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Asking Current Students About Supervisor?


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I recently got accepted to a program that I think I will love with a PI that does great work. When I interviewed with him, we had an amazing conversation and really clicked personality-wise. However, he's a very big name and very busy, so I worry that it might be hard to work with him. More worrisome, I've spoken to some other professors since this interview that say that while they don't know from experience, but they've heard that he can be very difficult to work with. That he either loves you or hates you. Now I'm concerned that maybe I just met with him on a good day and that he might actually be quite difficult to work with. He only has two students in my program and they are both first years. They both said that he has been good to work with but they don't really know him well yet. He has three other more advanced students but they're in a different program, so I was never connected to them. Would it be okay for me to reach out to them and if so, is it appropriate to ask them what it is like working with this PI? I'm concerned that it will either get back to him or that they will not answer honestly.

Any opinions would be appreciated :) Thanks 

Edited by untrachel
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It's very possible that the students may not give you honest answers, but I urge you to contact them and, if you can, talk to students who have graduated. I and one of cohorts in my MA program are currently working with an extremely unhelpful supervisor. The only solace we've had is Facebooking/emailing his previous students and figuring out that he is never going to be more helpful than this. A PhD is a long-term commitment and difficult work, you have a right to know what you're getting into.

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Maybe you can email the students you've found and just say that you are considering working with Professor X at University Y in Department Z and ask if they would be willing to have a phone or Skype conversation with you about their experiences at University Y. Or if you are going to visit campus again, perhaps you can meet with them in person.


This way is slightly less risky and you might be more likely to get honest answers because there is no written record of what each person said. I know I wouldn't be fully honest in an email to a stranger. There is still a chance that this conversation might get back to the professor but I think professors should understand people will ask around to learn information about them. After all, they can and sometimes do the same to find out about us. 


Of course, you should be careful to not ask leading questions like "What do you dislike about Prof X?" or "I heard a ton of bad things about Prof X, are they true??". Instead, ask questions like "What is it like working with Prof X?" or "What is the lab/group climate/dynamic like?" or specific questions relevant to your field/work. That way, even if the student tells Prof X about the conversation, they would say that the conversation was about the program/school/work dynamic, not that you were digging for dirt on a prof. I would also start with easier/softer questions before moving on to these types of questions. 

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