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.

  • 25
    "How did your job search go?"
    – Anonymous
    Commented Mar 10, 2013 at 20:14
  • 3
    It is difficult to understate how important any substantive engagement with students of a potential advisor is. Great question.
    – mac389
    Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 13:03
  • 1
    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
    Commented May 5, 2015 at 11:11

10 Answers 10


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...

  • 10
    +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
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 11:32
  • +1 for "if students feel really bad, they rarely hide it". :)
    – Irwin
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 23:49
  • 2
    Maybe the PhD-life balance bit could be emphasized a bit more, but +1 nevertheless. :)
    – 299792458
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 12:44

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
    Commented Mar 10, 2013 at 21:54
  • 5
    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
    Commented Mar 10, 2013 at 22:37

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
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 9:48
  • 1
    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
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 12:47
  • Also, it's better to work with other students who are curious enough to ask.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 3:40
  • 1
    That, too. Although students of the same supervisor needn't necessarily work together at all, of course!
    – Tara B
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 11:47
  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
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 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. Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 15:59
  • 1
    @user13107: Maybe, but so what? It's an important question!
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 14:04

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.

  • 10
    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
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 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
    Commented Mar 1, 2014 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
    Commented Mar 1, 2014 at 17:54

#1 question (for former students): How long did it take for you to graduate?

  • 2
    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
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 14:05

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).


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.


I'm a supervisor not student these days. I had things go rather wrong as a student, quit my project and moved to a new team and restarted everything. I knew about my proposed supervisor's field reputation (excellent - I still think this even after things went wrong) - I knew nothing about what they were like as a supervisor (they sucked).

This also should be more a conversation over coffee - you don't want them to feel like they are being grilled or are under evaluation from you. Remember, if you accept an offer they could be your colleagues so you are selling yourself to them too. Keep things positive on your end.

How would you describe their supervision style? Different styles suit different students, know about yourself as best you can. I know of advisors that have contracts and forms that students fill in after each meeting summarising their understanding of the key points and next steps that advisor then responds to and they both sign -> student speaking of this loved it, I would have run screaming.

How would you describe the group dynamics? You usually aren't just working with the supervisor but the group. Even if your project does not involve the group - these are your colleagues. How do they tend to function? Is it everyone on their own? Collaborative? Collegiate but not collaborative?

Did you have much / a lot of freedom to direct your own project?

What sort of involvement have you had in funding proposals (grants / commercial etc.) This can be good and bad - too much involvement and you are taken away from your core business. But some involvement can really help develop skills useful for industry and academia, and can help land that next position.

Does your supervisor include you in opportunities. Will their "big name" actually get you anything? Remember "big names" are often super busy, so there needs to be a trade off (big names do help just by reputation, but it isn't everything).

How involved are you in the larger group / School / Institute / University?. Just useful to know how they tend to work, and again knowing what sort of person you like to be. If you just want to focus on your project and nothing else, being expected to engage widely will feel like a drain. For others it is great career development opportunities (and helps them stay sane while studying).

What are your career goals - how well have they been supported through your studies? Have they changed through your project Helpful to understand their perspective. Also good to know if the supervisor is super helpful if you want to become a copy of them, and not helpful if you have different goals.

What's a typical work week look like for students (hours, office vs lab vs field, wfh vs in office, group meetings, paid work etc.) This is important information about work style and allows you to evaluate whether you will have a nice work environment (based on what you value) and good work-life balance (based on what you value). If your supervisor says I expect people to work 9-5M-F (or set your own hours), but the typical is 8-8M-Su then that's really important information. Even if your supervisor is happy with you doing a "standard" day, will you feel comfortable keeping that balance when everyone else isn't? How much "other" stuff are students typically doing and how will that affect your plans?

With paid work (teaching, tutoring, research assistant stuff that is not on your thesis) - how well does the number of hours you are contracted to do match to what you are expected / end up doing? If you pick up 10 hours teaching a week will you typically spend 8 hours on it? or 20? Important to be able to make an informed decision about what you want and can afford. You might earn double what you'd get at Maccas so might be fine that 10 on paper = 20 in practice cause you still earn as much and are happy with the work, or you might resent what really is wage theft and an illegal, dishonest and exploitative practice.

What's the administration of your studies like eg reports, presentations, hurdles etc.. No external oversight is a problem - you do need some outside your supervisor review that your project is at an appropriate standard, is practical and realistic with resources (including time), and you aren't being hung out to dry. You need some way to raise issues and have people whose job it is to deal with them if they happen (and they are not uncommon - even with good supervisors). But, too much administration and it becomes a burden. Understanding what is required is just nice additional information. It probably won't be the same for you - universities love to change up their admin frequently in my experience.

Question about the project and funding others have proposed are also really important, I've focussed on the "other" stuff that often gets missed.


A lot of important criteria have been mentioned here. There is, however, one integral criterion which, in my opinion, covers everything: the careers of this professor's former disciples. Using internet, you can easily gleen this info.

My long-term friend is a professor at a university, which is regarded very good but not fancy (not in the Ivy League, or alike). However, young people are trying hard to join his group -- and some choose it over Ivy League offers. Aside from him being a brilliant scholar and a devoted teacher, an important reason for his popularity is that (a) all his postdocs become professors; (b) all his grads get postdoctoral fellowships (not just regular postdoctoral jobs, but fellowships) -- and eventually they also get permanent academic positions (usually, faculty at good schools). The people in the community know this, and regard it as a great luck to work with him.

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