Congratulations, prospective graduate student! So you've been accepted into some PhD programs, and now it's time to attend visit days at different universities in order to figure out which offer you should accept. What questions should you ask??
The biggest factor in whether or not to accept a university's offer is whether you think you will be happy and successful working there. This means you should ask questions that help you learn about your potential advisors, your research community, and how easy it will be for you to get things done. While everyone can ask the same set of questions, how you interpret the answers you get has to do a lot with what you personally need to be successful. Certain answers may be ideal for one student, but terrible for another. If you do not have this level of self-knowledge yet, that's okay. There is a lot about myself that I wish I'd known before I started grad school, but I sure know it now!
Here is a starter set of questions to ask about your potential advisors:
- What is their research vision? What role do they see themselves and their research playing in society?
- How involved are they with their students? How often do they have one-on-one meetings? Group meetings?
- How many students do they have?
- Do their students tend to go into industry or academia after graduation?
- How do they plan on growing their research group over the next few years?
- Do they have tenure? Will they go up for tenure while you are their student?
- Are they going to take a sabbatical or leave of absence?
- Do they have a startup? Are they planning to work in industry?
- Are they considering job offers at other universities?
- Will they expect you to be physically at your desk during certain hours, or can you work from anywhere?
- What are their opinions on coursework? Do they think it is important, or do they think it takes away from research?
- At what rate will they expect you to submit conference papers?
- Who comes up with the paper ideas, primarily them or primarily the students?
- How do they deal with students who are having performance issues? (Ask their grad students about this, in particular. Even if that is never a problem for you, it may be for someone else, and it affects the overall climate.)
- Do they tailor their advising style to different students' needs?
- Do they pay attention to their more promising students and seem to neglect the others?
- Do their students seem happy? Do they have lives outside of grad school?
- Do you like their students?
- How often do their students collaborate together on papers vs. work independently?
- How do other grad students and faculty regard the advisor?
- Who do they collaborate with, especially external faculty?
- Do they work with industry or other non-academic groups?
- How well do they promote their students (i.e., send them to conferences, workshops, take them to dinner with visitors, etc.)?
- Where do their students go work? Universities? Industry? Other places?
- How easy will it be for you to get the infrastructure and equipment that you need to do your experiments?
- How much money and support do they have available for experiments? Travel?
- Is there a reading group or other community of students at the university who share your research interests?
The biggest overall takeaway is to figure out how isolated you will feel and whether you would trust your advisor to have your professional interests and emotional well-being in mind, regardless of how well you are doing in the program. Good luck!