Though most people believe that it is the supervisor’s position to ask the questions, my personal experience has taught me that you (the PhD student) have a lot to ask as well. A PhD project is the result of successful teamwork between at least two individuals, you and the supervisor, and both sides of this team need to clearly understand their duties and what is expected of them.
I prepared this list of questions during my PhD position hunt. From my own personal experiences, other PhD students’ personal experiences and interviews with retired professors, I share with you my list and I hope you find something useful in it.
I am going to skip the obvious questions that almost everyone asks, like details about the project and its description because actually this is –in my opinion at least- the problem. Most of the interviews that take place between students and potential supervisors involve a lot of questions about the project itself resulting in no other (but equally important) types of questions being asked. This is unfortunate and almost hard to believe it is unnoticed by many students aiming to pursue a PhD as I came to learn from most students who changed their labs whether during their Masters or PhD and even post-docs, the main reason is almost always a misunderstanding of what is expected from each side during the project and rarely the project itself, which is the element that takes 90% of the interview’s time between the potential PhD student and the supervisor.
1) How many years does a PhD normally last in your lab?
Of course this will always depend on the progress of the project but you can at least tell the average number of years you are expected to work on this project. Is this a supervisor who finds it acceptable to keep you working on this project for six years or is it someone who is determined that you leave in three. Make sure that this is clear for you. Also, asking how long most of the PhD students in this particular lab spend on their PhD gives you a reasonable glimpse into how long you will need.
2) What type of guidance will I receive at the beginning and throughout the project?
Is this a lab where you are expected to know how to work on your own right from the start, or is this a lab where you will get close supervision especially at the beginning with new methods that are unfamiliar to you? Make sure this point is clear for you because it determines the expectations from both sides . Ask how many times you will meet. Is this a supervisor who is always on the go or someone you can reach easily? A promising sign for a good lab is if the lab has a meeting day. Most labs have a single day in the week where everyone meets to discuss the progress of their work and any problems they might be encountering.
3) How flexible is this project?
This point is actually, in a way, the opposite of point two. While you want to make sure that you will get the needed guidance, you also want to make sure that your potential supervisor is not a control freak! The best way to get a sense of this is by asking if the supervisor is open to your suggestions or even changes in the project. The answer of the potential supervisor can tell you if this is someone who is supportive of his students in their career or just someone who wants to get this project done and in order to do that needs to hire a couple of individuals labeled as PhD students, but who are expected to simply follow orders.
4) What is the funding situation?
Yes, ask it straight to the point. There is no shame in that, this is a working agreement after all. Are you expected to apply for a scholarship or is funding provided? If you are expected to apply for a scholarship is he or she willing to put the time into that by writing your recommendation letter and helping you with the proposal and so on. If it is funded, how much will you be earning? Does it include health insurance and tax, or is that deducted from the number you were just told? Another point concerning the funding is whether or not it includes conferences. Make sure this is clear for you and also if you are unfamiliar with the city where you will be living then check how expensive it is and if the amount you will earn is enough for you to spend more time worrying about your project rather than your financial situation.
5) Can I be part of a graduate school?
This question is maybe more applicable to Germany than other countries. In Germany one can do the so-called individual PhD or a PhD that is part of a graduate school. In an individual PhD the parties involved are only you and your supervisor, whereas being part of a graduate school involves a third party. Involving a graduate school –in my opinion- is a good idea as you get more connections in your specific field as well as related fields as you are often expected to attend seminars and courses. Furthermore, a graduate school limits the freedom that a supervisor has on you, especially regarding two important elements of any PhD, time and publishing. Most graduate schools inform your supervisor that you are expected to graduate within a certain number of years and that you are expected to graduate under certain regulations, like the number of papers you are expected to publish, credit points, and so on. While you might think of that as a source of pressure on you, it is actually more on the supervisor because he or she knows they cannot keep you working as long as they please.
6) How many papers am I expected to publish?
When it comes to publishing I came to learn that it is quite individualistic, that is, each supervisor is free to see what is appropriate according to his or her standards. Some supervisors will not allow you to be the first author on any of the papers that will be published from the project you will be working day and night on simply because the project was not your idea (this is especially –but not only- applicable when you apply for advertised PhD positions). Other supervisors will support you on other papers by allowing you to be part of other students’ projects within the lab, thus including your name in the papers that will be published by those students. Point is, each supervisor does it differently, make sure you check the publishing record of the lab, ask students about this point (preferable face to face as many do not feel comfortable putting it in a documented form like an email) and lastly ask the supervisor straight out.
7) What title will I graduate with?
Again, this point is maybe more applicable to Germany than other countries. As you might already know, in Germany you can graduate with the title Dr. rer. nat or with a PhD (I think there are other options as well), make sure you know which title you will be leaving with, this is usually dependent on the graduate school you will be enrolled in. In big cities like Berlin you can be part of different graduate schools so make sure you go for the one that will give you the title you need for example if you are an international student in Germany the title PhD is more suitable as it is more international and especially useful if you plan to go back to your home country.
8) What are my career options after I graduate?
Are you planning to go into industry after your PhD? Then ask the potential supervisor what doors in industry will be open for you with this project. Are you planning to stay in academia? Then ask if you will have the opportunity to teach, as this is an advantage if one chooses to stay in academia.
9) How many vacation days do I get?
Especially if you are an international student and plan to visit your home country every now and then.
I hope you find some of the mentioned tips useful during your search for the right PhD position and always remember to make sure -if the situation allows- to have your interviews face to face and ask if you can meet other lab members. The people of the lab –at least in my opinion- are the most important element in any lab working position, so even if you are not the social type always be sure to check out your potential colleagues, and if you are the social type then definitely because this will play a big role in your well-being during the project and no one needs additional sources of stress during the PhD.
Best of luck in your PhD hunt!
Sarah Ayash is currently a doctoral student in the translational neuroscience program in Mainz, Germany (FTN) and the translational biomedicine program (Transmed) in the Translational Psychiatry Department in the lab of Prof. Dr. med. Marianne B. Müller.