10 Questions to ask your PhD advisor

13 min read

When applying for a Doctoral aka PhD program, you not only need to ensure that PhD is the right choice for you, but also, that you have synergies with your potential PhD advisor. You both will be working together for the years to come should you choose to accept the PhD offer, if one were to be extended to you so it is crucial to know that you will get along. This article will guide you through 10 questions to ask your PhD advisor towards the end of your PhD interview.

Please note that these prompts do not form an exhaustive list, are in no particular order and nor do they guarantee that you would gauge synergies 100% accurately, if any. They would likely give you a good idea of what to expect from your life in the group if you were there pursuing your PhD even before you actually apply for the PhD with the group.

What have previous lab members done after getting their PhD?

If you know about the harsh realities of PhD, you would know that not every PhD graduate manages to find a position in academia and some venture out to industry in search of better and more stable job prospects.

As a PhD candidate, one day you would graduate too and will be in the market for a job- academic or industrial so it helps to understand what have the previous lab members done after successfully defending their PhDs. This would give you a lay of the land and what kind of job prospects you are most likely to find upon graduation with a PhD in hand.

Also, take this opportunity to learn more about some of the most successful (and unsuccessful) PhD candidates from the group.

What is the PhD advisor's lab structure?

A lab or a research group typically would comprise of your potential PhD supervisor among other members. These members could include fellow PhD candidates, Bachelors and Masters students and some temporary students such as interns. Additionally, there might be other senior members in the groups such as Postdoctoral Associates and some junior faculty members who work in tandem with your potential advisor. It helps to know what the lab structure is like and how many members are in each category.

Eventually, you might end up working with some of these members in varying capacities and some of the seniors might even serve as your co-advisors. Additionally, you might also want to understand the demographics for the lab members to see where do these members come from and you might find some comfort knowing people from your own country of origin. On a similar note, you could ask for permission to connect with some of the existing members to learn more about the lab structure and a typical day in their life. 

Some professors have multiple labs (including satellite labs), and this opens up good travel opportunities when they fly you around.

 Knowing that there might be other seniors present even when your primary PhD advisor is away might give you some solace in their absence. Also, be sure to check your PhD advisors plans in the near future- 

are they coming up for tenure / promotion / retirement as this might affect their availability and/or lab resources?

What does the lab culture look like?

As a PhD candidate, one of the many ways for you to gain visibility in your field and grow your network will be to attend conferences. You should try and understand what are some top tier conferences in your domain and how often do the lab members get to attend such conferences. For the case of robotics, these would be IEEE IROS, ICRA, RSS, CASE among a few others. Also on a related note, you could inquire about any preset requirements for number of conference and journal submissions that are mandatory for graduation so you can understand how many conferences would you have to target per year to maximize your chances of meeting the threshold of publications.

 
 Remember that burn out is a very real possibility in academia so to minimize the chances and strengthen the bond  between the group and inter-group, often the group leaders and even the Department organize outdoor activities and gatherings. You could inquire about such events, where do people typically go, what do they do and how frequently so you can understand about work-life balance. You might also be interested in learning more about snacks/tea/coffee facilities on premises given that you will be spending quite a lot of your work hours in that environment.
 
 

Inquire about the external responsibilities of your PhD advisor to understand their prior commitments. Are they doing a partial secondment at an industry? Would you be able to do an industrial internship? How about research visits overseas? Typically, PhD students try to maximize their exposure with a mix of industrial work and some overseas research visits thereby growing their network and also credentials.

What is the publication culture like?

On a more academic side of the lab culture you should inquire about the paper publication frequency. Generally speaking, in the early days of your PhD journey you would have slightly more free time as opposed to the end when you are working hard to write your dissertation, getting feedback and iteratively revising it.

Try and inquire what the publication culture is like- do papers get published during the PhD thesis, or towards the end or after defending? This will help you get some sense of the expected work load and how it would grow as time passes assuming no dynamic requirements are suddenly imposed by your funding source. Be vary of the publish or perish culture in academia because if you cannot maintain a healthy work-like balance, you will likely burnout.

Where does the funding primarily come from?

One of the external aspects that might affect the topic you will work on, the scope of work and planned deliverables is the funding source. As mentioned earlier, if your PhD advisor has already secured some funding to sponsor your PhD, there might be implications stemming from the funding source. Some funding sources might require additional responsibilities like prepare progress reports, traveling for administrative meetings, preparing presentations or have citizenship restrictions in case of defense funding. So, be sure to clearly understand where the funding is coming from and what is covered in the funding- tuition, living allowances, stiped, travel allowance, publication allowance, etc.

