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After getting interview invites, several graduate students have reached out. What questions should I ask?


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I would ask how they like the program/school and the surrounding area. I had a friend who was very concerned about the town the university was in, and asked the grad students the more 'personal' questions you can't really ask the professor. I might also ask them about the amount of help/support they receive from their fellow students and professors. I would want to know that I'm going into a supportive and healthy environment. And without getting too personal/specific (and if you feel comfortable asking), maybe ask about their funding opportunities? I knew a grad student who was told they would have full funding, but ended up having to turn down the offer because of a lack of funding. Best of luck to you! 

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I straight out ask them what they think about their PI's workload, mentoring style, what they have found to be the most awesome thing in their lab, and what has been the most difficult challenge they've encountered. I also ask them about living in the city, cost of living vs stipend/financial considerations. I also get a feel for them in a more social way, these WILL be the people I will spend a good chunk of time with and may depend on to teach me the ropes. In a case of equal other circumstances, having a really cohesive work group (or not) could make or break a decision for me.

So far (I spoke with a bunch of them before I even submitted applications) I have gotten VERY honest answers from current grad students and post docs. They are more than willing to answer my questions, tell stories, and engage in some good conversation that has given me a much better picture of what I might be jumping into.


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In addition (and repeating a bit) to what was said above, a good type of question to ask is questions that will let you know what the actual experience is like. For example, the offer letter might say things like "You are funded on a fellowship for year one, and then students must find TA/RA for years 2 and beyond". You might want to ask the grad students what that process is like. For example, how many get TAs? how many RAs? Is it competitive or is everyone basically guaranteed one? Similarly, you could ask about quals and candidacy exams. What are they like? Is it a "weed out" process or are they just a milestone/checkpoint? Of course, you should ask these questions to the faculty as well, but it's good to get the student perspective. Faculty often think things work one way or that their students experience things one way, but the reality could be a little different. Or faculty might leave out details that they thought were unimportant but are actually really important to a student!

You can and definitely should ask similar questions to faculty and students, especially about their impressions. Don't be afraid to repeat questions because you want to see how different groups view things. In particular, it could be a telling sign if it seems like the faculty are really out of touch with the students!

You should also ask about resources available to students that might be outside of a faculty member's purview. For example, I'd ask about students experience with getting funds to travel to conferences. You'll find out if the labs (and which ones) have resources for this. Maybe the department has a fund that students can apply for (is it competitive? or does everyone get one per year? how much?) or the school has as university-wide fund you can apply for etc. You might want to ask about other things you're interested in---family support? insurance costs? insurance for spouses? etc. Also other student-only facing things like what are the courses like? what are the TA assignments like? what are the housing options like? etc. 

You might also want to ask about "climate" issues. Not the weather, but in terms of discrimination/harassment etc. This could be hard to do on email with someone you don't know well though, and I don't really have any tips on how to do it. But maybe try to pay attention to how they respond to other questions and/or keep this in mind to ask when you're visiting in person.

Another type of question to ask are things along the lines of "What made you pick this school over other ones when you were deciding?" (maybe best after asking what schools they visited etc.) and "What made you pick your advisor over other ones?" etc.

And finally, for an email encounter, keep in mind that people will tend to be more positive than negative. When I email prospective students, I am always honest, but I tend to lean on the positive details more than the negative ones. For example, if I thought the classes at my program were really crappy, I probably won't go right out and say it unless you asked some specific questions. And even then, I might indicate that they could be better or that they need improvement, but you won't hear me rant about them. Similarly, if you asked about an advisor's style, I'll stick to some basic facts and be really neutral. But if you ask me in person, I can tell you a lot more.

So on that note, I think it's good to list some questions to NOT ask grad students on this first email (based on things I've received!):

1. Questions that seem to fish for negative things only: e.g. "What is your least favourite thing about this school/advisor/program?" etc. These are good things to know, but to me, I feel like I'm walking into a trap when I get asked this via email by a stranger. Also, I think these questions are too "leading" and may not be super useful. Instead, I would ask things like "What is it like to have Prof X as your advisor?" or "What are the classes in the department like?" etc.

