Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Questions To Ask and Avoid on Grad School Visits

It's that time of year again, when prospective graduate students visit the programs they've applied to/ been accepted by. My experiences have always been with visits where you're accepted first and there are no rotations, so some of what I'm about to say may not apply to interview visits or departments with rotation programs. With one of the visit weekends at GiantU done, I've started putting together a list of questions in several categories.

Questions to ask grad students:
What do you think of the city?
You may have to read between the lines a bit, but it should be fairly clear whether or not we like living there.   This also covers things like public transit, apartment locations, etc. Just let them talk for a bit and look interested. You'll find out a lot.

How often do you meet with your advisor?
This helps you gauge the management style fairly well, and graduate students are going to give you the real number, whereas the professor will give you the frequency they intend to meet.

How often do people in your group publish?
Again, this is a question to ask students instead of the professor for much the same reason as the meeting frequency.

How long did it take the most recent students in your group to graduate?
This is an important question to ask both students and professors. The students will give you a better view of the recent trend, where the professor is going to include every students they've ever had in their math.

What are the food options near campus like?
You may be in a town famous for amazing food, but if it's nowhere near campus, your lunch options may be limited.

What was your coursework like?
Different schools take drastically different approaches to their curriculum, and students will give you a better description than the course catalog.

Questions to ask professors:
Do students typically pick their own topic in your group, or are there specific projects to chose from? If the later, do you have specific projects available?
This can still be a hazy question, because at any given time, there are several proposals out for review, so the answer may change before you would matriculate. However, you will get a much more specific idea of what you could be doing, should you decide to join a group.

How long does it take a typical student to graduate in your lab?
Yes, this seems like a very reasonable question. However, in my experience, the answer you get is how long the professor thinks it should take. I suggest asking to compare to the answer to the grad student version, though. If there is a large discrepancy, be wary.

How many students are in your group?
Whether you know that you like a lot of attention and feedback, or you like being part of a larger group, it's worth knowing. Departmental websites are often woefully out of date in this category, so it's worth asking the professor.

When do you expect students to start working on research?
Self-explanatory. It's up to you if you think sooner is better or if you want to really focus on the course work.

What kind of jobs have recent graduates gone on to?
 This can give an idea of the professor's track record in getting students into the kinds of positions you are ultimately interested in.

Questions NOT to ask grad students(and expect a useful answer):
What do you think of working for your professor/ the department?
We're trying to get you to come to our school. We're under orders to be enthusiastic and positive from the person who can actually make our lives hard, our graduate coordinator.

Do you like your research?
Just because I'm madly in love with studying amorphous states of matter doesn't mean you'll find it remotely interesting. If I'm tired of fatigue, you may still be interested in it. Of course, if the grad student in question is tired, drunk, or otherwise failing at impulse control, you can get very revealing answers, like "I only put up with my advisor because I love my research" (I swear this hasn't happened... yet).

Questions NOT to ask professors (and expect a useful answer):

What kind of research does your group do?
In groups that do many different things, this tells you nothing about what positions might be open, especially if they're starting new research areas. In more established and focused groups, this tells the professor you haven't done your homework before talking to them.

What kind of support programs are available for students?
The professors are usually not very well up to speed on these unless a student has talked to them about it. This is a question for the graduate coordinator/administrators.

What do you think of the city?
The way professors interface with a city is not the same as you will in graduate school. They will have better parking, live in different areas and probably not go to the same bars.

How many hours a week do you expect students to work?
 They will either give a wishy-washy "it's about the amount of work" answer, or adjust their number depending on whether they want to impress you or avoid scaring you off.

What questions would you add to these categories?


  1. Lots of questions I wish I'd asked. Here's another one for the students: Tell me in excrutiating detail about all the hoops prospective grad students need to jump through (qualifying exams, mid-term vivas, etc). Then decide if that works for you.

    Long, long ago I "wasted" a couple of years not doing research at FamousWesternU only to be kicked out after running face-first into the qualifying exam.

    1. My department spends a lot of time telling them about that before they even really meet any of the grad students, but I agree that it's an important question to ask.

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