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Before deciding to do one's PhD under a certain professor, what questions should one ask of his/her former and current students?

Many students (including me) are not sure what exactly to ask. May be a community wiki here might be a general source for such students.

Please recommend phrasing of the question(s) also.

This is a related question, How to evaluate potential advisers on grounds other than their research/publications? but it is much broader. I'm looking for specific questions to be asked to the students. Also manner in which to ask :)

P.S. I have accepted an answer, but feel free to add more answers if you think they differ than the ones already given.

  • 23
    "How did your job search go?" – Anonymous Mar 10 '13 at 20:14
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    It is difficult to understate how important any substantive engagement with students of a potential advisor is. Great question. – mac389 Mar 12 '13 at 13:03
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    Also worth mentioning that it's overall a good idea to talk to the potential advisor (PA, as @Suresh put it) and current staff before contacting the former staff/students, to avoid any personal bias. Go meet them with fully transparent glasses, instead of tinted ones :) – posdef May 5 '15 at 11:11
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I think the most important is:

  • Are you happy with your PhD in general?

It covers a lot of issues, but usually you don't want to do a PhD in a place where students are unhappy and frustrated. The good thing is that if students feel really bad, they rarely hide it.

The next things are related to:

  • General contacts on the line student-advisor (How much contact and support can you expect, both for research and administrative stuff?).
  • Funding (Is it a problem or a non-issue, e.g. for attending a conference?).
  • Research (What the actual research looks like? What is the toughest part, biggest emphasis on, the most time-consuming part, etc?)
  • How much time does it typically take to finish PhD? Does it happen often that someone drops out?

Other questions will depend of things you consider important. You may expect a lot of autonomy, or a lot of guidance. You may expect a very ambitious programme, or a PhD-life balance. You may like to teach, or you may like to keep it at minimum. You may be eager to travel a lot, or prefer to stay mostly in one place. You may be more into a particular branch of science or methodology, or into another...

  • 8
    +1 for "Are you happy?" So many focus on the research topic, the logistics, the funding, the amount of teaching, and other nuts-and-bolts that we often forget to ask questions about the personality and mentoring capacity of PhD advisers. – Ben Norris Mar 13 '13 at 11:32
  • +1 for "if students feel really bad, they rarely hide it". :) – Irwin Mar 13 '13 at 23:49
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    Maybe the PhD-life balance bit could be emphasized a bit more, but +1 nevertheless. :) – 299792458 Jun 1 '15 at 12:44
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Disclaimer: I am not a student. I am the "potential advisor" (PA)

For current students:

  • does PA have time to meet with you when you need help ? Or does PA want too many meetings ?
  • how much guidance are you given ? Too much ? Too little ?
  • is the relationship "work only" ? Do you talk about non technical academic issues ?

For former students, the comment by Anonymous is dead-on.

  • 4
    From my own experience, I think that a 'yes' answer to the first part of your third question may carry little valuable information. It seemed that for my supervisor, to what extent the relationship was 'work only' depended on the student rather than on him, and I imagine this might be common. – Tara B Mar 10 '13 at 21:54
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    This is true. A lot of this can be subsumed under: is the relationship sensitive to what the participants need. Or, is the advisor sensitive to what the student needs ? – Suresh Mar 10 '13 at 22:37
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A couple of variations on Anonymous's fabulous comment:

  • "What do you want to do when you finish?"

  • "How is your advisor/department helping you prepare for your eventual job search?" — Be wary of confused blank stares, even from the younger students.

  • "Where did your advisor's former students go after they finished their PhDs? Where do they work now?" — Be wary of "I don't know." Compare with the answers to the first question and with your own career goals (even if they're not well-formed).

  • +1 for emphasizing the importance of getting job after finishing PhD. I think it is the most important issue a prospective PhD student should care about, because easy or difficult you (with a good chance) eventually finish PhD and the biggest help a PhD supervisor can offer for his/her students is to prepare them to get an appropriate job afterwards. – user4511 Mar 11 '13 at 9:48
  • I wouldn't advise putting too much weight on the answer to the last question. At the time I started my PhD, only one of my supervisor's 8 or so previous students had stayed in academia (which was my goal). Now I and my 'academic brothers' on either side are also in academia. It's going to depend a lot on the students, not just the supervisor. Still, I would agree that 'I don't know' is a bad answer. If an advisor is really interested in their students, they will probably talk about the previous ones occasionally (mine did). – Tara B Mar 11 '13 at 12:47
  • Also, it's better to work with other students who are curious enough to ask. – JeffE Mar 12 '13 at 3:40
  • That, too. Although students of the same supervisor needn't necessarily work together at all, of course! – Tara B Mar 13 '13 at 11:47
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  1. Do/Did you (the current/former PhD) enjoy working in this supervisor's research group? Do research group members work with each other collaboratively and help each other? And ask the PhD student to elaborate.

