Disclaimer This is from my perspective as a PhD candidate in a life science program. I don’t have a masters degree and my program is research-focused. This post will be most useful for those applying to similar PhD programs where you are paired with an advisor. However, these considerations can still be useful for most graduate school interviews.
Graduate school can be a long and difficult journey, but there are steps you can take to set yourself up for success. While you won’t be able to control everything, asking the right questions before selecting a program can put you in a position for a happy and healthy graduate school experience.
First, ask yourself, “Should I Apply to Graduate School?”, and if the answer is yes, the next step is figuring out “How to Join a Lab”. For many research-based PhD programs, you will work with a primary advisor in a lab that focuses on specific research topics. Once you have an idea for what kind of research/programs you’re interested in, and you’ve contacted faculty to express your interest in the program (see disclaimer, this isn’t part of the process for all types of programs), the next step is to submit your application. Applications typically include a transcript, GRE score (although this is slowly disappearing), a personal essay, and a description of your research ideas. Most programs in the U.S. accept applications between November and January.
Once you’ve successfully interpreted program requirements and managed expensive application fees, the real test for getting into graduate school is whether or not you fit well with are a good match for the labs and the advisors you’ve applied to work with. Much of this is decided during the interview process, which starts in early spring, when you may be invited to visit the university you’re interested in. In-person interviews vary, but typically they take the form of a series of informal conversations with your potential advisor, other members of the lab, faculty you might work with/who might be on your committee, and students in the graduate program you would be joining. Asking the right questions during these conversations not only shows the program you are interested and engaged, but also gives you essential information about what life would be like at that institution.
Fig. 1 - Asking the right questions during a graduate school interview can help you find a program that is the right fit for you. (source: Tumisu via pixabay)
Questions for your potential advisor:
1) What is your advising style like? What you’re trying to assess with this question is how hands-on or hands-off this person is. Both approaches to mentoring can work, but the key is to think about what your working style is and whether that seems to fit with your advisor’s approach to mentoring. For me, I like receiving feedback and since I didn’t have a master’s degree before starting my PhD, I thought I might need more guidance from my advisor. So, I wanted to work with someone who seemed easy to communicate with and who was an attentive advisor. If you want to forge your own path, you might function better with a hands-off advisor, but be ready to do A LOT on your own or with the help of your labmates.
2) What research projects are currently going on in your lab? Is there a specific direction you’re hoping to go in? Part of the application and interview process is to offer your own research ideas, but it’s also good to know if your potential advisor has a research direction they are hoping new students will pursue, especially if they already have funding for potential projects. It’s really up to you what you’re looking for: do you want to completely design your own project, or do you want to build off of your advisor’s ongoing work? I started on a project that was already in place so I could get my feet wet, and once I learned more, I was able to develop my own research. Other graduate students start with an open slate and are responsible for coming up with project ideas on their own. What will work best for you? If your advisor wants you to start with something that’s already in the works, will they be open to you trying something new down the line?
3) Who are some of the other faculty or researchers you work with? Do you have collaborators at other universities? This can be useful for getting a sense of your advisor’s approach to research and their career stage. Are they still collaborating with colleagues and attending conferences? Networking with other academics through your advisor can help you find a postdoc or job down the line, as well as expose you to different types of research.
Questions for your potential labmates:
1) What is [insert PI’s name] like as an advisor? You want to ask multiple people this question because you really want the inside scoop on your advisor’s style as a mentor. Advisor-advisee conflict can be really damaging to graduate student mental health, which affects multiple dimensions of academic success. Selecting a supportive advisor can be a more significant career altering decision than the type of research you want to work on during your degree.
2) How often do you teach? Have you had success applying for funding? Teaching can be an awesome part of graduate school, but if you have to TA every semester, this can be a huge barrier to finishing your dissertation on time. Ideally, you want to be part of a lab with a good track record for funding, so that you 1) get experience grant writing, 2) add some financial awards to your CV, and 3) aren’t obligated to teach every semester. Research can be stressful enough without having to worry about how you’re going to pay for groceries each week. Avoid this stress by getting a feel for the funding situation before you arrive
3) What does an average week look like? Do you take breaks? This might feel like an awkward question to ask, but this can be really useful for assessing what your work-life balance might be like. Are your labmates constantly working nights and weekends? Is it by choice or obligation? Are they able to spend time with friends and family over the holidays? For some, the rigor of research is worth putting in crazy hours at the lab/field. However, you should not have to give up your personal life for graduate school. It is possible to strike a healthy work-life balance, and talking to future labmates about their experience is one way to suss this out.
Questions for other students (as well as your labmates) in the program:
1) What classes do you have to take? What classes have you enjoyed? It’s always good to get a feel for the quality of the program’s requirements, as well as opportunities for getting to know other students. Your advisor will not be able to mentor you through every skill needed to successfully complete a PhD. What other resources are available?
2) What kinds of extracurricular activities or outreach organizations are there? A growing expectation for graduate students is to get involved in science communication and outreach. The good thing is that scicomm and outreach are incredibly rewarding, fun, and a great way to meet new people and expand the reach of your science. Find out what opportunities your program already has up and running for you to be part of.
3) Are there any conflicts I should know about? If there are issues, how does the program handle it? Are there support networks? It’s important to try and get a feel for the culture of the program. Is it competitive or supportive? How do student and faculty leaders respond to conflict? Does the student body have a voice? Speaking from experience, it’s really nice to be part of a program where student concerns are taken seriously.
This is only a start to what you should be thinking about when choosing a graduate program (I didn’t even mention considerations about the research itself!), but these questions should initiate the conversations you need to have when deciding whether or not a graduate program is the right fit for you. For more advice, check out “What I wish I had known: advice about graduate school (and life) to my younger self”.