‘Tis the season for would-be faculty to field campus interviews. It’s also the time of year when accepted prospective graduate students come for campus visits. Usually a two or three day blitz of events, on our campus it always includes a day’s worth of interview time with each lab group that a student is considering joining.* Some of that time is a formal interview with faculty PIs, but much of that time is spent chatting with current graduate students and post-docs over coffee (or adult beverages).
Every year that I’ve been here, we’ve had at least one prospective student interviewing with my lab group. And each time, I’ve been struck by how these students did not ask a single question about the culture of our lab group, even when having private one-on-one conversations with current graduate students. Now that I’ve been in graduate school for several years, I’ve realized the extent to which lab culture and communication norms can make or break one’s sanity. Students in unsupportive or toxic lab cultures can finish, but it won’t be fun and will make the challenge of graduate education much more so. Not that I blame the prospective students – after all, hindsight is 20/20. But more importantly, when I was applying for graduate programs, I had the invaluable support and insight of friends who were currently in similar programs. Their adventures – and misadventures – helped me develop a list of questions to ask graduate students when I had campus interviews. So below are some of the questions I’ve asked, as well as ones I’ve added over the years when helping the undergraduates that I mentor prepare for interviews. What other questions would you add?
How would you describe the lab group? Red flags can be obvious if you ask the right question. If the first word out of a current students’ mouth is “dysfunctional,” that should tell you something.
How are students in this lab funded? The time to pretend that talking about money isn’t classy is over. It’s critical to understand how you’d be funded if you attend graduate school with a particular program or advisor. You want to know that an advisor is committed to helping their students succeed and graduate. Part of that success is finding ways to finance that education – whether that’s teaching, research, project assistance-ships, external grants, etc. Don’t believe that it will just ‘fall into place!’
What kind of schedules do you all work? There’s that joke that academia lets you pick the 80 hours a week that you work. Whether or not that’s the case, you want to know if a lab has a reputation for say, holding mandatory lab meetings on Saturday mornings (true story). Another friend works in a lab that expects graduate students to work 9-5 on weekdays, and then to come back after dinner from 8 until at least 10pm. (This ridiculous policy reinforced dated gender stereotypes and norms – hurting men who wanted to be involved partners/dads and forcing women in the group to feel like they had to pick between graduate school and having families.) Understandably, that might not work for the work-life balance you want to have. You might decide that it’s a worthwhile sacrifice, but you should know what you’re getting into.
Is there a lab group meeting? What do you all talk about? Some groups only read papers, others only present research in progress. This could give you a good idea of the type of group interaction and support that you’ll get.
How would you describe the PI’s advising style with graduate students? Again, this is a feeler for red flags. If an answer starts with “what advising?” you might be in trouble. If this faculty member travels 40 weeks out of the year, fine – but again, you should know what you’re getting into. Especially if the PI is hands off, you’ll be rely even more on your fellow students and post-docs for support and feedback!
Do the students from this lab graduate (and on time)? You want to know the answer to this. A friend found out, much too late, that the group she joined as a PhD had never graduated a doctoral student – they had all quit or been fired by the PI. She only discovered this information as she was in the midst of a conflict with her adviser that eventually resulted in her switching PIs and programs. This question can also be posed to graduate students of labs you’re not interviewing with – they might be more candid with stories (or rumors).
Are you happy in this group/program/lab? Why not ask? You might get an honest reply. And if someone is hesitating or doesn’t want to share, you’ll be able to pick up on that.
What do students from this lab do after graduation? Some labs have a culture that values aiming for tenure-track professorships above all else. If that’s not your goal in getting a graduate degree, it’s important to be in a lab group and program that values your career ambitions. I remember having a conversation with the department chair at one of the top ranked programs in my field in a campus interview. He told me in no uncertain terms that he and his program were not interested in training people who didn’t want to be faculty. Whether or not that was my goal, it’s better to understand the culture ahead of time.
But there are other important questions that I haven’t figured out how to ask.
How is harassment handled (in reality, as opposed to on paper)? Have there been incidents in the past? As my own lab has had incidents – such as a postdoc sexually harassing an undergraduate – I know that unfortunately this question is relevant. Whether or not the person you’re asking knows the answer or would be honest is another question.
Is it an inclusive environment? After a friend transitioned in graduate school, she reflected on what she wished she’d been able to know about whether or not her adviser, other PIs and labmates would be supportive of her choices, especially as letter writers and peers. But what to ask to get a feel for that?
What other questions would you ask? Let’s help future prospective students develop a list that will help them make informed choices that support their career goals and broader lives as people. Feel free to add your suggestions and reflections on campus interviews as a prospective graduate student in the comments.
*On our campus, if you’re accepted to the graduate school, you must be accepted by a lab group to actually attend graduate school in this field.