2. Overly general questions with answers that may end up being too specific to help you. I get these a lot with respect to personal/social life. I hate the question "So, what do you all do for fun around here?". I mean, sure, I can tell you but I'm not sure how useful it is unless you happen to be interested in the same things. Instead, I would ask questions specific to your interests. For example, if you like playing sports, you might ask "Are there intramural leagues?" etc. or if you are interested in nightlife, you can ask about that directly etc. Also, when you ask specific questions about your own interests, then if the grad student doesn't share the same interest but knows someone who does, they can connect you to another person. But if you are just asking that question, in an email, in general, it's going to be hard to answer. 

3. Overly specific questions that rely on information we don't have. For example, "Do you think Prof X will accept me into their lab?" or "Do you think Prof X will do project Y with me?" We're not the faculty, we can't mind-read! 

Overall, I think the best rule of thumb is to ask questions about the student's own experiences. Try to avoid leading questions that specifically ask for positive or negative things, just listen to their experience/story. And don't ask the questions above :)

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16 minutes ago, TakeruK said:

1. Questions that seem to fish for negative things only: e.g. "What is your least favourite thing about this school/advisor/program?" etc. These are good things to know, but to me, I feel like I'm walking into a trap when I get asked this via email by a stranger. Also, I think these questions are too "leading" and may not be super useful. Instead, I would ask things like "What is it like to have Prof X as your advisor?" or "What are the classes in the department like?" etc.

I actually ask the negative questions, because I know that there are alway up's and down's. And I also know they are going to give me a positive skew. A person who says that they have never had a challenge or negative experience in the program is clearly lying... even if it is just that they struggled adapting to workload, being away from family, or living in a boring/way too busy town. I have gotten some really informative and genuine answers with this strategy, for me this is where those things that you as an applicant just don't know to ask about. This is also the time that students who have unique struggles, such as disability status or discrimination experiences, will start to come out of their shell a little. For me, knowing whether I need to be "in the closet" about having a disability, or coming from an unorthodox background, or having certain lifestyles is incredibly valuable. Asking directly literally outs-myself and is irrevocable; saying "How does X deal with students who are gay/disabled/from background x?" tips your cards. However, especially with grad-students, if they really wished they'd known something going in, they are very likely to respond here. If someone is experiencing some major problems because of this they will at least mention some difficulty integrating with the "culture" of the lab group... etc

 It is also something that won't come up when you ask a general, non-leading question like "What are your experiences with X"

For some, this may be a risky strategy, particularly if this is not a concern for you. For me personally, it is really important information that is difficult to approach in a tactful manner while also getting useful information. 

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Indeed, I definitely asked all of these questions during the visits. One thing I really liked about the program I chose was that they scheduled appointments with students as well as professors, so I was able to interact one-on-one with students in their offices as well, not just in social settings like meals/coffee/drinks where it's often in small groups. I mentioned to one of the students I was meeting my concern about the school's support for student who are parents because it's something that is planned to happen for us during grad school. The student didn't have the information but they were able to connect me with one of their friends who did have children, and I got to learn a lot about the support structure that exists there. I know this is not the same as (and I'm not trying to equate it to) asking about the LGBTQ community or the environment for students with disabilities, but it was something that I would have found hard to ask about in a big group. But it was important for me to know what the students' perspective of faculty and institutional support for parents on campus (and only like 5% of students on this campus are parents, which seems to be a lot lower than other schools).

I wrote the "don't ask negative questions right away in an email" because of an experience where the very first question (and second sentence) I got from a prospective applicant (not yet applied) was "What's the thing you hate the most about your department?". 

Also I should have added, another way to get to the negative information could be something like "I'm worried about the TA load and the number of hours on the offer letter, what is TA work like?" or "I notice that Prof X's group only has 2 women out of 15 students. I'm a little concerned about the environment/climate, could you tell me about your experience?" etc. Those questions might be easier for a student to answer and more likely for the questioner to get useful responses than something like "What are the crappy things about being a woman in your department?", for example. 

** But also of course, every person you meet will have different styles of communication and preferences and perhaps some students that email you are really hoping you'll ask a question like this so that they can tell you how they feel! I should also say these are more like things I've noticed work well, from my experience, not universal rules :)

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