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  • Writer's pictureJuliana González-Tobón

Key questions when applying for grad school

Applying to graduate school is a very interesting experience. You are probably super excited and also nervous, absolutely normal. As an applicant, a lot is expected from you, paperwork, interviews, questionnaires, etc… This can certainly be exhausting and take a toll on your peace of mind. However, what worried me the most while applying for my Ph.D. program was constantly feeling I was not asking the right questions during the process.

And, you know what? Indeed, I was not. I was missing a key factor in the equation: understanding that this was a two-way process.

Meaning that I was always expecting to answer questions, but was barely asking them. After entering my Ph.D. program I realized that it had been expected of me to ask more questions, even when they seemed “hard”.

Since we are nearing the end of the 2021 application season, I wanted to put some of these thoughts in writing and, hopefully, give you some useful ideas on questions you can ask.

1. Should I contact a potential advisor?

One of the things that scared me most when applying for my Ph.D. was not knowing what was expected of me in terms of contacting potential advisors. I was not sure if this was expected, or even allowed! Thoughts like “what if they think I am too confident (like in a bad way)?”, or “what if they think it is inappropriate?”.However, now that I am on the other side of the table, I can tell you that it is usually expected and appreciated that prospective students in fact contact potential advisors beforehand. Here are three main reasons:

  1. It is a good way to find out if a particular advisor is planning to take students for that year. You can be the best applicant ever, but if there are no plans of taking anyone in. You probably will not have a chance with that advisor. NEXT!

  2. You can get an initial idea of how your interaction with this advisor could be. One conversation will not determine how your relationship is going to go in the long run but it can certainly give you some idea of it!

  3. They can put you in contact with previous students! An advisor who is happy to put you in contact with previous or current students would be a great resource! You will have a sense of the type of environment under their supervision.

2. Should I speak with previous students?

Having the perspective of someone who has already gone through grad school is key and if they went through grad school working with the advisor that interests you, even better!

This was another hard one for me when applying. I assumed a student that had already graduated would feel okay talking about their previous advisor’s style of mentoring and work expectations. They might have graduated a long time ago. Will they even respond? In that case, contacting a current student would probably be a better option but would they feel comfortable speaking to someone they don’t know about this?

The answer is yes! There are always people willing to talk. There might be some people that can’t or won’t do it, but you don’t lose or risk anything by asking. This would probably be the closest impression you’ll have of how that professor or research group really operates before starting out.

3. What about other people's perspectives?

Get to know the department staff, the director, and co-workers. They can also tell you about the department itself, the work environment, the community and they will also get to know you!

Getting into the program of your dreams is amazing, but don’t forget how important context is. To live and to work in a place that is not fulfilling for you will make everything harder!

You can usually find contact information for these people in the department’s web page! Or even use social media! Sometimes people are much more active and prone to respond to a Twitter DM than to a full email. Just make sure to read into what could be your best option.

4. Handy list to go through

Now, we have talked about who to reach out to and when. However, what to ask…?

To current or former student from your lab of interest:

  • Can you describe your experience working with your advisor?

  • What type of work environment do you think is prevalent among this team?

  • If there is one thing you would change from your experience here, what would it be?

  • What is your advisor’s mentoring style? Hands-on? Hands-off? A bit of both?

  • What is expected from you in this program?

To students from other research groups:

  • How would you describe the general work environment in the department?

  • How easy is it to make collaborations between research groups?

  • Would you say that graduate students support each other through the program?

  • Would you say faculty members are available and willing to help students, even if they are not their direct supervisors?

  • What resources have you found helpful so far inside the department?

For potential advisors:

  • What are your expectations of a graduate student? In terms of: research hours, publication of papers, undergraduate mentoring, meeting availability, conference attendance and participation, grant applications, etc…

  • What is the work environment that you expect from your lab/research team?

  • What will be the source of income or requirements for your students, TAships, assistantships, grants.?

  • How long do you expect graduate students to take when doing a Master or a PhD?

  • What is your mentoring style and what do you expect from an advisee?

Always be very respectful, but know that it is normal for you to ask these questions and to require some real answers. Especially when doing a PhD, you are deciding on the next 4 or 5 years of your professional and personal life!

5. Utilize the resources, even before getting there!

I had no idea that I could reach out to administrators and other staff members whose job was to attend prospective students’ questions. I usually felt scared and did not want to be viewed as a nuisance by anyone. Don’t. If you need help, ask for it. People are there for you. Usually, there is a point of contact in charge of applications, but you could also reach out to the person considered a “graduate field assistant” (name will change between universities) or even who has a title similar to “director of graduate studies”. Especially when application season arrives, they will be expecting questions and inquiries from prospective students! So don’t be afraid to ask.

Hopefully, this short text can help you discover some of the questions that people usually ask during this application process, why they are important and how to approach these different types of conversations.

Trust your instincts but inform yourself! That will certainly save you from unpleasant surprises during this process!

The best of luck!



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