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I'm applying to doctoral programs right now and I'm having dinner tomorrow night with a professor and three of his grad students. I'm very hopeful to join this lab. I've spoken with the professor before and would like to focus my attention on the students. I've never done anything like this before.

Do you have any suggestions for questions I should ask and how I should act? I wanted to offer to pay for dinner or at least drinks since they are going to this trouble, but would that seem like I'm trying to schmooze my way in? Would it be weird for me to write notes on what they say at dinner?

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    Don't get drunk already at the appetizers ;-) And no, don't take notes. Relax and enjoy the dinner. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 11 '14 at 22:22
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To add to the Massimo's comment on not taking notes, yeah I think that would seem weird. If the conversation is about science, and a particularly interesting point comes up or you want to take note of someone's name to look up a paper, make a note on your phone.

Offering to pay might be polite, though if the prof's paying through his department or a grant I wouldn't insist. I think it's safe to say that if the grad students don't pull out their wallets, neither should you.

Just act normally. Be yourself - it is not a formal occasion. The prof will have invited his students along for two reasons:

  1. Because dinner with just the two of you could be exceedingly awkward
  2. So that everyone can get an impression of how you'll fit in with the group.

Just make the usual small talk with his grad students to (hopefully) find some common ground, talk a bit about their projects, and make sure to have a good yarn about non-work-related things too. Your scientific prowess will not be assessed at the dinner table!

  • Thank you for the advice! It went pretty well, and I definitely worried about it more than I should have :) – cas Nov 13 '14 at 2:00
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All of what @Moriarty said except that I disagree about taking notes using your phone. It's just very hard to look professional doing so and too easy to get (or look) distracted.

Carry a little reporters notebook and pen and pull that out if you need to jot a name down. You'll get more prop points if the notebook looks well worn.

Also, even if you think you have a good alcoholic tolerance, I would drink no or close to no alcohol.

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