I put together an extensive list of possible questions to ask on my visits to PhD programs, and I thought others might be interested in this as well. Some of the questions are sort of specific to STEM or being a woman, but most of it is pretty generic.
I didn't end up asking everything on this list, of course, and many of the questions got answered during regular conversation or presentations. However, putting together and thinking through the list was also a helpful exercise to think about what is important to me in a PhD program and research group. And if there's ever an awkward silence in the conversation, you'll at least have something to fill it.
A final disclaimer: when I put this list together, I pulled in some questions I found online. Since I wasn't planning to publicize the list at the time, I didn't write down where they came from. Apologies, therefore, for any inadvertent plagiarism.
Questions to Ask Current Graduate Students
The general consensus is that you're going to get more honest answers above life is like in a lab and program from the students than the faculty. First off, the faculty don't know, and they also have more of a dog in the fight convincing you to join the program. But if the students are really suffering, they'll warn you off.
- What research are you working on? How quickly were you able to start your research?
About Life and Being Social
- How much of a student community/social life is there (including within cohort)?
- Is it an inclusive environment? Have there been problems with harassment?
- Where do you (and students in general) live? How is living here?
- What is the area around campus like? How are the housing options?
- Is the university helpful with finding housing?
- Is the stipend enough to live on?
- How is working with your advisor? (This is an intentionally open-ended questions)
- How would you describe your PI's advising style? (Is it hands on/closely supervised or hands off/independent?)
- What strategies have worked well to maintain a successful relationship with your advisor? (If they have a lot they think they need to do to stay on good terms, this might be a warning sign.)
- How available is your supervisor? How frequently do you meet with your advisor?
- Does your supervisor support support interest in a career outside academia?
- How regularly/quickly does your advisor publish?
- Would you choose this advisor if you were doing it over?
About the Program and University
- What do you think of the program? What are the biggest pros and cons?
- How easy/hard is it to customize the program? (e.g., taking different courses)
- What do you think of the courses? Useful content, well taught, relevant to your research/goals?
- How big is the program?
- What would you change about the program?
- Does the environment feel more collaborative or competitive? Are students generally collaborative or competitive?
- How easy/difficult was the process of joining a lab?
- What are responsibilities of TAs like? What is the workload/time commitment? How many terms do you TA?
About the Group or Lab
- How would you describe the lab group? (Intentionally open-ended)
- What is the culture in the lab? How much time are you expected to spend in the lab?
- What kind of schedule do you work?
- How much collaboration is there within the lab?
- Are you happy here?
- What do you wish you had taken into consideration when making your decision about where to attend?
- Who is on your committee and why?
- Do you get to attend conferences?
- How is it being a woman in this generally male-dominated department/university/field?
Questions for Professors and Potential Advisors
- Do students create their own projects or work on something already developed/in progress?
- What are the expectations for a graduate student in your lab? (e.g., working from home, fixed hours)
- What advice would you give to a student who wants to be successful in your program? Are there any specific pitfalls to be avoided?
- How much do students RA vs TA? What is the funding structure/guarantee for students?
- How often do you sent students to conferences?
- How much do your students publish?
- How long do students in your lab take to complete?
- What do students from your lab typically do after graduation?
- I hear you study X. I've only studied a little bit of that so far, but I remember learning about Y. Can you tell me a little bit about your work? (This is useful if you haven't had a chance to read much beyond their website or know more about a tangential topic.)
- What are your current projects? (Remember that websites are notoriously out of date.)
- What research projects do you have that would be looking for graduate students?
- What directions or projects are you thinking about for the future?
About the Program, Department , and University
- What is the big picture/goal/focus/priority of the department?
- What's the biggest strength of the program?
- What professional development services are available?
- How/when are students paired with advisors?
- What percentage of students complete the PhD? Pass quals?
- What are responsibilities of TAs like?
- Would any of my master's coursework transfer?
- How is your lab organized?
- What collaboration goes on? Within/between labs, departments, other schools?
- How would you compare this program to X and Y?
- Is there funding available for attending things like conferences or summer schools?
- Do you have lab/group meetings? What do you discuss? (papers, research in progress)
- How will my experience be affected by entering with a master's degree?
- What are the career outcomes for students in this program?
- How big is your group (and how big do you aim for it to be)?