 

It is also at this time you should prepare for the tougher days- not necessarily worst case scenario but in case you need to extend your PhD timeline but your funding will run out after a fixed term, are there possibilities for additional funding? Will your PhD advisor support you in this process? If not, what options would you have if the situation arises?

 

 

 

Some PhD candidates are also interested in serving as Teaching or Research Assistants also known as TA or RA, respectively. Sometimes there might be a possibility of earning some extra financial support for such services or at other times there might be some intangible gains such as the chance to work with other faculty members, learning to interact with students, problem solving etc. So, try and understand if you are required to be a TA/RA by the funding source, is it optional, and how does it work if you were to opt for it.

Does the advisor consider themselves a ‘hands-on’ or ‘hands-off’ advisor?

As every human is different and have their own working styles, so would your potential PhD advisor. So, you should try to understand if the advisor considers themselves as a more “hands-on” or “hands-off” advisor. This working style should ideally be complementing your own approach.

For instance, if you are someone who would be looking for some hand holding and you end up with an advisor who is completely “hands-on” you are likely going to struggle a lot especially in the early days. So, try and understand if the advisor tends to assign projects and tentative topics to the PhD candidates or do they instead have the students select their own.

On a similar note, you could also ask them if they already have a particular topic in mind for you or are you going to start with a blank canvas and write your own PhD research proposal. In case of the former, you could also ask about the level of flexibility with respect to the direction/scope of the project. Sometimes, the project scope and deliverables are already set carefully while at other times, there might be ample room for adjustment and refinement within a vague scope.

Another crucial aspect to keep in mind is that, for a PhD, there is no preset syllabus or a list of milestones. So, measuring the performance could be tricky and either you or your PhD advisor would need to set some sort of milestones. So, you could try ask them about some key milestones that they expect the PhD candidates to achieve. 

How does the advisor give feedback on manuscripts in preparation?

Feedback is the breakfast of the champions

As an early stage researcher with little to no experience with writing scientific and technical manuscripts in your niche, you will likely need help. This could come not only in the form of support while conducting the research but also in the form of feedback when a manuscript is being prepared for potential submission. The more reputable the submission venue, the higher would be their quality standards so you would benefit if the manuscript undergoes revisions to match their expectations. Again depending on whether the PhD advisor is hands-on or hands-off the level of detail of their feedback will vary.

How often does the advisor meet with their students?

On the topic of feedback and progress review, different research groups have different internal policies and agenda for group meetings. For instance, some PhD advisors do a round robin presentation with each candidate getting a slot to present their current findings, challenges and results. This helps everyone to stay abreast with what the others in the group are working on, explore synergies and get comfortable with presenting their ideas to a crowd.

Additionally, some groups may even have a policy for dedicated 1-on-1 check-ins with advisor for personalized feedback while others might keep this flexible in the sense that the PhD candidate needs to take the initiative to book such 1-on-1 meetings as and when needed. During the pandemic most of such meetings went online via tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom etc. so if you wish, you could inquire how are such meetings being conducted at the time of your application- face-to-face, remote or hybrid. 

Will there be opportunities to write external research grant proposals?

While not every PhD student may be required to write external grant proposals, but for your future career, such experience can come in really handy. Winning a grant, that too a prestigious grant will help you get a taste of what life is like being a Principal Investigator (PI), leading your own research work and supporting yourself. This experience will go a long way for your career ahead as eventually you would need to win grants to support yourself and your group in the years to come.

During your PhD, you may not be able to independently write such research grant proposals but you might be given opportunities to help out other senior members writing grants or contribute to some sections of a grant that your PhD advisor is working on. So, it pays to know about such opportunities ahead of time.

How would the scope of work change if you were to transition to industry?

Never shut a door of opportunity on yourself for you never know when the next door will open

There is a difference between stepping on two boats (industry and academia) simultaneously versus not covering all your basis for securing your future. By this I mean looking at all possible options and keeping the doors open. Say somewhere along your PhD, either owing to life’s circumstances or your interaction with peers you decide to move to industry upon completion of your PhD. In such a case, how would the scope of your PhD and the work you do change, if at all? It helps to know the cost of such a transition to evaluate if it is even a feasible option or should you prepare an alternative Plan B instead.

Key takeaways

So, when it comes to applying for PhD positions, remember that as much as the PhD advisor is screening you for a potential fit, you also need to screen them to explore synergies. There is no harm in asking polite questions that might help you understand them better as a person, as an advisor and as a potential mentor to help you learn and grow in your career ahead. After all, you are going to dedicate the coming years towards your PhD should you choose to go forward with it so it is imperative that your environment, the people, the topic and everything else that comes with up are synergistically working with you and not against you.