to hire him for a position, whereas he would be the one taking on an obligation to you and your future. I would probably have a chuckle if a student asked me those in a first interview. The first question would be good over coffee after we'd worked together for a while. For the last question you might first find a couple of his recent papers rather than ask.

But the more important questions are things like

  • Can you help me find a topic that interests both of us? Follow up on this question if some suggestions are made.

  • How independent do I need to be (do you expect me to be) and are you available to help if needed?

  • How successful have other students of yours have been in completion and in their careers?

  • Is there a seminar in which you and grad students share ideas?

If you already have a topic that you want to work on then:

  • Do you think ABC is a fruitful line of enquiry and (if so) can you help me explore it?

But approach such questions cautiously. Some will take offense. Be prepared to be the answerer of questions, not the asker.

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    "Would you mind introducing me to one or more of your current/former students? I'd like to ask them some questions as well."
    – JeffE
    Nov 17 '20 at 15:10
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    You say "If you have a topic that you want to work on". I thought that outside of a few select fields such as Mathematics, PhD students are always supposed to come with a topic in hand. Is this not true?
    – Blue
    Nov 18 '20 at 3:38
  • 5
    In the US science context, it's much more common for the advisor to propose the topic (often times as part of funded grant proposal) and then find a student to take on the topic. It's relatively rare for an incoming PhD student to propose their own dissertation topic. Nov 18 '20 at 4:46
  • 3
    Contra Buffy, I think the questions of in the original post are quite good, and in fact for precisely the reason that when choosing your advisor you are in effect hiring them for a job: the job of guiding you for the next 5 or so years. Nov 18 '20 at 15:18
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One of the questions I asked potential PhD advisors that always provided a lot of insight was "What distinguishes a great grad student from a good one?" It frames things positively and professors will usually tell you exactly what they expect from you.

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  • 1
    That's a great answer. I asked something similar to my advisor once: What do you expect of me? His answer was: To do your best.
    – user82663
    Nov 19 '20 at 6:48
7

I'm surprised no one suggested this yet:

  • Read some of the professor's recent papers and ask specific questions about the papers. This can pique their interest in working with you far more than a lot of the other things you're considering to ask.
  • Furthermore, if you have ideas on how to extend the work in their recent papers, you could bring that up and ask about the feasibility of working on such extensions of their recent work.
  • If you are very keen you might even read some of the literature surrounding the professor's recent work, and ask questions about that. For example if the professor's most recent work compares their own novel method to some benchmark dataset, and you find that others are also comparing to the same benchmark dataset, you might wonder about the differences between the two (possibly competing!) methods that are capable of doing something similar.

PhD supervisors often love it when their student (or potential student) is capable of reading and understanding papers on their own, then drawing their own connections foreseeing their own interesting research avenues.

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    From the professor's perspective I've got to say that this smells a bit of sucking up. I could be impressed if the candidate came up with something really good connecting to some of my papers, but chances are if the student has their own independent ideas, thought through for quite some time, they will be better than what they could come up with taking a few hours to read my papers. If the student suggests something related to my work just for the sake of it and it isn't a particularly good idea, I will like this less than a fine independent proposal. Nov 17 '20 at 12:44
  • 6
    A student having read and understood my papers, and being able to discuss them, is the single best thing they can do to improve their chances of working with me. If you want to called them "sucking up" for doing that, then so be it. Nov 17 '20 at 14:27
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    Fair enough if they do it well. But chances are they need to invest proper time for coming up with something good. It may be hard. It's not an easy recipe for making a good impression. (I have seen one who tried, and really didn't do it well, that's where I'm coming from.) Nov 17 '20 at 15:35
  • 3
    I agree that it requires serious time commitment. Though my PhD application (to Oxford) was over a decade ago, arXiv still existed and I'd not only demonstrated that I'd read and understood my potential supervisors' recent papers, but also found typos and a broken citations in a pre-print that was soon to be published, and they appreciated me pointing these out in time for the final publication. I was given an offer, along with the Clarendon scholarship, which goes to the top applicant in each department at Oxford. It wasn't just because of the interview, but the interview did go well. Nov 17 '20 at 16:30
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    Yes it can go wrong if the applicant doesn't take it seriously. Such an applicant is in my opinion unlikely to be a strong candidate anyway, and at least they've spent some time reading my papers, rather than none. Nov 17 '20 at 16:31
6

I'd probably ask how he sees himself as a PhD-supervisor, what his philosophy of supervising is, and what he expects of his students.
"Should I also ask for feedback on my proposals, or would that sound stupid?" This question makes sense to me. As the professor I wouldn't have problems with the other questions that you have already posted either. Regarding the second one, however, I'd like to clarify to what extent you mean this as a question for potential topics that I may have for you. And for addressing this, I first will have some questions for you (I agree with Buffy that it may well be that the professor does the entertainment by bombarding you with questions rather than the other way round).

PS: Buffy writes "some may take offense" regarding certain questions, and that may well be, although I wonder how big the "some" set is. Personally I have very little intuitive understanding for people who take offense facing harmless and actually reasonable questions like these.