    This question tries to get at what the research group dynamic is. This is fairly important in my opinion - the last thing you want to concern yourself with is politics in the research group. I have seen PhD friends frustrated by this.

    Ideally you should ask this question in a less formal setting (some grad school visits will have time for social events). And sometimes you meet grad students who are comfortable sharing their experience openly. If you are not comfortable asking this question, as it can be an awkward question for the supervisor's current PhD, you can simply observe the interaction between group members, and between group members and the supervisor.

  2. Is the supervisor generally available? Does it take a long time to arrange a meeting to meet with the supervisor (used to be the case with my supervisor because he was so busy)? Does the supervisor respond immediately and effectively (another friend's supervisor tend to leave questions to last minute)?

  3. Are group members expected to work 24/7 or 9-to-5? Some supervisors expect you to reply to emails immediately, and some work strictly business hours.
  4. Does the supervisor take a hands-on or hands-off approach? Are students expected to be really independent with lots of freedom, or are they guided/directed along the way with less freedom?
  5. Does the supervisor support his/her students to consider career paths outside of academia? Some supervisors only want their students to go into academia, and it will be harder to discuss options with such supervisors.

For Q2-Q5, the right answer will depend on your own preference - what you want is a supervisor whom you will work well with.

And, I know you ask specifically about questions, but make sure you watch their body language and see if the lab members seems comfortable with the supervisor or not. This says a lot about the supervision style.

  • 1
    How to phrase #1? If one directly asks Do research group members enjoy working with each other, or not? will not he be met by surprised eyes? – user13107 Mar 13 '13 at 9:40
  • I edited #1 to provide some additional information. Let me know if this helps. Like I said in the edited answer, you might get a lot of how people in the group work with each other by observing them in the lab or watching their interactions. So sometimes it is not necessary to ask the question. – Theresa Liao Mar 13 '13 at 15:59
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    @user13107: Maybe, but so what? It's an important question! – JeffE Mar 26 '13 at 14:04
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Is your advisor planning on going on sabbatical any time soon?

My horrible advisor did this during my second year (he spent the year in Ireland instead of the US) and it did not help my efforts at all.

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    Given that professors usually go on sabbatical once every 7 seven years, and the average ph.d is at least 5 years long, the odds are high that a student's time in a Ph.D program will intersect with an advisor's sabbatical. But it's good to know these things ahead of time. – Suresh Mar 11 '13 at 6:48
  • @Suresh, I always tought that someone that took much more then 3 years to get a PHd was consider to be slow - maybe the UK expects students to work harder then else where. – Ian Mar 1 '14 at 14:20
  • The UK is structured differently from the US (where I am). There (and in much of Europe) the Ph.D has a hard time limit IIUC. In the US, it's more open ended, and five years (in computer science) would be considered close to the average (with variations within subdisciplines). In the natural sciences and humanities, 5 would be considered very short. – Suresh Mar 1 '14 at 17:54
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#1 question (for former students): How long did it take for you to graduate?

  • I disagree that this is the #1 question. An advisor who graduates PhD students in 2.5 years isn't worth much if those students end up driving taxis afterward. – JeffE Mar 26 '13 at 14:05
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Every professor is unique, every student is a bit different. The most important thing in a grad student/prof relationship is that you can work effectively together. If the professor can work well with his current students, then he can probably work well with new students. So what you want to find out is: does the professor give the students the environment they need to flourish? Do the current students work together extensively, or do they compete with each other? (For example, do students collaborate on papers or does everything funnel through the prof)? Are the current students excited about their research projects? (You can figure this out by asking them to describe what they do).

3

Link to the urch.com forum discussing exactly these kinds of issues: Questions to ask current graduate students

The problems people have differ greatly by field, e.g. the funding issue depends on whether students are supported by grants of their advisors (sciences and engineering) or by the university. Also whether the courses in the field are popular among undergrads (many teaching assistant positions available) or unpopular (the opposite). The questions you should ask should address the common problems in your field.

Edit: forgot the shameless self-promotion: I wrote about the suggested questions for admitted graduate students once in my blog.

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