Questions to Ask as a Prospective Grad Student, Post-doc, or Faculty member

The application processes for graduate schools, post-docs, and faculty positions are not transparent. Every program, department, and even advisor is different. Of course, finding the right project that interests and inspires you should be of utmost importance, but beyond that many factors could impact your happiness and success. Expectations, support, and requirements are highly variable, as are salaries and benefits. The following is a list compiled after soliciting the ecolog listserv in January, 2011. It is undoubtedly not a complete list, but should at least help get you started thinking about what you would like to know about the next few to many years of your life. My own two cents is that the most important information you will likely get will be from your future peers, be they current graduate students, current post-docs, or current new faculty. These people know what they are talking about. If you would like to make additions to or comments on this page, please email me, Kyla Dahlin, at kdahlin [at] stanford [dot] edu. Enjoy!

Special thanks to Aurora MacRae-Crerar (U. of Pennsylvania), Zurijanne Kelley (zjoww.wordpress.com), Candan Soykan (NRC, Southwest Fisheries Science Center), Peter Alaimo (Seattle U.) and many other anonymous contributors.

For Prospective Graduate Students (& Post-Docs)

Ask yourself:

  • Can I work well with this faculty member for 5 or 6 years on a day-to-day basis, and have the work be of good quality, and not cause myself undue stress?
  • Do I find the work of the lab and my proposed project interesting and compelling?
  • Are the logistics in place to support my work adequately to successfully complete my degree?
  • Throughout the process- Does the advisor share information easily, or do you have to ask specific and direct questions to get any feedback? How the prospective advisor acts when you first meet and /or interview are great indicators of how they will act as an advisor.

Ask your potential advisor:

  • What qualities or experience type do you look for in a graduate student?
  • How many other students do you currently have? Where are they in their programs?
  • Are you new, nearing retirement, or taking a sabbatical soon? Are you tenured? If not, where in the process are you?
  • How available are you for consultations? What kind of management or guidance style do you think you have? What is your mentoring style? How often do you typically meet with graduate students?
  • Do you have regular lab meetings? What are they like?
  • How much does the professor know about funding opportunities, course requirements, etc? If not much, they might not know other important details that would help you along the way.
  • Do you expect to be at this institution for the next X years? Do you have any plans to leave this university? If offered a job at a more prestigious University or one closer to your preferred place to live, would you leave your current university?
  • Is the advisor looking for someone to work on a specific project? If so, what are the expectations?
  • What is your funding situation currently and in the near future?
  • Do you have a grant or other resources to support my research project?
  • Will I be expected to TA throughout grad school, or do you have salary support for some or all of my time?
  • Will we, or can we, co-write grants to expand/support my research? If we're depending on those, and they're not funded, is there a backup plan?
  • What is your policy on students/post-docs listed as first authors on their manuscripts/ reports/ publications?
  • What are your past students doing now? How long did they take to graduate?
  • Funding questions will give you a sense of how entrepreneurial you will have to be in seeking outside funds, as well as how independent you can be in devising a research project. Lack of funds does not necessarily mean a bad fit, just that you're going to have to work harder for your project, you're going to have to think harder and deeper more quickly. That can be good--if you succeed, you have an invaluable set of experiences to take with you into post-docs and faculty jobs--you know how to get grants, you know how to devise a project. But, it can be scary and stressful. So you need to know how risk tolerant you are.
  • Figure out if you have someone who will meet your needs--one person may find a very hands-on weekly meeting approach great for scientific growth, while another finds it completely stifling. Some faculty can be bullies, some are very nice, some ignore you, some will practically smother you. Know what you can take, what your lines are.