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  • I saw updated my question. I guess since I sort of extended the invitation, that's why I thought I'd have more of an impetus to ask questions. Though perhaps most of these 'informal' chats come from a prospective student writing something similar to me, in which case your advice holds.
    – asd
    Nov 16 '20 at 22:22
  • From my perspective, putting myself in the role of the professor (which I am these days) this doesn't make a big difference. I'd be fine with your own questions as well as with the ones I have been suggesting, and I'd probably have more or less informative answers to all of these. Same by the way regarding the questions suggested in the other responses. There are many reasonable questions one could ask... Nov 16 '20 at 22:26
4

Interviews with potential advisors will usually include a portion (often at the end) where they ask you if you have any questions for them. It is not necessary to use your own questioning period to try to impress a potential advisor. By now your CV and the other aspects of the interview will have told the advisor whether you are good enough to get into the program. The part of the meeting where you ask questions is purely for your own convenience, in case there is anything you want to know about the program you are applying to. A PhD candidature is usually four or more years of your life, so it is not unreasonable that you might have some questions about what you will be doing during this time, and what help/resources you will have.

For that reason, it would be unusual to use this time to dig into the research interests or career evolution of the professor, and it is also not useful to spend that time on technical questions about the topic (there will be plenty of time for those later!). More useful are questions that tell you what you can expect your life to be like if you are a PhD candidate there --- e.g.:

  • If I am accepted as a PhD candidate here, what would a normal week look like?

  • How often do you normally meet with your PhD students? What happens if they need extra help from you?

  • Do you have any existing research problems that would be suitable for a PhD topic, or do you prefer students to find their own topic? (Only if you don't already have your own topic.)

  • Do you know if the graduate students here socialise together much? Do they have study groups where they get together to help each other?

When asking questions, it is best to take a light touch and don't overwhelm your potential advisor. However, if there are any aspects of the program that you want to know about (and you can't get the information yourself elsewhere) then you should feel free to ask questions to find out what your upcoming four years will be like.

3

In addition to the previous comments, starting from the papers that he published, you should also consider his research group. Generally (at least in the UK), you will have a supervisory team, with at least another advisor. It is very important to know if you can have (and trust) someone else's opinion during the project.

I would also ask what kind of support you will receive, starting from the studentship. If the project is computer-based or if you have to do experiments, what kind of facilities you can use and how the access will be managed.

You should also have a look at the University website and have a look at what kind of support they offer for post-graduate students.

2

Here are a couple more things for you to ponder:

  1. How long has this prospective advisor been at that school? I had a young rising star for an advisor, and he left for a lesser university after 3 years (biggest fish in the smaller pond sort of scenario). I started new research with an older, established advisor. It extended my grad school experience considerably.
  2. Where does the funding come from? If you are in engineering, for example, and your funding comes from DARPA or NASA, you might see boom/bust cycles, and end up as a teaching assistant instead of a research assistant. If you want to be a professor, this could be good. If not, the time spent teaching is time you're not doing your own research.
  3. What is the typical time for this advisor's students to go from start to finish? There is wide variation in some departments, for various reasons, and some are somewhat out of your control.

You don't have to grill him on these sorts of topics... a simple, basic question will probably get him talking, and he'll tell you more that you would have thought to ask.

2

This is an addition to points mentioned in other answers. Among the other questions do ask or try to find out about past PhD students.

What is now their future as PhD holders. Are they in Academia? Are they hired in a company that you would like to work? Is it a good company? Did their PhD helped them in their career and was it required?

You are about to walk a path that others also walked before you. It makes sense to see where they are now to get some indications on where this path may lead.

Some supervisors will even list past students in their websites.

The research should be extensive and to the level of the specific lab, professor, supervisor. Even within the same school of a university there can be quite a variation.

1

I had a beyond-wonderful advisor, but I've seen some that have made things horrible for their students. I'm not talking about being demanding of hard work, but regular and seemingly arbitrary "resets" of their projects, bad technical advice that must be followed, treating them as a consumable resource etc.

Find wording that is natural to you, and ask a seemingly innocuous question whose answer may flag a basic lack of empathy, or unusual amount of self-importance.

These are easily (and often) masked by a charming disposition and skilled use of language, so a direct question like "Do you care about your students personally?" won't work.

Perhaps "If I may be so bold, would it be possible to ask what you think your students might say if asked for what they liked most and liked least about you as an advisor?" or if the style of conversation seems informal, just "What would your students say was the best and worst part about working for you? Can I ask that?"

Most honest people can probably come up with some reasonable answer, but a narcissist will soar on the first half and either struggle with or cleverly avoid the second half.

1

I agree with the prior answers. Since the advisor gets to choose you so he gets to ask you more questions. What you should focus on is how would he evaluate your work during phd, what he expects from you, what skills you need to learn, what kind of area should you focus on.

I also feel it is very important that you have a very transparent relationship with him. Meaning, if you plan to take breaks (like I did for the birth of my baby) be upfront about it than hiding. A transparent relationship will really help your career.

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