39 questions to ask grad students during your grad school interviews and 1 question you should never ask

39 questions to ask grad students during your grad school interviews and 1 question you should never ask

Congratulations, you got grad school interviews! And now they're coming up and maybe you're freaking out because you don't know how to prepare. Scariest yet, you're going to be meeting tons of people and you may not be sure what you're going to talk to them about or how to best use the opportunity you have. Well, don't panic! 

First, start by reading about 4 steps to prepare for grad school interviews.

Next, you should prepare for the many opportunities you're going to have to ask questions. You will be asked “do you have any questions for me?” over and over by grad students and professors alike. If you don't have any questions to ask, that can be interpreted as a lack of interest, so having a handy list will be useful.

You don't have to ask all of them, but choose the ones that are the most important to you to know to make the huge decisions you have ahead of you. Today we'll tackle

Questions to ask grad students at your grad school interviews

Important warning: some of these are on sensitive subjects, so be aware of whether you may raise some insecurities or whether there are other people around. If you're asking a potentially touchy question, make sure you're clear about the fact that you don't expect them to answer if they don't feel comfortable. If it's a question best asked without people around, ask them if you can ask them the question over email, skype, or coffee at a later date if they prefer.

Questions to better understand the specific program - academically

  1. What do you think about [professor you're interested in]?
  2. Is your lab a good one to join?
  3. Is the culture here more cooperative or competitive?
  4. Why did you choose this program? [but see note 1] 
  5. Do most people join their first choice lab? What does the program do if someone doesn't find a lab to join by the deadline?
  6. Is the program supportive of people switching labs?
  7. Does the program do anything in the beginning to help new students to transition into grad school?
  8. How much do grad students TA?
  9. Is there any sort of training for people who want to be better TAs or to go into teaching?
  10. Is the program supportive of "alternative careers"? [see note 2]
  11. What do you think of the classes? (Were they valuable, did you learn a lot, did they take a lot of effort, etc?)
  12. Are there any nightmare professors to avoid?
  13. Do you know people who have left the graduate program? Is there support for that?

Questions to better understand the specific program - personally

  1. What do grad students do in their free time? [see note 3]
  2. Do most students have a good work/life balance?
  3. What kind of social events do people in the program tend to do?
  4. Do grad students in this program hang out with each other?
  5. Does the program do anything in the beginning to help grad students to bond with each other?
  6. What kind of resources does the program offer (e.g. for mental health, career development, learning new skills, etc.)?
  7. Does the program check in with grad students even after the first few years?
  8. What age range are most grad students?
  9. Are most grad students in relationships or single?
  10. Do any grad students you know have kids?
  11. Do social events tend to be clique-based or is everyone welcome? [see note 4]
  12. Are there a lot of international students in the program? If so, are they welcomed by native students?

Questions to get advice

  1. What do you wish you had done to prepare for grad school?
  2. Do you think coming to grad school is a good decision given my desire to do ___?
  3. What kinds of questions should I be asking grad students?
  4. What kinds of questions should I be asking professors whose lab I'm interested in?
  5. Can you advise me about [insert specific concern here]?

Questions to get to know them better

  1. Where did you go to undergrad?
  2. What are you studying?
  3. What do you do for fun?
  4. What made you decide to go to grad school?
  5. Do you know what you want to do after grad school? - but keep in mind that this could be a potentially stressful question
  6. Is the project you're working on what you thought you'd be doing? (Or, has the project you're working on gone in any unexpected directions?)

Questions about grad school generally

  1. What do you love about grad school?
  2. What sucks about grad school?
  3. Do you know many people in grad school who regret starting it?

And the question you should never ask grad students:

I've rarely seen this question lead to a comfortable and fruitful conversation: "How much time do you have left in grad school?"

 If they're in their first couple of years, they have no idea how long it'll be (in a PhD program of the type described in the disclaimer here, the total time is ~5-7 years). 

If they're midway through grad school, it's likely a stressful time and part of the stress is not knowing how long they have left till they're done. 

If they're close enough to finishing that they actually have a reasonable estimate, it's highly unlikely they'll be hanging out with recruits during interviews [but see note 5]. 

If you want to get a sense for someone's timing-position in grad school, a better question to ask is how long ago they started grad school.

However, this leads to a potentially even worse variation to the question. If you learn that someone has been in grad school for a long time (e.g. 5 years, 6 years, or n years where n = a surprisingly long time), don't ever ever ever say "Oh so you must be almost done, right?"

How should you use this list?

The grad students you meet during recruitment weekends are participating because they want to help you, so get to know them! Prioritize which questions you find most important and ask them to anyone who seems willing to chat with you.

Don't forget to be mindful of surroundings and sensitivities when you ask certain questions. For example, the time to ask a grad student whether they like their lab is not when they're giving you a tour of it while their coworkers are working nearby. 

And if you ask someone what they plan to do after grad school, you might want to preempt the question with "I know you may have no idea about this yet but..." 

If someone seems especially kind, get their email and ask them if they would be open to you emailing them later with some more questions. This can especially come in handy a few months down the line when you're deciding between graduate programs, trying to figure out what to do if you didn't get into grad school, or are making the very scary decision of deciding to maybe not even go to grad school like you thought you would even if you got accepted. A helpful grad student who is willing to respond to an email, have coffee with you, or hop on skype with you may be just what you need to work your way out of a bind or to calm down.

Finally, if a grad student has been especially helpful to you, please please send them a thank you email just like you did to the professors who interviewed you. Not only might this brighten their likely stressful day, it might remind them to fill out a positive evaluation about you (which many programs allow their grad students to do).

Please comment below!

  • Which of these questions will you ask?

  • Which other ones have you thought of that aren't listed here?

  • What other questions do you have for me about applying to grad school? 

Notes:

1. Some people may be in the program because that's the only one they got into or because it's the only one they could afford to relocate to, so be ready for those answer. Be aware that such an admission may bring out people's imposter syndrome--the feeling that they aren't good enough for grad school.

2. "Alternative careers" is the erroneous name for the category of non-research professor jobs. This can include careers at universities focused on teaching, or non-academic careers in industry, government, communication, or an enormous range of other possibilities! The name is erroneous because the majority of grad students don't go into research-focused faculty positions. There aren't enough of them to go around and many people realize they don't actually want those jobs anyway. 

3. If they answer “what free time?” and don't seem to be joking, approach that graduate program extremely carefully. But be mindful that the person you're talking to may be in an extreme time of stress such as under a publication deadline or about to defend, which may not be representative of their general stress. It's normal for a student 6 months from defending her dissertation to not have any free time. But if you find out that most of the grad students at a given program don't expect to have free time for the whole ~6 years of grad school, you need to think very carefully about whether you can live like that. And if you can, do you want to? (On the optimistic side: Most grad students I know have hobbies and social lives. That is definitely something to aim for.)

4. Ideally, during the first year of grad school, most social events between grad students are open to everyone in their cohort. This gives everyone a chance to find community and get to know each other. Realistically, tighter groups may start to form quickly, and after the first year, many social events will be between smaller groups that gravitated toward each other. However, a program that bonded well in the beginning and is not overtly cliquey will still have occasional (1-2x/year) events that are open to everyone in the cohort.

5. Although most people who volunteer for recruitment are in their first few years, there are some amazing exceptions. Some senior grad students continue making time for new and potential grad students because they want to give back and/or they are rejuvenated by it.

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