Ask current graduate students (in your prospective lab and beyond):

  • Speak to a current or former advisee if possible- find out what it’s like to work with them, how much freedom you have in designing your project, if they're a hands-off advisor or micromanager...
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the professor (mentoring, administrative, research, interpersonal communication and ability to work with colleagues)?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of the department, school, college and University?
  • What is the general working atmosphere at the school?
  • How does your professor get along with other faculty members and students?
  • What are the other professors in the department like?
  • How supportive/ helpful/ friendly is the administration at the University?
  • How effective/ useful/ well equipped is the library?
  • Do faculty members interact with their students both in professional and informal settings?
  • How is the general social atmosphere of the lab/ department? Do people share equipment and supplies well, or does everyone have their own separate supplies?
  • Do grad students generally hang outside of the lab, or do people have very separate social lives?
  • How easy/hard is it to collaborate with other labs?
  • What is the thing that stresses you out most about your advisor?
  • What is the thing that you most appreciate about your advisor?
  • How well supported do you feel as a grad student (financially, intellectually...)

Ask administrators:

  • Specifically, what/how much cost is the student responsible for? (For example, tuition waivers often don't cover student fees, which can often be $1000 or more per semester)
  • What scholarships are available through the college, and what are the application deadlines/ requirements?
  • What kind of careers will this program prepare me for?
  • What have other students gone on to do after graduating from this program? (If the administrators don’t know, that says something, too.)
  • Will funding be ensured throughout the term of the degree? Or, will the student need to be writing grants to procure it?
  • What knowledge and skills will a student in this program graduate with?
  • Are there course requirements? Is the curriculum likely to change soon?
  • Are students guaranteed funding (via teaching or research assistantships) while in good standing in the program?
  • What is the mean/median time to graduation?

Masters Degree Specific:

  • What’s the best way to contact professors about assistantships?
  • What can I do about professors who don’t seem to respond to email or phone inquiries?
  • I’ve heard that it doesn’t matter what the topic of research is for your assistantships as long as you get a Master’s you can pursue what you want, is this really true?
  • If I’m not longer a college student how can I best network with professionals if I’m unable to attend conferences, or workshops?

Post-Doc Specific:

    Many/most of the questions that apply to graduate student labs apply to post-docs, but here are a few more:

  • How will we divide authorship on papers?
  • What will my responsibilities be, outside of the research we've discussed?
  • Will I be expected/ allowed to mentor grad students/undergrads? (This is something you may want to do, or may want to avoid.)
  • Can we co-write grant proposals? (This is important experience, and if funded, great on CV)
  • How many years of support will I have?
  • What will I be judged on in deciding future support?
  • Find out the work load and make sure that it is what is advertised. (Ad reads work 20 hours but is consistently 40 hours).
  • Am I allowed to work on material from the past (i.e., dissertation, previous postdoc) as part of this job? If so, how many hours per week may I dedicate to such activities?

For post-docs, you have a lot less to worry about, in many ways. Post-doc time is about two things: 1) Learning new skill(s) to make you more marketable and 2) publishing a lot, to make you more marketable. You must do the 2nd, and ought to do the 1st. So, tailor your questions to those two needs. Projects should be well defined by the time you start, because time is short--literally within a month or two of arriving, you're applying for faculty jobs. So, pubs need to move quickly. The other thing you need to figure out is the degree of loyalty of the advisor. The faculty job market is, charitably put, hyper-competitive. You need an advisor who will advocate for you with colleagues, advise you on your search, write you letters of reference in a timely fashion, and ideally, you need to have a fallback when the first, or second, or third year of tenure track job hunt is not successful. It is not uncommon for top faculty positions to have 200-400 applicants, and fewer than 100 is rare. So, face it--you need all the help you can get, and you need backup plans. If that means another year of post-doc at the same lab, it tends to be a good thing--saves moving expenses, the time of starting a new project, etc.

Other Links:

  • Oregon State University has a list of very helpful questions posted here.
  • And some additional helpful hints from OSU on the process here.
  • And even more hints from Portland State University (OR).


For Faculty Jobs:

Everyone looking for a faculty position should read this: Inouye, B.D, Underwood, N, Doak, D.F. & P. Kareiva (2006). Ecology 101: Interviewing for Academic Jobs. ESA Bulletin. 87(2): 155-158.

Questions to Ask When Considering A Faculty Position

The following list of questions was originally compiled by Dr. Peter Alaimo (Chemistry, Seattle University) – we’ve adapted them slightly to be more geared towards ecologists.

