I am amidst the recruiting season for engineering PhD programs. Fortunately, I have made it to the interview stage for some (YAY!). I have been reading a lot about how crucial fit is to a person's success in a program. I am stuck wondering how can you ascertain fit when you are on campus only one day. In the program's I applied to you are admitted to the group not the program.

These recruitment events are the only face time I will have and given the itinerary pacing, my free time will be limited. I also assume it is unlikely I will get a senior student to open up to a complete stranger nor is it feasible to directly ask the PI what is the real culture of the lab.

So my question is what are good strategies to make the most of my time on campus?

  • 3
    Talk to the professor regarding their expectations of students. Talk to the students about what the professor's expectations of them are. If those don't line up, that's worth noting, and it'll probably give a good sense of what the culture is like in the lab. Along the same lines, try talking to the students outside of the lab if possible (i.e., grab a drink at the local watering hole, have dinner with them, etc.)
    – tonysdg
    Jan 5, 2017 at 22:24
  • 1
    I removed the "key questions" part because we already have Q&As on that. See this answer and linked questions, this answer and linked questions, this question, this question, this question.
    – ff524
    Jan 5, 2017 at 22:37
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    try talking to the students outside of the lab if possible — Let me say this more strongly. Talk to the students with no faculty present. Full stop. If the lab/department hasn't already set up a private meeting with the students, ask for one. If the faculty object, run like the wind!
    – JeffE
    Jan 6, 2017 at 2:59
  • @JeffE I like that approach I will have to try. I am nervous since I scared myself to death reading horror stories. I need to get this choice right! Jan 6, 2017 at 3:08

1 Answer 1


I second @ff524's comment about the "key questions". Not all of them are equally applicable to each person, so decide what fits your situation the best.

Plan ahead, and try to memorize a few questions you want to ask.

Here are a few tips:

  • Talk to the grads in that research group.
  • Talk to the faculty leading that research group.
  • Talk to the postdocs in that research group.
  • Talk to other faculty in that department (but in other research groups).
  • Try to observe interactions between grads and their advisors, if possible.

What you want to elucidate is the following:

  • What are the expectations in terms of balancing fun/health/classes/research? Does your potential advisor appreciate friends/family, or is he/she more work-oriented?
  • What's the expectation in terms of hours/week worked? Does that seem reasonable compared to other research groups?
  • Do people in the group seem to get along with each other? (If not, that's a sign that there could be drama.) Do you think you could get along with the people there?
  • Are people -- especially grads -- competing with each other for funding? This can put a strain on interpersonal relationships, unfortunately.
  • Are people -- especially the faculty and/or senior grads or postdocs -- looking out for their own interests or for those of others (particularly yours)? In other words, will they be on your side and look out for you?
  • Are people only interested in their own work, or do they show an interest in your abilities? Do they show an interest in you as a person -- beyond your academic capabilities?
  • Does your potential advisor seem to appreciate his/her students?

If you're feeling really gutsy, you could ask a few more direct questions, but be careful.

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