First consider these questions to ask yourself when choosing a graduate program. This will help inform which questions you ask the potential advisor and/or graduate students. Also, how to weigh their responses.
What type of work culture do you thrive in?
Do you need a hands off or hands on mentor/advisor?
What type of research do you prefer, lab setting or more computer remote? Or survey personal field work? Modeling?
What do you want to get out of your degree program? Have any set skills or courses or number of publications? Be clear on what you want and understand it may change in the course of your graduate program.
Does location matter to you, do you need to be in a big city or small college town?
What are the possible career tracks I would like to pursue? Academia? Industry? Community development? Government? How does this program aid/develop my career goals?
Grad students can be your best source of information when trying to understand how your day-to-day would look and feel at a particular program. Most students will focus on the positives, but the negatives are just as important. The following list of questions cover important topics, both directly and indirectly.
Do you know the other PhD students that started in your year? Do you start as a cohort? Can convey if community exists inherently.
Does the department/program have social events for students? Can convey the culture of the program and see if there is a community feeling, or if it is a very isolated program that may not suit your type of successful environment (or it does).
Is there anything lacking or exceptional that the program/department does to help graduate students? This can get at something you may not think of but may prompt graduate students to reveal something they are troubled with that they found out only after attending the program.
How does your lab communicate? (email, texting, Teams, etc) Can convey information about the tone and environment (casual w/ memes! or formal emails)
What percentage of your work is done in close collaboration with labmates? Are projects largely individual, do PhD students work with undergrads to aid in projects? Most students will say they work with labmates, but the extent of collaboration varies a lot
How are lab meetings run? What are the expectations? How are positive and negative feedback provided? This answer can reveal a lot about lab relationships. Constructive criticism is absolutely fine, but if an advisor berates students for an error in front of the lab, that is a red flag.
How often do you have scheduled meetings with your advisor? How often does the advisor hold impromptu meetings? Scheduled meetings are good because they provide a consistent check-in. Impromptu meetings are sometimes necessary, but when happening frequently, this can reflect advisor issues regarding time management and respect for a student’s time.
What hours do you work? During what hours do you respond to work-related email? Does your advisor expect emails to be responded to at all hours? Typical work-life balance question. Especially important to set boundaries if working from home!
Do you feel comfortable taking a day off? Under what circumstances would you do that? How many days off do you take per year? This question also gets at work-life balance. Most students say they have a good balance, but if they are only taking days off for extremely valid reasons (medical, family emergency), their work has a stronger hold on their time than they’ve let on.
How thoroughly does your advisor understand the details of what you are working on? Under what circumstances (if ever) does your advisor assist with your research? This gets at how hand-on or hands-off the advisor is. Are they able to provide solid guidance? Does that extend too far into overbearing territory? Or, do you need to regularly re-introduce your topic on a very hands-off advisor? The latter indicates that the advisor may not be very helpful on technical content.
Does your advisor present your work without you? How are you acknowledged? It is perfectly normal for your advisor to present your work at conferences/meetings without you, as long as you are acknowledged. This is actually very positive, as they are advertising your work to their peers.
How long does you advisor expect it to take for your PhD? Can convey expectations and pacing.
What careers are PhD student that have graduated from the lab in now? Does your advisor aid in finding jobs, networking? General guidance on career options? Are they interested in only Academic tracks? This may or may not be important to you but advisors that aid in career advancement clearly care about your success, which is a good sign.
How consistent is your advisor’s attitude towards you and your work? Can you tell if they’re having a bad day? Advisors are people, and sometimes other aspects of their lives bleed into their management style and treatment of others. Some of this is normal and to be expected, but strong swings in attitude can become very difficult on students.
How far in advance does your advisor plan your research, funding, and degree milestones? You don’t want to constantly feel anxious about your funding future. Hopefully your advisor is planning a few semesters ahead and checking in with you about degree milestones. That said, unexpected project and funding disruptions do happen.
What is the turnover rate in the particular lab? Have any students left the lab recently? Have any students transferred in from other programs? Lots of turnover is a bad sign, particularly if late-stage Ph.D. students are leaving. On the other hand, taking in a student who is leaving another lab is a very positive sign.
How much time were you expected to spend studying for exams? Was this time allowed to displace some of your research productivity? This gets at whether or not your advisor views your coursework as a part of the “on-the-clock” work they are paying you for. This varies, and neither viewpoint is wrong – but it’s good to know expectations going into the program.
When studying, were studying sessions hosted by the lab, school, or grad student organization that helped you prepare? Once you passed your exams, were you expected to help others? This gets at lab and school culture. No support is a red flag about lack of community.
What are the necessary milestones for completion in the program? This gets at if there are multiple components to the qualifying exam, course requirements, proposal requirements.
How often do you attend conferences? These are your big networking opportunities, but they be expensive for the advisor to budget. It is a great sign if an advisor is allotting the resources to get students to multiple conferences per year.
When attending with your advisor, are you introduced to colleagues? How does the advisor talk about you? Is your advisor actively trying to help you network? Do they talk about you positively in front of colleagues? (Good!) Or, do they largely leave you out of conversation? (Not good!)
Does you advisor fund conferences, encourage attendance? If so, how does funding work, are their outlets for reimbursements? This gets at what the financial burden may be to attend conferences. Sometime advisors can only fund one conference trip a year per graduate student or expect you to get outside funding to cover the costs if grant funding is tight in the lab. If so, inquire if there are other school outlets to aid funding (SGA, other student organizations).
How much on average do graduate student make monthly/yearly? This gets at seeing actual numbers and gives a concrete takeaway to compare other school stipends in other areas to this particular school.
Has your advisor aided in the search for fellowships to augment stipend? This gets at seeing how helpful your advisor is in aiding your search for a livable wage; also the potential advisor may have many resources or none at all and may expect you to do your own research on funding.
Is Teaching Assistantship required for stipend or is GRA sufficient for the advisor to cover funding via grants? This gets at finding out if the program requires you to TA, some programs/advisors do not have many TA-ship spots but are more geared to GRA-ships.
Are there any student fees? If so, how much are they a year? Finding this out is key to knowing the take home amount of your stipend. And what amenities the school offers as a result of the student fees.
What percentage of your income goes towards necessary expenses? Don’t be afraid to ask about stipend, rent, and other expenses. It’s well known that grad students live on tight budgets – this is not a taboo topic!
Have you ever paid for research-related items out of your own pocket? If this is a regular occurrence, that is a huge red flag.
Does your advisor think grad students are paid fairly? Do you think you are paid fairly? Faculty tend to be deeply divided about whether or not the school’s base pay rate is fair for grad students, and it is useful to know where you advisor stands on this issue. Will they increase your pay as you advance through the program? More generally, do you agree with how your time and work is valued by the school?
How do the students like to live in the city of the program? Are there things to do in the city? Good to know, since you will be living there for multiple years.
How close to the university do you live? Is there a recommended neighborhood? How much is rent on average? Will I need a roommate? Can convey information about safety, costs, livability.