Teaching

  • What is considered a full teaching load?
  • Do new faculty get a reduced load (release time) during the first year? Tenure year?
  • How are teaching assignments made? What can I expect to teach?
  • How large are the classes?
  • How are textbooks chosen? Which are currently in use?
  • How often do professors teach summer classes?
  • Is there support / material / instrumentation available for demonstrations in class?
  • Are expectations for teaching in line with teaching loads and support?
  • Are TA’s used? How are they used?
  • Is it possible to mentor a teaching post-doc?
  • Is there any pressure from the administration to pass or fail a certain % of students?

Research

  • What fraction of students engages in research?
  • Is there summer research? Is there money available for undergraduate stipends?
  • What shared instruments / equipment / support staff are available for research?
  • Is equipment shared with other departments? Other institutes / universities?
  • What other resources are available for new faculty to succeed in research?
  • Are expectations for research in line with teaching loads and support for research?
  • How much intradepartmental interaction is there? Interdepartmental? With Nearby schools / institutes?
  • What are the protocols I should know about if I want to work with radioisotopes? Animals? People? etc.

Funding

  • What is the range of start-up packages?
  • Does the department or college offer matching funds for grants?
  • Are the available funds for equipment / supplies / library sufficient?
  • What are the overhead costs associated with research?
  • Are any college services free or available at reduced cost for new faculty?
  • Do faculty pay a portion of their salary out of grant money?

Tenure

  • How long is the tenure process? What does it entail? Are there regular evaluations?
  • What factors are most important in the tenure process? How are they evaluated?
  • Do students participate in the tenure decision?
  • What are the research and publication expectations for successful tenure?
  • Are the expectations for tenure the same in the department as in the administration?
  • Is the activity of more established faculty in line with what is expected of new hires?
  • What is the tenure history in the department? The college? The university?
  • Do the assistant professors feel that they get good support / mentoring?
  • What are other promotions based upon? Average time to full professor?

Professional Development

  • How frequently do faculty members attend conferences? Students? How is this viewed?
  • Are funds available for travel?
  • Are sabbaticals encouraged / taken? Where?
  • Is there a seminar program?

Service

  • What service activities are expected of new faculty?
  • Can I get a reduced committee load for the first few years?
  • What sorts of advising roles/ expectations are there outside of the lab?

Department / The Position

  • What direction is the department headed in the next 5, 10, 20 years?
  • What are the greatest strengths / challenges of the department / college?
  • Do people in the department generally work well together? With other departments?
  • Will there be (has there been) a large turnover of faculty soon (in the past)?
  • Is this position a replacement position or is the department growing?
  • Why did the previous faculty member leave?

Facilities

  • What is the situation with computers and Internet access?
  • In what condition is the computer infrastructure? Who maintains it?
  • Where will my lab & office be? Can I see them?
  • Will renovations / painting be done before I move in?
  • What journals and e-journals does the library carry? Office access to e-journals?

Students

  • Why do students choose to attend this college?
  • What is the background of the students?
  • Where are most students from?
  • Where do students end up?

Questions for Students

  • Why did you choose this college?
  • What do you hope to do after you graduate?
  • What ways does the college/department support you? (WIC, journal clubs, etc.)
  • What do you think about the classes you’ve taken?
  • What new classes would you like to see?
  • How would you characterize your interaction with the faculty?

Questions for Deans

  • What would you like to see come out of this position?
  • What are the strengths / weaknesses of the department?
  • What is your 10-20 year forecast for the department? College?
  • Has the department been through an external review lately?
  • How is the department viewed by the administration?
  • Is science growing at the college? Is this a result of the administration, faculty or both?
  • Are there any special issues (church affiliation, etc.)?
  • Is there coverage for relocation costs?
  • What are the benefits / retirement packages like?
  • How well are spouses covered?

Area

  • How safe is the campus?
  • Where do most faculty live?
  • Where do the students live?
  • What are the best things about the area?
  • What are the worst things about the area?
  • What is the cost of living in the area?
  • Is there any housing assistance for new faculty?
  • What are the outdoors and recreation opportunities in the area?

Other Links & Book Suggestions

(many of these were also supplied by Dr. Alaimo)